Bread and circuses

“The once athletic sport has degenerated into a contest that for brutality is little better than the gladiatorial combats in the arena in ancient Rome” Beaumont Express, 1904, when 18 US football players died on the playing field.

“I’m a big football fan but, I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” President Barack Obama, January, 2013.

Pass the chicken wings

Pass the chicken wings

Some things never change. The NFL bubbles along, as much media-fueled morality play as athletic contest, its annual Super Bowl-inspired bacchanalia a testament to the good, bad, and repulsive that is American football culture. At its best, football is a riveting, even uplifting contest of collective wills, the essence of all human struggles, beauty and brutality on display in equal measures. At its worst? A moral swamp, $1000 bounties paid to multi-millionaire athletes to knock out opposing players, performance enhancing drugs, and brain trauma viciousness the most recent media fodder. American football is America – as explained four downs at a time.

President Obama is an enabler of the football culture – just as I am. We love the game, the spectacle, just like the Romans that flocked to their Coliseum to watch gladiators in battle. The modern day NFL variants are huge, well-compensated men performing in arenas where the annual injury rate approaches 100 percent. The Super Bowl quarterbacks are bigger than many linemen that suited up in the post WWII era, and the linemen? The five man offensive units average 325 lbs ….

Football player size and strength gains trace a parallel trajectory with the evolution of steroid science, and (persistent) anecdotal evidence of widespread Human Growth Hormone (HGH) use among NFL players. It is a difficult issue. American football, a relentlessly full contact sport that is a perfect reflection of a national competitive culture, is remarkably dangerous when played by mortals. Watch it once, and you know the risks – choose to assume them? You ought to have no remedy – volenti non fit injuria, like backcountry skiing and base jumping. Add the ceaseless pressure imposed by coaches to get even bigger, even stronger, substance use / abuse, remarkably lax NFL enforcement of its own rules, and little wonder that a sensible parent prays that their boy will embrace the joys of soccer or basketball. NASCAR looks sensible by comparison.

The entire NFL enterprise understands that there is a little Obama in everyone. The bread and circuses, always-on obligation to entertain at all costs, is increasingly framed within league pronouncements that proclaim its commitment to improved player safety. The rising litigation tide, battered plaintiffs claimed by dementia, is fueled by alleged NFL suppression of player safety data and substandard helmet design. Notable suicides (Dave Duerson, Junior Seau), where clinical evidence of brain trauma (CTE) caused by repeated blows to the head moves the NFL’s entirely legal violent outcomes from cautionary tale to grim inevitability. Commissioner Roger Goddell assures the fan base that in 2013, a neurologist will be installed next to the Gatorade on every pro sideline – and no one blinks at the irony. The monster hits adored by its public will continue, as young men assume risks that we all enable. Have a chicken wing, and look at yourself in this mirror. Not a pretty picture.