Monday, January 27, 2014
January 27, 2014: Football Focalizes: Concussions and Hypocrisy
[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]
On the gap between what we know and what we do.
In the decades prior to the Civil War, virtually every Northern (and American) household contained numerous products made from cotton and other materials produced by slave labor. We tend, in our narratives of slavery and the war, to oppose the North and South, but the realities were significantly different: not only because abolitionism was a minority opinion even in a place like Boston; but also and even more saliently because of those economic and material interconnections between the regions. Those interconnections don’t mean that the North was pro-slavery, exactly—but they certainly mean that the North cannot be viewed or understood as separate from the realities of the slave system. Indeed, if anything it could be argued that the North existed in a state of deep hypocrisy, benefitting from those realities of slavery without having to confront their dark, horrific, everyday details.
As I transition to this post’s main topic, I need to be very clear that I am not equating NFL players with slaves, nor the league with the plantation system (equations that have occasionally, and very controversially, been advanced by players or commentators). Instead, I’m making a parallel to the state of deep hypocrisy in which most NFL fans and viewers—communities to which I belong—exist in this early 21st century moment. The scientific and medical consensus about what the sport does to those who play it—or at least what it can do, and has done far too frequently—has become clearer and clearer, and the tragic results of those effects more and more overt and undeniable. Yet we still watch, in record and if anything increasing numbers—numbers that amplify the profits and successes of the teams, of the networks that broadcast their games, of the advertisers who flock to them, of the sport as a whole. All those entities are of course caught up in the web of hypocrisy as well—but so, again, are we fans and viewers, including this AmericanStudier for sure.
So what’s the answer, not for the league or those other entities but for fans and viewers? One of my favorite current writers and one of the most thoughtful observers of American culture and society, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written extensively about his own decision to stop watching and supporting the NFL, a decision that would seem the only way to meaningfully act upon what we now know. My knowledge, and in most ways my perspective, mirror Coates’ very closely; yet my actions have not, and I can’t say that I plan to stop watching football games any time soon. (Although I most definitely would discourage my sons from playing the sport if they showed an interest.) Which is to say, I don’t have an answer, not for myself and thus certainly not for anyone else or our culture more broadly. But at the very least, as I hope this blog consistently illustrates in relationship to all its different focal points, it’s pretty important that we think, openly and collectively, about the question.
Next issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?