What An Opportunity

Is it time to rethink America’s Game?

In Sports on November 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm


I decided to take a different angle on this week’s edition of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week. I spent more time mulling over this piece, determining how I truly felt about its conclusion, because the topic is something that has weighed heavily on my conscience and been on my mind quite a lot recently.

Here is the story I am referencing, the single best piece of sportswriting I read this week: Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal

The motivation for the post is well-known news by now: One Miami Dolphins offensive lineman, Jonathan Martin, has decided to take time away from the team for personal issues. It has come to light that he was struggling because Richie Incognito, another lineman, was bullying, or “hazing,” him. There is a more thorough explanation of the situation in the link above.

But I’m not here to talk about what happened, which seems, from what has been reported, to be a simply disgusting case of bullying and prejudice. I’m here to talk about this Grantland piece and its premise that the “man up” culture in the NFL needs to go, among other things.

I have many conflicting feelings about this idea in general, so I’ll try to voice them all. First, I am a high school basketball coach – this whole “I am a man, I am indestructible and you can’t stop me” idea is not exclusive to football players; it is pervasive in many sports, including basketball. The difference is that football is the sport known for its concussion issues, known for causing brain problems among former and current players that could lead to suicide. I have written about the problems with contact in football on this blog before and explored my personal experience with the dilemma – On concussions, and why I’m not sure I’ll let my kids play football. 

First, let me make it clear that after mulling it over, I agree entirely with Brian Phillips’ conclusion – people are ridiculous, absolutely foolish and misled, for asserting Martin needs to “man up” or saying he is a coward. This paragraph sums it up:

The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football, and sometimes — because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture. But then, does the cause even matter?

I really enjoy Phillips’ style of writing. He uses run-ons, and normally I do not support that incoherent, all-over-the-place style of writing. But it’s clear in this case that he is ranting. The run-ons help convey that tone. Phillips claims he is picking a fight with his reader, another unusual way to pen a column, but again it works because of his sheer emotion and strong, well-rounded argument. The run-ons help convey his passion.

It’s also important to point out that Grantland disabled comments on this piece. I took that as a powerful move. It makes this article more of a statement than a discussion – which a column ordinarily seeks to incite. But this is a battle – and it is a strong declaration from Grantland, almost making the piece seem like an editorial.

Now I will get to the question I’ve really been thinking about: Are we encouraging something preposterous by continuing to support – or perhaps even worship – this sport of football, which we have seen more and more can lead to devastating brain injuries that can ruin lives? Is this spectacle something people will look back at in 200 or 300 years and think was crazy?

Of course, we think everything is normal now, it’s all good – but it isn’t. We don’t have everything figured out in 2013. I’ll bet some of our current behavior will seem unimaginable in the future. They’ll ask, How could people have been so blind? Why didn’t anyone stop this? just like we do when we consider some of the tragedies of the past.

Are we supporting a modern-day gladiator situation? Are we encouraging brutes to bang their heads against each other, knowing it will lead to their detriment, in a coliseum? And is that comparison so far out?

I will have the distinct honor this Wednesday of interviewing Mr. Malcolm Gladwell, one of the foremost thinkers of my generation and a terrific journalist, writer and scholar. He has posited college football should be done away with entirely. View one video of him briefly expounding upon his argument here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9qBLb_QBQw

I can’t say I disagree with Mr. Gladwell. Watch the video and tell me his argument is invalid. I’ll bet you can’t.

It’s completely valid. If we have the slightest inkling that this game could ruin its participants’ brains, aren’t we a bit asinine to continue supporting it? Doesn’t that make us masochists?

It’s even more crazy than labeling Jonathan Martin a coward.

Recent entries of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week:

Oct. 30, 2013: A blast-off of creativity

Oct. 27, 2013: Reflections on a cold-blooded feature

Oct. 11, 2013: The Times profiles Mills, and Cacciola’s writing thrills

Oct. 8, 2013: Simmons’ comedy, research make column a winner

  1. Rightly or wrongly, football is becoming more and more an anachronism, which may actually be why it continues on as it does. There are plenty of people who want to hold on to what “has always been.” Football represents one of those things and it provides a wonderful escape for people who don’t want to be dragged into the modern, politically correct world where men actually have feelings and differences should be respected.

  2. […] Nov. 8, 2013: Is it time to rethink America’s game? […]

  3. […] Nov. 8, 2013: Is it time to rethink America’s game? […]

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