Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thinking Out Loud: Questions Raised by Malcolm Gladwell on Football, Dogfighting, and Violence in Sports

If you haven't seen it yet, stop whatever you're doing and go read Malcolm Gladwell's superb new essay in The New Yorker on football, dogfighting, and the violence shared between them. I don't have the qualifications or the time to examine the numerous excellent and thought-provoking issues Gladwell raises, much less explore them theologically, but I do have a host of questions, especially from the perspective of the church.
  • If the scientific evidence of such monumentally detrimental effects on football players both during and after playing is substantiated, what does that mean for: (1) the league; (2) the legality of the sport; (3) the viewing of the sport by fans; and (4) parents' allowing and even encouraging children (elementary to teenage) to play football?
  • If the league knows of the effects and cannot devise realistic or effective ways substantially to relieve them, should it close shop?
  • If the government is in a similar position, should it pass laws against professional football? If that seems outlandish or oppressive, consider whether the government should outlaw something like gladiator games. What is the spectrum from gladiators to (fake) professional wrestling to boxing to professional football? Is serious mental and physiological injury, along with premature death, as a direct consequence from playing a sport in some way assuaged by "freely" chosen involvement or by delayed realization? If so, why?
  • What is the ethical component of being a sports fan? Can it be called moral to participate joyfully in a sport built fundamentally on intentional human violence? Does it matter that the violence of football can be said to be "incidental" to the task (as a means to an end: scoring more points than the other team by creating space for offensive players to enter the end zone as unimpeded as possible as many times as possible) in a way that boxing's is not? What of the way in which "big hits" or "playing through pain" or "knocking a guy on his ass" are viewed, understood, and cheered as the most invigorating and celebrated actions of players?
  • If, again, the science can be substantiated, what would it mean to allow one's children, much less to encourage them, to play the game? If the negative physical effects on the brain can be discerned as early as 18 years old, is there any redeemable way in which the game can be played where young boys are not put in serious jeopardy for their long-term bodily health?
  • What is the judgment of these findings on an American church for the most part utterly unable to imagine a world without the game of football pervasively present at all levels of society, to the extent that high school, college, and professional players who happen to be Christians are presented as the apex of Christian obedience and models for young men to emulate?
  • What do these findings entail for other sports? What of competitive but nonviolent sports like cycling, swimming, golf, and tennis? What of physical, yet for the most part still nonviolent, sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer? What of utterly violent (yet not "deadly" in the gladiatorial sense) sports like boxing and rugby? What of a nearly deadly violent sport like Ultimate Fighting Championship?
  • Ira Casson, co-chair of an NFL committee on brain injury, qualifies potential solutions in this way: "No one has any suggestions -- assuming that you aren't saying no more football, because, let's be honest, that's not going to happen. ... I don't know if the fans would be happy with [removing the violence from the game]. So what else do you do?" Are fans the arbiter of the ethical integrity of the game? Is popularity the single determining factor for future responses to medical findings? Is the market finally the decider of whether 250-pound men will continue to pound their heads against each other (with the force of car crashes) 20,000 times per each man's decade of playing?
  • Given that the NFL promises wealth, fame, glory, power, and sex for prospects ranging from 16 to 22 years old -- young men who have grown up idolizing professional football players and who often come from difficult backgrounds and feel the weight of providing financially for their extended family, not to mention being beset by the flurry of self-interested advisers, agents, corporations, teams, analysts, reporters, and doctors pressing in like a wild mob -- can we really say that the "choice" of "taking the risk" even with "all the information given" is in any way free, considered, unimpeded, uncoerced, or essentially valid? What other factors might we take into account other than so-called "free choice"?
  • What is the church's most faithful response to an essay like Gladwell's, and to the current state of the sports industry as a whole? What might categories of discernment -- as parents, as participants, and as fans -- look like with regard to sports in general, as well as to more particular iterations both in form (cycling, basketball, boxing) and at varying levels (amateur, college, professional)? What is the first step?

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