Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Blood Sport.

I always think I’m going to read a lot on long flights, but I hardly ever do. I can’t stay awake, or alert, or focused enough. But I don’t mind falling asleep on the plane. I dislike air travel so much I’m happy to sleep through it.

Packing for our trip to Dublin last Friday, I almost grabbed the book I’m reading, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (by Brenda Wineapple, who wrote the Nathaniel Hawthorne biography I enjoyed so much recently). I’m having a bit of trouble getting through it because it’s too big and heavy to carry on the subway, which is where I get a lot of reading done, even now that I’m not commuting every day. But I decided at the last minute to leave it home and take instead the new issues of Tricycle and The New York Review of Books, both of which I read cover to cover on the return flight yesterday and left in the seat-back pocket.

All of which is to preface saying that this piece about football violence stuck with me.

Every thinking fan must, in order to enjoy any NFL game, consent to participate in a formidable suspension of disbelief. We must put aside our knowledge that nearly every current NFL player can expect to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that leads to memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, and dementia.

Read the whole thing, it’s not long.

Not that I didn’t already have a list of reasons why it might be better to send your kids to piano lessons or art class instead of off to play football, but all this recent information about long-term brain injuries is pretty unequivocal.

I grew up with the point of view, at least as far as schools were concerned, that there were arts people and there were sports people and not a lot of overlap. We were arts people.

Sports always got more attention and money, and the arts had to beg for whatever if anything was left. I guess I got this attitude from my parents, who were not necessarily anti-sports (my dad always watched football on TV when it was in season) but they were very critical of the over-the-top fandom all around us in Indiana, the way the achievements of high school athletes always got more attention than those of scholars and artists and musicians, and the pervasive belief that the arts were frivolous while support for high school sports was an unassailable civic virtue.

And that attitude dovetailed perfectly with my increasing anxiety around “male space,” as I reached adolescent and began to feel that I was not male, at least not in the way that the boys around me naturally were.

I’ve written before about my belief that junior high and high school phys ed has always been an arena of officially-sanctioned sexual terror. Even if that is no longer true -- people tell me things have changed -- you’ll still have a hard time convincing me that it is not a colossal waste of time. People will make the argument that the so-called obesity epidemic justifies physical education in schools. Somehow the cultural stupidity epidemic doesn’t provoke similar feelings about music and arts education.

But as I’ve gotten older, my feelings have mellowed. I’ve grown more sympathetic towards sports fandom. My time in Texas, where college football brought everyone, including my queer friends, together in something that was so obviously joyful and fun, was a watershed. And then the world of professional sports started to become less homophobic, with gay players coming out and their straight teammates expressing support. Maybe kids playing sports, even if it wasn’t my thing, wasn’t such an awful thing.

But now this stuff with the head injuries, and finding out that football is so important to its fans that they will tolerate near-certain brain damage of the players they claim to love (including their children), puts me right back where i was, hating the whole base enterprise. This --

Studebaker is the twenty-nine-year-old backup linebacker for the Colts who, while defending a punt return, was blindsided with a gruesome hit to the chest by the Patriots’ backup running back Brandon Bolden. Studebaker’s head jerked back and he landed on his neck. On the sideline after the play Studebaker was seen coughing up blood.

-- toggled a switch in me and took me right back to believing, not that sports and the arts are just two things people might be interested in, neither any better or worse than the other, but that music and art lift us up, encourage our highest aspirations, our most noble characteristics, those which bring us together and spur us to compassion and understanding, whereas sports is just about encouraging and celebrating our worst animal tendencies: brute competition, bloodlust, and an “us vs. them” gang mentality.

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