If I were to nominate a list of the greatest sportsmen of the television generation, off the top of my head, my list would have to include the following:
- Larry Bird
- “Sugar” Ray Leonard
- Wayne Gretsky
- Mark Fidrych
- Usain Bolt
Obviously this is not a comprehensive list, but I can say with firm confidence that these particular men are individuals who enriched their own fields of competition, setting new examples for young athletes as to what they could aspire to be, while still keeping the whole question of what the purpose of their sport was in perspective.
That last criterion is perhaps the most important here to me: What is the fundamental purpose of sport as such?
Giving this matter some thought, I would contend that there are basically three aspects which give sports the social and economic value that they enjoy today: 1) In an era and culture which demands less physical exertion in order to accomplish “a day’s work” than ever before in human history, sports serve a purpose of keeping people in touch with their bodies, providing a game mentality to motivate individuals to keep their bodies in functional condition. 2) As Jonathan Haidt famously said in his first TED talk, “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.” A profound insight actually; people vicariously go through the intense emotional experience of an all-out us vs. them battle, allowing them the satisfaction of having epic heroes for their own side and a sense of triumph in being part of a side that “kicked the other guys ass” each game day, (usually) without so many people having to die in the process of providing them with this primitive satisfaction. And then 3) sport is, at its core, merely a form of entertainment; a performance which is pleasant to watch as a means of distracting us from the stresses of everyday life. (Perhaps in that way too is analogous to pornography.)
So to be great in sport effectively requires that the athlete/performer in question plays the role well in terms of motivating others to be physically active, providing a sense of communal pride for the area represented in the performance, and above all has a sort of natural flare and charisma as an entertainer. All of the individuals mentioned above fulfilled those criteria in spades.
Of all of these, perhaps the most memorable for me, but the most obscure for those weren’t around in the United States in the late 70s, is Mark “the Bird” Fidrych. Baseball as a sport is essentially a series of duels between the pitchers and the batters, with everyone else basically standing around most of the time on their toes waiting to see how each duel will play out. Generally speaking, for those who cannot readily empathize with the experiences of those on both sides in this duel, in terms of entertainment value watching a baseball game ranks somewhere between watching bowling and watching paint dry. The only hope for the game becoming interesting is if there is someone particularly heroically talented and interesting to watch as either batter or pitcher. Arguably the most entertaining pitcher the game has ever seen was “the Bird”: a rookie in 1976 for the Detroit Tigers who was statistically the best pitcher of that year, who seriously boosted the morale of the city of Detroit during the time that it was losing its status as the automobile capital of the world. Not only could he throw the ball with incredible speed and accuracy, and not only was he a genius at spreading a feeling of comradery and good cheer to everyone else on his team, Fidrych just had his own funky style and charisma on the mound. Perhaps one reason that so many batters found his pitches so hard to hit was that they were always on the verge of cracking up laughing at this tall, gangly, quirky character with all of this bouncy, naturally curly blonde hair sticking out from under his cap.
As the semi-tragic story goes, in his second season Fidrych suffered (quite seriously) from torn cartilage in his right shoulder and doctors never managed to put it back together entirely right thereafter. So with the money from his one great year of fame and fortune he set himself up with a family farm and a landscaping business, and he lived fairly comfortably as a contractor and part-time Detroit city celebrity for the next thirty-some years –– albeit always plagued with a little bit of “what if,” but keeping life in perspective and balance regardless… until one day in 2009 a heavy dump truck that he was trying to repair rolled over on top of him and killed him. Too early retired from sport, too early dead; but for one glorious year he rewrote the book on how baseball could and should be played.
So what sends me on this trip 40 years back down Nostalgia Lane? Obviously the current crises of the NFL. Two things in particular are calling the whole identity of this sports mega-industry into question: kneeling and brain injuries. Which of these you find most disturbing says a lot about your politics, and though I hate to say it, about your maturity as a human being.
This summer a study came out showing that 99% of the former professional American football players who donated their brains for scientific study post-mortem because of having experienced psychological problems later in life turned out to have major brain malfunctions caused by repeated head trauma. The latest case of this problem to be diagnosed, after this study was concluded, was Aaron Hernandez, former star player for the New England Patriots who committed suicide in prison this spring at the ripe old age of 27. One of the problems here, however, is that this medical diagnosis can only be reached through an autopsy after the player’s death.
American football players have frequently been nicknamed “gladiators of the gridiron.” That image is now coming back to haunt the sport. The original gladiators were elite slaves who fought to the death for their masters’ profit and prestige, and for the amusement of the bloodthirsty public. Some of the original Roman gladiators became fabulously rich, and were able to buy their freedom and live a life of relative luxury thereafter; but that doesn’t mean there was nothing wrong with the system from which they benefited. It doesn’t discount the immoral and nearly inhuman nature of “the games” themselves. So how closely does that compare with American football? How much of the thrill of the game involves watching massive levels of gratuitous violence, with little concern for how that can potentially destroy the lives of those on the ground attacking each other to providing such a spectacle?
Football of course is not the only sport with a long history of and reputation for violence. A couple of generations ago there were still laughs to be had from the joke that was already old at that point: “Last night I went to watch a street fight and an ice hockey game broke out!” Old hockey players could be identified by their multiply broken noses and extensive facial scarring. They too frequently died of the complicated after-effects of repeated brain injury. That has largely changed now. Part of it had to do with rule changes to require more safety equipment being required in play and stronger penalties against violent action on the ice. But perhaps more of it had to do with a new generation of players with a new, more skillfully refined style of play, in many regards pioneered by Wayne Gretsky.
What would it take to bring the equivalent sort of changes about in American football? Is there any hope of accomplishing this within the next generation? What should be done to protect the would-be gladiators in question in the meantime?
Then there is the matter of kneeling. This has become a trend around the league, started by now former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In the beginning of last year’s season Kaepernick –– a mixed race child by birth who was adopted and raised by a white family, first in the Mid-west and then on the West Coast –– felt that paying reverence to the playing of the “Star-spangled Banner” at the beginning of each game went against his moral convictions by tacitly approving of some profoundly dysfunctional elements of American culture, often involving atrocities committed by those wearing an American flag on their sleeve. Chief among these was the on-going problem unpunished police shootings of young black men on city streets around the country. Kaepernick started his protest by sitting down rather than standing as the music played. Later, after taking into account the perspective of a respected military veteran friend of his, he changed his approach to kneeling on one knee as it played. For those who were defensive about the white supremacist culture he was protesting against by doing so the effect was the same: making a symbolic public declaration at a sporting event that there is something wrong with the structure of American society is considered “shameful” and “traitorous,” and worst of all, disrespectful towards those being sent to die defending the United States’ right to police the Middle East.
For what difference it makes, Kaepernick himself is currently unemployed. After the coach he began playing for San Francisco under, Jim Harbaugh, took a job at the University of Michigan, long before the whole national anthem protest thing started, Kaepernick started having more and more trouble working with the new 49er bosses, and his performance suffered because of it. This may or may not have had anything to do with his decision to become a vegan around that same time. Whatever the case, after last season he decided not to continue his career with San Francisco and became available as a free agent, but no team in the NFL was interested in hiring him for the current season. That might or might not count as paying the price for his political convictions.
Even so, the national anthem kneeling trend he started has caught on around the league. (As I am writing this a news flash pops up on my computer screen that the entire Dallas Cowboys team, arm-in-arm with the team owner, knelt together as the national anthem played at the beginning of their game Monday night.)
There is, of course, a long history of athletes, black athletes in particular, using their passing celebrity status to make what they hope will be lasting political points. Perhaps the most infamous of those was the black power solute given by black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the awards ceremony of the 1968 Olympics, which not terribly surprisingly, has been pointed out and reconsidered by a number of significant news outlets this week. Those men too were deeply hated by defenders of white hegemony at the time, but eventually the heroism of their stand, and their willingness to suffer for it, came to be recognized around the world, and even by most non-white supremacists within the United States.
Within less than a week it has become almost cliché to ask, but I will ask anyway, is there any moral difference between Smith and Carlos’ protest gesture and Kaepernick’s? Or redirecting the same question back to my opening considerations here, does protesting in either of these ways take away from what sport is ultimately supposed to be or to do for people? Does it, in some fundamental way, mean that these men are not “doing their job right”? That, dear friends, depends on what you consider the core essence of “their job” to be.
I go back to my starting list of characteristics. When it comes to being an example and inspiration of being in touch with their own bodies and training themselves to accomplish great feats of strength, skill and endurance on the field of play, I don’t think anyone can claim that taking a symbolic stand on political issues takes away from any of that. If anything it might make kids of all skin colors and backgrounds aware of the possibility to use their athletic skill to get their chosen ideological or religious message across to a larger audience. That in turn could lead to better, stronger and more dedicated athletes in the future, who are both competing with each other and working together not only to score points within their respective leagues, but also to bring public attention to things that are important to them. As long as they are not promoting bigotry, violence or irresponsibly dangerous behavior in the process I don’t see any problem with that. There are far worse ways of doing politics.
When it comes to just putting on a good show, entertaining the audience not only with their strength and skill, but their basic charisma, some would find the protestors’ actions to be something that keeps them from being able to enjoy the show. I know people who cannot appreciate either the Dixie Chicks’ or Ted Nugent’s music, or Jane Fonda’s or Clint Eastwood’s acting performances, on account of not being able to separate the performance from the performers’ respective political perspectives. (To be honest with you, none of the four examples are generally within my entertainment taste, for entirely non-political reasons, but that’s beside the point.) This is something I would consider to be more justifiable to complain about in one respect, and something that would certainly justify not paying to watch the sports in question when offensively politically active athletes are performing there. I would even go so far as to consider boycotts of the performances of the athletes in question to be fully justifiable… as long as such a boycott is recognized as just another aspect of the same freedom of speech and expression that the protesting athletes themselves are exercising, and as long as the protests against their protests can be kept respectful of the human dignity of the performers in question. That principle is clearly lost on those who would use the anonymity of the Internet to send violent curses and death threats to those who protest against their chosen political orientation.
The hardest aspect to morally evaluate, however, is how athletes making gestures of protest before or after their competitions relates to their roles as surrogate warriors. If there are sad souls out there who have no greater joy in life than to share a feeling of vicarious pseudo-military conflict with their fellow fans (or in British, “supporters”) of a particular sports team, dropping their support for that team because some of the players happen to be publically opposed to their political views might not be an option.
To quote from Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool Football Club manager from yesteryear, regarding what the British call football, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” It is not hard to imagine many fans of American football, particularly from the “fly-over states” sharing his perspective regarding their own passionately followed sport. Thus it is not hard to see how they would feel violently conflicted over players on the teams they support, or on the opposing teams for that matter, making a symbolic statement against the political positions they hold, especially when their own political positions are based on assumptions of white hegemony and militaristic authoritarianism.
If these fans, who have indeed been paying the players’ salaries, expect the players in turn to provide them with a satisfyingly violent spectacle to help reinforce their militant world views, without having the audacity to challenge their political perspectives in the process, it is easy to see why they would feel outraged. It is also easy to see how a demagogue, who also happens to be the 45th president of the United States, would want to try to capitalize on their outrage. That doesn’t justify it in either case. The fact that the president referred to the primarily black protestors as “sons of bitches” and that he complained about the league’s limited efforts to limit violence and injury as already being too much in that same speech, speak volumes about the mentality he is operating on.
I happen to consider American football to be the perfect sport for Americans in general: It involves less overall endurance, more chess-like strategic planning and more moments of incredible adrenaline rush per competition than any other sport I have ever watched. On top of that it seems to be ideal for commercial television in terms of the natural breaks in the action that happen to provide easy places to insert advertising. It would be a shame to lose this sort of entertainment spectacle because of nothing being done about the risks and problems it entails in its current form. But to enable this sport to do less harm than good in the long run both of the issues raised here need to be dealt with.
First of all the rules of the sport need to be changed to reduce its similarity with the original gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome. Having men literally killing each other and tearing each other apart for the amusement of a live audience should not be morally acceptable, regardless of how good the ratings are. If changing the rules to reduce the extent to which bodies and minds are destroyed in the process of competition reduces the popularity and profitability of the sport, so be it. There should be a consensus, even in the United States, that moving away from actual “hunger games” here is just the right thing to do.
How could that be done? I am not educated enough in sports medicine to set myself up as a consultant on the matter, so anything I say here goes in the “for what it’s worth” category. That being said, a defeatist strategy of keeping things as they are to preserve ratings, regardless of the human cost, is not a morally acceptable option. Thus my first suggestion would be the requirement to use new concussion detection technology on the sidelines in all games at all competitive levels. This needs to be taken very seriously. Thus any player who receives a concussion in the course of play must be automatically placed on recovery leave and not allowed to play in competitions or to train for competition in ways that could increase brain damage for a set number of weeks. The penalty for concealing a concussion to avoid exclusion from play needs to be harsh enough to prevent that from happening as well. Furthermore, any player causing a concussion to any other player, even inadvertently, needs to be placed on suspension from competition for a roughly equivalent period of time to the recovery requirement for the victim. This set of rules needs to be enforced firmly enough to change the fundamental culture of the game so that the threat of destroying the bodies of the best players on the other team ceases to be a strategic goal within the sport. Beyond that the game situations in which the most serious injuries occur need to be carefully analyzed and as far as possible diffused through changes in rules, in consultation with specialized physicians, regarding the types of protective equipment needs to be worn, the starting positions for different play situations, and the types of blocks and tackles permitted.
Regarding the kneeling protests and the like, I suspect that the crisis will need to be overcome through fans growing up enough to no longer base their lives on their identification with their local team. In the end the players are not gladiators in the old sense of the word; nor are they warriors fighting for the honor and glory of their city-state. They are merely entertainers, using their own particular skills to provide a temporary distraction from the cares of this world. In the process of making a good show out of it they try to make it into a sort of fair form of competition as well, but in the end it is still just a game –– just another show. So if some of the players happen to offend you with their openness about their political views, you can actually walk away and find some other means of distracting yourself from your stresses in life; no harm done.
For those who need something more closely resembling the thrill of warfare in their lives to feel suitably stimulated, if on-line role playing games aren’t enough for you there are always things like paint ball, and then there are actual military services that you can join. If none of those options are suitable for you, find your own way of dealing with your violent fantasy world, or get some appropriate form of therapy for it.
Meanwhile, if the United States remains a free country, worth taking pride in (for those who underestimate the rest of the industrialized world), then athletes will maintain the right to peacefully protest injustices there that they are aware of; and athletes being free to do so is a basic prerequisite for any form of cultural greatness which might follow. Suck it up.
Beyond that, putting the two issues together, it might be best in the long run for Kaepernick, and outspoken American football stars like him, to find themselves excluded from football for the time being while both of these issues are getting sorted out within the league. Kaepernick has been known as one of the league’s most run-ready quarterbacks, meaning he has regularly put himself in more danger of getting seriously messed up while being tackled than the average quarterback. For now, if Kaepernick uses his fortune as wisely, as Mark Fidrych used his, he should be able to get by economically without playing ball for quite a while, giving him more opportunities meanwhile to use his fame as a means of standing up for those at other forms of risk than NFL players are. I’m not inclined to feel sorry for him yet; he’s got a long ways to go in catching up with other black athletes in terms of suffering for their stand on behalf of their own people. If he is sincere about this issue being bigger than football for him he has little to complain about in terms of how he has been treated at this point. That should leave him free to speak to the bigger issue of what he hoped to accomplish with his protest. If he uses this opportunity well I am more than willing to honor him for it.
In Europe the use of national anthems at sporting events is limited to that of the winning team or competitor being played at the end of the competition as prizes are being given out. No one puts their hands on their hearts, but everyone in the stadiums stands up for such occasions I have no problem with that. I’m inclined to try to follow protocol as much as possible under such circumstances. Attending many different churches as I do, I’m frequently confused about when I’m supposed to be sitting, standing or kneeling as part of the ceremony, but I follow along as best I can. But when someone breaks these trivial protocols to make a point, and it is a point worth making, I respect that.
If there’s a chance of reducing the power and acceptability of bigotry by kneeling at the “wrong time,” I am willing to do so. I hope others would be as well. I’ll leave it at that.