There’s a certain pleasure to be gained through the discovery of metaphors. It’s a quirky bit of nature, but we seem to understand ourselves better from a perspective that excludes us entirely. Without this, parables, poetry and playwriting likely wouldn’t exist, or at least wouldn’t carry as much significance as they do.
The amount of amusement we derive from piecing together parallels between narratives and our own lives is enhanced when those analogies seem almost accidental instead of crafted. It’s one thing to read a novel that’s meant to be an allegory, and quite another to come across something that’s not intended to mirror anything, but does so in a fashion that causes reflection.
Matching the sports we watch to the culture we inhabit is hardly new. It’s been done many times before. Perhaps the best example is the book Brilliant Orange, which rationally ties so many aspects of Dutch culture to voetbal. In Canada, before gift buying holidays like Christmas or Father’s Day a new book is released tethering hockey to what it means to be Canadian. Meanwhile, the United States has long stood by baseball as its country’s pastime, a connection that was most exhaustively made by documentarian Ken Burns, who dedicated more than 18 hours on public television to explaining the relationship between the sport and the nation.
The Emmy Award-winning series was broadcast on PBS in 1994 – not an especially good year for baseball – but even as Burns was preparing his epic ode, the rankings of relevance had shifted. Not so long before Baseball first aired, the tenure of National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle concluded. Under Rozelle’s three decade long stewardship, the NFL blossomed: Attendance increased by almost 600%, and every subsequent Super Bowl set new records for television viewership. It all combined to create fertile ground for his successor, Paul Tagliabue, to reap an even larger harvest in increased television coverage and the accompanying lucrative contracts from broadcast partners.
Football is enormous, it’s become far bigger than baseball in terms of popularity. Nonetheless, baseball still clings to tradition, backed by its long standing connection to America’s history, and all of its struggles, conflicts and contradictions.
From the opening monologue of Baseball:
At the games’s heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time.
It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective.
By comparison, football has always been less subtle. It’s a bold and brash game, full of garish pageantry and violent excess. With war metaphors littering its commentary, the sport seems more closely attuned to how the rest of the world sees America than how America sees itself. It’s always been an all too easily defined game, lacking the contradictions and complexities that define baseball and that define America.
At least until recently.
If America is defined by struggle, the nation’s most notable has been reconciling the ideals championed by its Revolution with the development of its own best interests ever since. From foreign policy pertaining to Syria to reacting to the Snowden leaks, every decision made by the country’s leadership juggles its founding principles with attempts to maintain a state of affairs that keeps the United States a superpower.
It’s easy to be idealistic in youth, when you have nothing to lose. However, when protecting the status quo becomes beneficial to your condition, shaking it up for the purpose of what is objectively right is not an easy endeavor.
This is exactly where the NFL finds itself after more than 90 years of existence. In August, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of 4,600 former players and their families – all of whom claimed to suffer from concussion-related health issues. As part of the settlement, the NFL admitted to no wrongdoing despite decades of denial over links between ferocious on-field contact and the development of early onset brain illnesses among an inordinate number of retired players.
The former players claimed that the league had “gratuitously and voluntarily inserted itself into … scientific research” in order to support its stance that playing NFL football doesn’t cause “serious, life-altering risks.” The most damning bit of evidence against the NFL was the role of Dr. Elliott Pellman as chairman of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee from 1997 to 2004. On multiple occasions, Pellman used his platform to characterize concussions as nothing more than minor injuries despite his being a rheumatologist with no recognized level of authority to speak to anything resembling brain trauma.
What we make of this depends on how much we want to assume.
Is this wilful misconduct on the part of the NFL? They didn’t see concussions as a problem because they didn’t want to see concussions as a problem. Once you take issue with head injuries, you have to acknowledge the cause. This is especially difficult when so much of what has made the league popular with sports fans is rooted, not only in violent collisions between individual athletes, but also the warrior player’s ability to tolerate the harsh conditions of the game, and overcome the more threatening obstacles to triumph in the end.
Or, maybe the NFL understands the depth of its brand’s dependency on the very things that cause brain trauma. Did a cost analysis reveal it would be more forgiving financially to eventually settle with future head injury victims and weather the storm that bad publicity might provide rather than adopt safer practices?
This much is clear: NFL players are four times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s Disease than the general population, and multiple studies have found conclusive links between football and dementia, depression, and suicide.
No matter how much or how little you assume of the NFL’s diabolical dealings when it comes to concussions, pointing fingers solely at the league is every bit as myopic as Sports Illustrated’s recent misguided exposé on the Oklahoma State football program. Yes, certain practices of theirs are deplorable, but saying nothing of the system that rewards and quietly makes those practices mandatory misses the point. It’s like shaming a single burglar who resides in a state sponsored den of thieves.
That’s not to avoid blaming the NFL for its wilful ignorance to what experts have long suggested is dangerous. It’s to provide context for criticism. Under a free-market system, what’s to motivate a multi-billion dollar company to exert altruism at a potential cost to its business? We can talk about inherent responsibility to employees, moral obligations and even ethical standards – all of which the NFL has routinely failed to consider. However, these duties are rendered unnecessary by the system under which the NFL operates.
Ignoring context leads us to imagine a league run by a tribunal of Bond villains, rubbing their hands together in perverted glee as more and more players suffer head injuries. Instead, what we have is a team of executives looking to shift the conversation from what the league could have done in the past to what it can do in the future.
This is no more motivated out of good intentions than the years the NFL spent avoiding research linking football to head trauma. It’s simply about maintaining the status quo with as little disturbance as possible.
Sadly, left behind are those most affected by the NFL’s past negligence, who become little more than victimized collateral damage. They found recourse through civil court, and the result was the agreed upon settlement. This is the system at work.
So, what can be done? Short of occupying whatever street in your city houses the most financial institutions, we can hope for a better future, one in which the risks of public displeasure combined with additional lawsuits push the NFL toward creating a safer game. This, has largely been considered impossible, but there are things that can be done. The league could introduce more punitive measures for head shots. The NFL could adopt similar rules to rugby, which promote leg and mid-section tackles by outlawing contact above the shoulders.
It’s easy to criticize the NFL for doing what they can to maintain their own comforts, but difficult to see its connection to what makes us happy. The same system that allows the league to operate the way that it does grants us the luxuries of sporting events, enormous stadiums and cable television. It’s a very comfortable outfit, and one for which removing a single disagreeable thread isn’t as simple of a process as a mere yank.
At the beginning of this essay, the struggle to reconcile original ideals with the comforts of the status quo was painted as being uniquely American. Certainly, the NFL’s efforts to ensure safety without sacrificing revenue makes the league more American than it could have ever been considered before, but the trait being described doesn’t solely belong to the United States.
It’s one of empires. This has happened throughout history. The principles of an empire at its origin are sacrificed or ignored to preserve the opulence that it’s achieved during its lifetime. With the average franchise valued at over $1-billion, there is currently no bigger sports empire in the world than the NFL. It didn’t achieve this by being completely altruistic or abundantly evil. It merely provided something that a great many people wanted.
And now, there remains no greater metaphor for the United States, either.