in your brain.
The salmon scented patches, a confetti spread,
forming a network of weakenings.
Invitations to forget, provocations to wretch
and pummel unsuspecting,
unconditionally supportive conversations.
You watch from the dematerializing balcony seats,
this spongy, rosy mass that was once
the epicenter of everything.
Every hit, every block,
every history-making feat.
They ask you–
will you ever ask yourself-–
“Was it worth it?”
–yiqi 22 oct 09 9:40 PM
The above poem was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Offensive Play” in the Oct. 19, 2009 issue of The New Yorker magazine. I read it at a coffee shop after work today and nearly succumbed to tears three times. Three times. Gladwell’s article covers nine pages of text and contemplates the violent, injury-prevalent nature of football vis-a-vis dogfighting and stock-car racing and the path of degeneration it can leave in a player’s life post-concussion. There’s science, personal stories, and philosophical pondering.
I initially had some difficulty understanding the comparison Gladwell was making between football and dogfighting and football and stock-car racing. He asks whether or not the gridiron game is more like dogfighting or stock-car racing in terms of spectacle and violence. The connection between the latter was clearer because Gladwell remarked that after Dale Earnhardt and three other drivers died in a horrible crash at the turn of the 21st century, “Nascar mandated stronger seats, better seat belts and harnesses, and ignition kill switches, and completed the installation of expensive new barriers on the walls of its racetracks, which can absorb the force of a crash much better than concrete” (55). Gladwell then made the point that the rules of football, dating back to the college days at the turn of the 20th century, had been changed to decrease the likelihood that players would get hurt in ways that could be prevented.
But thinking about football vis-a-vis dogfighting? Minus the direct and literal bridge that is Michael Vick? I was thinking, while drinking a hazelnut latte from the San Francisco Coffee Company in the Highlands, that the two shouldn’t be juxtaposed. The dogs don’t have a choice. They’re bred and conditioned to be (even more) truculent. Football players do not channel intensity and tenacity in the same way or for the same reasons.
And then, Gladwell elaborates and I saw the point he was making. Nice dogs don’t survive fights; nice football players don’t help a team win. Insisting on going back out there even when one is bloodied and bruised is commendable. “In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain. A dog that will not do that…is abandoned. A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess ‘gameness,’ and game dogs are revered” (59).
The next part I found especially compelling and was the second passage that nearly made me cry:
“In one way or another, plenty of organizations select for gameness. The Marine Corps does so, and so does medicine, when it puts young doctors through the exhausting rigors of residency. But those who select for gameness have a responsibility not to abuse that trust: if you have men in your charge who would jump off a cliff for you, you cannot march them to the edge of the cliff–and dogfighting fails this test. Gameness, as Carl Semencic argues, in ‘The World of Fighting Dogs’ (1984), is no more than a dog’s ‘desire to please an owner at any expense to itself’” (59).
The first portion that brought on moisture was a description of a dog fight, which you can read by clicking the link embedded on the name of the article a few paragraphs up. The third take had to do with the end of the piece. Gladwell notes that boxers keep boxing for themselves as well as the audience, and that “There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else–neither considerations of science nor those of morality–can compete with the destructive power of that love” (59).
Now, if you’re wondering about all that “tau.” As the article explains, “The stained tissue of Alzheimer’s patients typically shows the two trademarks of the disease–distinctive patterns of proteins beta-amyloid and tau. Beta-amyloid is thought to lay the groundwork for dementia. Tau marks the critical second stage of the disease: it’s the protein that steadily builds up in the brain cells, shutting them down and ultimately killing them” (53). A brain that has suffered any number of concussions continually over a period of time (days to weeks to years) will be positive for the tau but not the beta-amyloid.
Gladwell mentions The Sports Legacy Institute co-founded by former NFL player Chris Nowinski. I highly, highly recommend you buy the October 19 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to see a clip of Harvard’s Brain Bank.