Monday, November 16, 2009

Football as Dogfighting: Are the NFL and We Football Fans Culpable for Michael Vick?

In short, I think so.

From Kyle Turley, former Saints lineman, in a gripping and disturbing article in The New Yorker magazine:

I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.
Malcolm Gladwell's entire piece in The New Yorker magazine (H/T to tonobero for bringing this article to my attention) makes a persuasive case that the frenzied fanaticism of the sport of football is so wrapped up in and glorifying of the violence of it, that football players are conditioned to playing the sport like a mad dog in a dogfight -- desperate to please their fans, coaches, and team owners -- that not only to they play to physically crush their opponents, but also to push their own bodies to physical limits that cut years off their lives and permanently damage the functionality of their brains. In essence, the Sunday football games are nothing more than a ramped up dogfight, with players regularly getting carted off the field with injuries, sometimes severe, until the final seconds of that 60 minute contest tick off the clock and the spent teams, winners and losers alike, hobbling and limping off the field.

Yeah, yeah ... I know that the difference is that NFL players are free to choose this for themselves and that they can simply walk away from the game whenever they feel like it. Even still, what bothers me is that the NFL and its fans could pretend such outrage and shock at Michael Vick for his dogfighting transgression, and not even reflect upon even the slightest parallels between the "sport" of professional football and the "sport" of dogfighting. From Gladwell's article:
“I was not aware of dogfighting and the terrible things that happen around dogfighting,” [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell said, explaining why he responded so sternly in the Vick case. One wonders whether, had he spent as much time talking to Kyle Turley as he did to Michael Vick, he’d start to have similar doubts about his own sport.
The scientific evidence is indisputable. What the vicious, violent, collision-demanding sport of football does to the brain is horrendous.

For his article, Gladwell consulted with Ann McKee, a brain trauma specialist who runs a hospital neuropathology laboratory. Through her study of the brains of former football players, she, among all people, knows the tragic consequences of football to the quality of life that players will have to suffer once the sport has long forgotten them. Yet, McKee also embodies the cultural paradox about the sport that defines our culture. As Gladwell notes in his article:
McKee is a longtime football fan. She is from Wisconsin. She had two statuettes of Brett Favre, the former Green Bay Packers quarterback, on her bookshelf. On the wall was a picture of a robust young man. It was McKee’s son—nineteen years old, six feet three. If he had a chance to join the N.F.L., I asked her, what would she advise him? “I’d say, ‘Don’t. Not if you want to have a life after football.’”
So, are we football aficionados partly responsible for Kyle Turley and for Michael Vick? In a very real way we are. We glorify the sport that destroys them. We pay the big money to see them perform and it's that big money that lures them. And we expect them to sacrifice themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally for the team.


Eric said...

"...what bothers me is that the NFL and its fans could pretend such outrage and shock at Michael Vick for his dogfighting transgression, and not even reflect upon even the slightest parallels between the "sport" of professional football and the "sport" of dogfighting..."

Based on the number of NFL fans with whom I've had this exact conversation, I think you are wrong that they don't reflect on it. I think most do, and after reflection they decide, as you point out, that the 'free choice' component provides significant rationalization for being a football fan. Perhaps your argument is that this isn't a good enough rationalization, but I don't think it's fair to say fans don't reflect on the parallels.

I also think, as someone who played high school football, that you'd be aware of the intense physical and emotional thrill that comes from delivering one of those hits that makes your opponent go cross eyed for a complete set of downs. The opportunity to deliver those kinds of blows in a controlled environment is a large part of what draws young men to play the game in the first place, before the allure of fame and money are ever a real possibility. It is one of the last societal vestiges of a more primitive time when sheer physicality determined whether you lived or died, and I think that as such, it taps into something that is both dangerous and valuable at the same time. As we become an increasingly emasculated society, I believe this release is psychologically important to men, whose evolutionary biology isn't quite as modern as the times we live in.

Eric said...

I'd also note that my feelings about Pro football are one of the glaring contraditions in my uber free market approach to life. I rarely watch pro football because I can't stand the personalities of the players and the commercialization of the atmosphere. I much prefer to watch the college kids who are playing for love of the sport and for promise of future opportunity, as opposed to the giant egos who play for money on Sundays.

Plus, IMHO, footbal without marching bands just ain't football.

Huck said...

Hi, Eric - Yes, I'm sure some folks (I'm one of them) that ponder the violence of football in all its dimenstions, but I still think that most (and I was one of them until I read this article) that didn't really think consciously of the parallels between dogfighting and football in the same way. What I didn't mention in my posting, but what is in the article, is that dogs also have a choice to fight. Some dogs, even in spite of their training, after experiencing an injury, refuse to engage the fight. There is even a name for such dogs -- a "cur"; and the dog is abandoned. Which leads me to the question of choice. Yes, football players have choice -- they can always walk away. But it's not that easy when the entire culture conspires against this in some way.

And, yes, I do recall (and took thrill in delivering), those blood-curdling hits. And I still have the same reaction when watching such hits. Yes, I acknowledge that there is something primitively appealing in that. And I'm sure that my years of socialization to the sport will have me continuing to cheer such hits. I think if I were socialized to dogfighting in the same way, I'd probably not be so offended by Michael Vick's transgression. It's just striking what we put up with for sports like football or boxing, yet what we cringe at in other instances.

Eric said...

"...dogs also have a choice to fight."

Yes, but it is still objectively and qualitatively different. Dogs have no choice about being put in the situation where they have to make the decision whether to fight or not, and therein lies the difference. You could perhaps make the argument that some minors are forced to play football in a manner that is remotely equatable to what happens in animal bloodsports, but once they reach the age of majority, I don't think any such argument can be made.

"I think if I were socialized to dogfighting in the same way, I'd probably not be so offended by Michael Vick's transgression."

Absolutely, which brings up an issue that I find much more interesting, which is that our modern concept of "animal rights" is rooted much more in touchy-feely social conventions than any kind of logical ethical framework. A society that would put people in jail for cockfighing while allowing the conditions that exist in most commercial poultry farms is a society with a fairly whacked out basis for establishing animal rights.

A friend of mine likes to bring up this fairly illustrating (if a little hardcore) question: Forced with the choice between punching your spouse in the face or killing your family pet with your own hands, which would you choose?

I submit that as much as I "love" our dogs, the dignified treatment of my family is immeasurably more important to me than the life of any animal. And that thought process pretty much drives the rest of my thoughts on animal rights. While I detest the mindset of a person who would engage in dogfighting, I also have a hard time putting them in prison for it, as I don't acknowledge the value of a canine's life and liberty to be anywhere near the same plane as a human's.

andrew said...

Football, Mixed Martial Arts, and motorsports.

These are the last true vestiges of sport we have in our society. The brutality, the danger, these temper men in to being more than men. Those of us who love these sports or take part in them know the sobering price of admission. The physical cost is tremendous, and the very real possibility that one day you may die for your sport.

The sacrifice is part of it. Personally I believe that boxing and football probably generate more long term brain damage than MMA and motorsports however, MMA and motorsports can induce crippling injuries and in the case of motorsports you may die on the track.

The dangerous sports forge heroes and role models. We also tend to hold our athletes to a higher moral standard. Auto-racing in particular is guilty of this. We do not take moral transgressions lightly.

Nick Hogan is blacklisted, he will never have a career after that accident. The league he competed in has deleted all references of him, erased his past accomplishments, and barred him from ever stepping foot near one of their events. Think about that and how we're the most commercialized sport out there. Its more about the morality of the people who compete and organize a sport than the level of endorsements.

Eric said...

"Football, Mixed Martial Arts, and motorsports. These are the last true vestiges of sport we have in our society."

I'd add rodeo events, perhaps my favorite sports to watch, to this list.