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The wars we wage – of sport, concussion, and our warrior style – Part I

Posted Feb 07 2012 8:36am

This series of posts comes as a response to a lot of discussion that’s been happening, lately, about concussions in football — who knew what, how they handled it, who’s responsible, and what might be done about it all… for the sake of our (and our kids’) future. I started out intending to write one post about this, but the issue is much larger, and my time is not as plentiful for one long extended post, so I’ll break it up into several. Please hear me out in the entire thing, before jumping to conclusions.

Part I – That Was Then, This Is Now

The Concussion Blog has been doing a great job of covering recent media discussions , and there have been some interesting comments there.

One thing that really sparked my thinking, was looking at the image used on the 30. January post Show Critiques (CNN and ESPN) , which shows a football player from bygone years wearing a helmet that’s a full face guard. He looks more like a spartan than a “jock”… or maybe that’s the point.

And it got me thinking, again, about the nature of our concussion problem. I won’t say “The NFL’s concussion problem”, because to my thinking, it’s everyone’s problem — the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, MLS, MLB… and beyond… It’s a problem that belongs to pretty much all sports, whether adult/professional or high school/youth. ‘Cause the simple fact of the matter is, sports involve movement — often the faster the better — and movement can involve collision, which can lead to concussion. Concussion and sports pretty much go hand-in-hand, as far as I’m concerned.

Even if you’re playing tennis, you can sustain one (think, diving for a return and connecting with a pole or wall). Even if you’re playing golf, you can get one (think, an errant club or ball). Whenever things are moving, and the human head contacts something, you run that risk.

I’m not going to get into an extended discussion about how management, not only prevention, is the key to saving Sport from itself. Instead, I’d like to talk about the very roots of one of the major hurdles that — to my thinking — keeps us in a perpetual loop of denial, risky behavior, and hyper-reactivity. That hurdle, I believe, is our inability to appreciate just how much things have changed in the last 100 years, with regard to American society, American sports, and American war.

Time and time again, when I check the stats on this blog, I find people searching for “pain is weakness leaving the body” — a military slogan pulled from the Marines, which is increasingly used in connection with sports. Even youth sports. I’ve already ranted at length about the inappropriateness of using this slogan in connection with youth sports, so I’ll spare you the diatribe right now. But suffice it to say, I don’t believe it is appropriate to teach our youth — yes, our kids — that ignoring pain (even welcoming it as a sign of how tough you are) is a positive or useful thing.

But even beyond that, in a purely objective sense, what fascinates me about this adoption of an intensely military mindset, is that it is so incredibly popular, and it’s used so much.

Why is this?

What does it mean?

What does it tell us about both our kids and our parents and our society as a whole?

At the risk of over-simplifying things, I believe asking these questions can tell us a lot about the underlying conditions that give rise to our “concussion culture” — how we create it, how we sustain it, how we fear it, and yes, how we worship it.

Let’s go back almost 100 years, to the 1920′s, when football was played by lightly padded individuals.

It was a pretty rough-and-tumble (even deadly) sport, and it had been for years. Around 1905, it was so bad with deaths and life-changing injuries, that then-President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to outlaw it altogether. Rules were introduced which changed the nature of the game (including doing away with some particularly violent tactics — like the flying wedge — and allowing the forward pass)… and the sport continued.

What I think about most, when I consider the early days of football and how it was played, was the social context of it all. Back in the late 1800′s, military-driven expansion into the North American West (following the incredibly bloody and brutal U.S. Civil War) had soaked this nation in blood. World War I, with its millions of dead, again drenched the Western World in blood from 1914-1918. And the ways people made a living were largely related to how physically strong and durable they were. Life expectancy was far less than it is today — a little over 53 years for men, a little over 54 years for women. And what life you had, you could expect to be hard — either working on a farm, or in a factory, doing some sort of manual labor that most of us today can hardly imagine doing, day in and day out.

Further, the expectations were much different for individuals then, than they are today. Individuality and personal customization were hardly the norm. The norm was to conform, to pitch in and do your part, to put your own personal needs aside for the greater good. Even up to World War II, which involved tens of millions of dead, there was a different ethos at play. You took one for the team, on a small and large scale. You played by the rules. You laid your life and health and safety down for the Greater Good. And that’s just how things were. If you were cut down by bullets while racing onto the beaches of Normandy, in service to Your Cause, then so be it. Life, compared to how it is today, was… well… expendable.

And the expectations for what life you would have were considerably lower than what we expect today.

Think about it – at every turn, we have personalization and customization and convenience. We don’t work on farms or docks or factory floors, anymore. We don’t live by the sweat of our brows. We sit in cubicles and maybe go to the gym a few times a week. We don’t rough-house with each other while riding/driving farm equipment, and we don’t pass our time drinking/brawling and have that considered regular and acceptable behavior anymore, except on a playing field or an ice rink. We don’t have codes of law that people actually take seriously. It’s all about who can afford the best justice, who can connect with the most power and “engineer” their rise to the top. It’s all about the individual, our personal settings and service, our custom fit, our OWN self. It’s not about whom we serve, it’s about what we own.

Now, I’m not saying that any of these changes are good or better than how they were. I am saying that this fundamental shift in how we live our lives has turned us into very different creatures than were walking the earth 100 years ago. I’ve heard stories from centenarians about how they used to get a bunch of farm boys together and pick up Model T’s and tip them over to help dislodge a bolt that dropped into an unreachable part of the engine. I’ve heard stories from folks who grew up on farms, about people getting stuck in farm equipment when they weren’t paying attention — and managing to wriggle free at the very last minute, thanks to natural athleticism. I’ve heard stories about farm boys horsing around on tractors and falling under the wheels and living to tell the tale.

All these took place back in the day when everyday life was physically rigorous — and short. If you lived like everyone else, you could expect a relatively short lifespan, by today’s standards. Dying at 50 or 60 was usual, and if you lived to 70, well, then you were pretty unique. Life was expected to be short and hard — and at the same time that you were putting all sorts of demands on your physical frame, you were doing it for a higher purpose, for something that made you part of the greater whole.

Again, I’m not saying that any of our modern changes are better or worse than before. And I certainly don’t want to glorify the old days, when life was short and hard, and religion was your one solace in the face of seemingly perpetual suffering.

What I am saying is that the kinds of people who play football today are different from the kinds who played it once upon a time. People today are far less physically active, than they once were, and even if you do throw in a regular fitness routine, it’s still not the same as the overall movement of a physically demanding way of daily life. What’s more, today when you get hurt, it’s about you — it’s not about the team, it’s really about you. It always has been, in fact, but in past generations, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents could make peace with their personal sacrifice by seeing it as part of something higher, something bigger than themselves. It was either for God or Church or Country or Family. It wasn’t perceived to be about them — even though every injury they sustained, every hurt they endured did, in fact, cut them to the core.

So, where does that leave us today?

It leaves us floundering in a sea of our own cultural ambivalence and indecision. We have changed as a people. We have altered as individuals. Life as we know it is infinitely safer and more coddling than it was in the last century, but we insist on persist in playing our games in a way that suited our grandparents far better than it suits us.

We want to play hard and seek out pain (because we want to be rid of weakness), yet we don’t get off our a**es long enough each day to bump up our pulse or respiratory rate. We want to be super achievers, but we don’t eat the right foods that will actually let us live our best, we don’t get enough sleep to allow our bodies to recover to keep going, and we think that a handful of pills will offset the (physical and mental) damage we do to ourselves each and every day. We want to go out on the field, to push ourselves and punish each other, but for what? For our team, or for our own individual stress outlet and glory? Our “fans” want us to beat the crap out of each other — literally and figuratively — yet they turn a blind eye when our minds go, our bodies break down, and our lives careen off the tracks.

It makes no sense. As though we’re all sleep-walking down nostalgia lane, imagining ourselves to be far more fit and far better equipped than we truly are.

Part of this illusion we’re all laboring under could be fueled by our equipment — the technologies we think make us better, stronger, faster. The pads, the armor we wear. The supplements we take. The machines we use to improve our performance and measure our progress. Those same technologies, while promising to protect and perfect us, may actually be contributing to our general ineffectiveness and increasing weakness. It’s only wonderful to have a short walk from your car to the front doors of the mall, if you’re physically handicapped and the weather is really nasty. But for the rest of us, these conveniences, these things we “have to have” are undermining the very foundation of our health — and our ability to participate in sports, even life, the way we think we can.

I realize this post has gotten quite long. And I may have gone off on tangents. Let me get to the bottom line, here, before I go off and start my day in earnest:

Many of us (myself included) — particularly athletes and Type A hyperachievers — have a warrior style or ethos, in which we often envision ourselves engaged in a sort of battle in life. Whether it’s on the field or in an office or just going about our everday business, we have this warrior style that takes challenges full-on, head-on, and with all our might. At the same time, however, the ways in which we live our lives — with the conveniences, the usually-sedentary lifestyle, the customizations, the personalizations — are undermining our ability to live as full-on as we’d like.

Small wonder, that we keep getting hurt.

Now lest we jump to the conclusion that “if we were only more physically fit, we wouldn’t get hurt”, let’s stop for a moment and ponder how things were once upon a time. Life was a constant series of injuries of one kind of another. They came with the territory. It was a rare person who wasn’t crippled in some way, be it physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The difference between then and now, is that it was expected. It was just how things were. And life was short. So why not just live with it.

As for now, we have a much lower tolerance for our injuries. Modern medicine promises to cure all our ills, convincing us that pain and suffering are to be avoided at all costs… and big pharma  can make it all better with a pill or a shot or a non-greasy ointment. And states of mind and body that were once considered “peculiar” are now full-out pathologized, ready for the next treatment (complete with insurance company billing code).

At the same time, however, we have more armor than ever, more protective equipment than ever, more treatments and solutions than ever. And with this added layer of protection, we drive even harder towards whatever end-zone presents itself to us.

So, small wonder that we now have such trouble dealing with our injuries — part of us wants to keep playing the way our forebears did, while the other part of us is having real issues with the consequences of trying to do that. We’re far less physically fit and far less tolerant of pain than our ancestors were, but we act like we’re invincible.

I’m running out of time, so I’ll wrap it up for now. Bottom line of Part I is, Times have changed, people have changed, but we don’t seem to realize it. We keep trying to do things — and play games — the way they once were done, thinking we can tough it out like our grandparents did. Except we can’t. Our changing times have made sure of that.


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