Football, our violent favorite game
This Thursday my beloved Denver Broncos played the Carolina Panthers in a rematch of Super Bowl 50. The Broncos won what turned out to be a terrific game, but all the talk after the game focused on the hits Cam Newton sustained and whether there should have been more flags.
Professional football is far and away America’s favorite sport and has been for the past 30 straight years. It is also one of our most violent sports. The question is whether we love football in spite of the violence or because of it.
Spencer Hall’s beautiful essay “Buffalo” wrestles with this question on a personal and societal level. He describes his reaction to witnessing “the closest he’s seen anyone come to dying on the football field” as an ambivalent mixture of excitement and fear, followed by shame.
“When I saw Rosegreen’s hit on Green I stood up involuntarily. On other hits I have yelled “OOOOOOOH” or “NOOOOOO” or some other variation of astonished and thrilled horror. Most honestly, there is a physical response you cannot control, or at least I can’t: a thrill, a lightning through the body, an adrenal jolt that is involuntary. It is a form of pleasure that evaporates in nanoseconds when the rest of the brain catches up to it with reason, conscience, and guilt.”
If Green gets up, the play goes on the highlight reel. If he doesn’t, we shake our heads and wonder if we should devise new rules to protect the players from the worst hits. But the hits will remain. As Hall writes, “Football is the sport that asks you to believe that there is an acceptable and controllable amount of being on fire.”
Is football more humane and civilized than the Roman gladiators spilling each other’s blood in the Coliseum? Hall isn’t so sure. And he’s not convinced we are going to do anything about it because we have culturally come to accept and even celebrate a certain level of violence. Football may have a violence “problem” but it’s not one that we really want to solve. We’re only just beginning to acknowledge it.
Making Amends — Slavery
This week Georgetown gave us a fascinating example of what it’s like to acknowledge your problems, admit your own fault and make amends. The University President John DeGioia announced that Georgetown plans to give preferential admissions treatment to all descendants of the 272 slaves who worked for the university and were sold to fund the campus. While other institutions have acknowledged their history of slavery, Georgetown is the first to take meaningful action to make amends. DeGioia said the decision was made in the Catholic tradition of confession and reconciliation.
“This community participated in the institution of slavery,’’ Dr. DeGioia said, addressing a crowd of hundreds of students, faculty members and descendants at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. “This original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic was present here. We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth.”
“As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history,’’ he said. “We must acknowledge it.”
Some activists say that Georgetown is not doing enough and should have included the slave descendants in the process for deciding how to make amends. Others think that financial scholarships should be awarded too. These may be fair points, but I don’t think Georgetown is trying to take the easy way out. Our country has been weak at addressing past injustices. Compare all the work Germany has done to acknowledge the holocaust compared to what the U.S. has done to acknowledge slavery or what settlers did to American Indians and the difference is stark. Given that context, Georgetown took a courageous step.
Sometimes we deal with problems at the margins, like we are doing with football — we’re trying to make it marginally less likely that players will sustain brain injuries by changing the rules here and there but we’re not abandoning the game which is, by it’s nature violent. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to acknowledge we had a problem — like Georgetown is doing with slavery. And sometimes acknowledging the problem isn’t hard, but finding a solution is, and in some of those cases, we are tempted to apply technical fixes to adaptive challenges.
A technical fix is when you can apply a technology or methodology to solve your problem. Aspirin is a technical fix for your headache. An airplane is a technical fix for your need to get from Chicago to LA in the same day. Technology is advancing quickly, and entrepreneurs are harnessing it in ever more creative ways so that in more and more areas of life we can say, “There’s an app for that.” I don’t think it is unfair to say that the prevailing ideology of Silicon Valley is that with enough data, we can create a technical fix to nearly every problem.
However there are categories of problems for which a technical fix won’t work. My old professor Ron Heifetz calls these “adaptive challenges” — they are issues that require us to adapt in order to solve. So a headache may be a technical challenge with a technical fix (aspirin). An adaptive challenge is getting a diagnosis that your spouse has Alzheimer’s. There is no app for that. You have to adapt in order to deal with that reality. We get into trouble when we try to solve adaptive challenges with technical fixes. This may be happening today in Baltimore.
Big Brother in Baltimore
In my opinion, The Wire, is still the best television series in history. It profiled the city of Baltimore in the 90s and the police department’s often futile attempts to fight the drug trade. One thing I learned from the show was that getting a judge to approve a wiretap can be complicated and difficult. But today, there are other ways to do surveillance. In Baltimore today police are employing a persistent surveillance system to record everything that happens in the city, literally everything, from the air. It is leading to a lot of arrests:
“Within the first hour of operations, his cameras witnessed two murders. “A 9-millimeter casing was all the evidence they’d had,” McNutt says. By tracking the assailants’ vehicles, McNutt’s small team of analysts helped police identify the headquarters of a cartel kill squad and pinpoint a separate cartel building where the murderers got paid for the hit.”
Crime in a city is an adaptive challenge. Constant surveillance is a technical fix. It will surely help the city catch and prosecute more criminals, but it comes at a cost of privacy that many citizens aren’t comfortable with choosing. In truth, they didn’t choose it; the program has been a semi-secret expenditure that is only now becoming known. Failing to address this concern will at least lead to protests and could end the program altogether.
Speaking of ineffective ways to deal with problems, have you ever tried solving someone else’s problems for them? It seems to me that it is almost universally a bad idea. Let me give a few examples.
- A dad finishes his daughter’s difficult math homework for her because she couldn’t do it and ends up teaching her it’s okay to quit.
- A codependent wife covers for her husband getting too drunk at the family Christmas party and enables him to continue down an unhealthy path of binge drinking.
- A western nation gives billions of dollars in foreign aid to countries that is mostly wasted or stolen from corrupt officials.
In most situations, when a person or a society has a problem, they need to solve it for themselves. They may need advice. They may need assistance. But the work is theirs to do, and if someone does it for them, they fail to develop in the ways they need to be healthy.
So not only is “saving other people” often ineffective, it is also patronizing because it assumes that people are unable to learn how to help themselves. This analysis cuts against a major cultural trend: an increasing number of millennials seeking to create a life of meaning through activist-tourism in the developing world.
Courtney Martin calls this “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems.” Your own problems are complicated, maybe they feel intractable. Other people’s problems, by contrast, are straightforward, easy to solve. At least that’s what our superficial understanding makes us think, and now we’ve built cultural edifices to support that belief:
There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase ‘save the world.’
It is easy, even fun, to travel to the developing world and “serve” them one week or one summer at a time. It is much harder, and rarer, to embrace the problems of others as one’s own, walk in their shoes, and help them help themselves. Take for instance the French Dominican friar Xaviar Plassat. Vanity Fair recently published a profile of his work — which is to fight against the modern day slave trade in Brazil.
Plassat is the man who generates the numbers, educates the press, warns the most vulnerable populations, pressures government agencies, and with the help of a sophisticated intelligence network transmits the locations of slaveholding operations to a specialized federal raiding force that over the past 20 years has rescued 50,000 slaves from captivity. Plassat is relentless…His demeanor and way of life are modest. Having taken vows of chastity and poverty, he lives in a humble house with two other friars in a village near the Araguaia River, where the Amazon forest has been cut down…In his spare time he also wades into land disputes on the side of the poor. It is dangerous work in a place where law is thin. At least 12 of his colleagues and more than a thousand associated peasants have been murdered, rarely with legal consequence. Plassat’s own life has been threatened. He remains philosophical and does not dwell on the risk to himself.
Taking a vow of poverty and chastity and living in a hut isn’t the glamorous life of “international development work” most Ivy League kids imagine when they fancy themselves as social entrepreneurs. These are the hard choices one makes when one actually commits one’s life to a work and prioritizes the well-being of others over oneself. This kind of life is rare. It is rare inside religious communities, and more rare beyond them. Plassat does not see himself as anyone’s savior.
What makes a man make these choices? What makes you give up a life of comfort for discomfort? In the case of the friar Plassat, he has a model in Jesus who, according to his theology, left a realm of heavenly comfort to incarnate himself in our world as an act of love. That may be a clue. It may be the key. You always end up serving whatever it is you love. If you love yourself, you will make choices that serve your own interests. If you love someone else, you make choices that serve their interests, even at a cost to yourself. So the question that matters in the end is who or what do you really love?
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