Thursday, February 24, 2011

Football and brain damage

I don't generally pay attention to sports news, but this has been a big story this week:

Before he shot himself fatally in the chest Thursday, the former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson sent family members text messages requesting that his brain tissue be examined for the same damage recently found in other retired players. . . .

As a longtime force in the N.F.L. players union, Duerson, 50, was keenly aware of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to depression, dementia and occasionally suicide among more than a dozen deceased players. He had expressed concern in recent months that he might have had the condition, said one person close to him who spoke on condition of anonymity. . . .

Now, at Duerson’s request, his brain may contribute to knowledge of how — and how many — football players are at risk for C.T.E. Thirteen of the 14 deceased N.F.L. players who have been examined for the disease by the Boston University researchers have been found to have it, although that rate is skewed by the fact that many died in part through acts linked to the disease itself, like suicide, drug abuse or mental breakdown.

There also is a question as to whether the disease derives from a career in pro football or simply from many years of playing football at any level. Last year, C.T.E. was found in the brain of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football captain who killed himself in April.
A year ago, Penelope Trunk wrote:
It’s unbelievable to me that everyone continues to watch football when we know that men are getting genuinely, permanently, brain damaged. The game is tantamount to cockfighting, only with people instead of animals.

The NFL has finally admitted the problem, to the extent it is poised to be the largest funding source for research about trauma to the brain. But still, the game encourages brain trauma. And people cheer.

I can understand if it’s like smoking. You’re addicted, you can’t stop. But what about bringing your kids to the game? What about all the people who make the Superbowl a family TV event? Kids who play football in high school are more likely to die from that than drunk driving or guns. And parents encourage their kids to play this sport?

The culture of football amazes to me — the incredible level of denial. So what I'm thinking is that people are delusional. And they know it, but they keep going. They cultivate delusion.
My Occam's Razor theory: society has a straightforward gender-based double standard. If there's a self-destructive behavior that's mostly done by women (anorexia, self-cutting), society feels sorry for these women and wants to help them. When there's a self-destructive behavior that's mostly done by men (football, fist fights, "daredevil" stunts), we accept it, or even cheer it on.

IN THE COMMENTS: My mom throws in some grim irony:
And don't forget the terrible equal pay for equal work problem. All those things you've associated with women are severely underpaid. Aaron Rodgers makes millions, but the self-cutting girl down the street gets literally nothing.


Ann Althouse said...

And don't forget the terrible equal pay for equal work problem. All those things you've associated with women are severely underpaid. Aaron Rodgers makes millions, but the self-cutting girl down the street gets literally nothing.

Meade said...

I'd like to see a study of brain damage due to alcohol use by football fans. My hypothesis is it dwarfs brain damage due to playing football.

Meade said...

And don't let me even get started on alcohol and adolescents.

PB said...

I wanted to add a thought to your Occam's Razor conclusion and your mom's addition that I have been pondering as of late because of my interest in celebrity culture related to my art practice.

Your concern is destructive behaviors, and your mom brings up compensation inequality, but the same holds true for lesiure activities and our general perceptions of them. Watching and participating in sporting events, working on cars and being interested in mechanical things, all generally associated with men, are typically considered completely normal and good. On the other hand, shopping, having an interest in fashion, and reading gossip magazines, generally associated with women, are all often considered to be immature, empty, and a waste of time.

If the tables were turned, and more straight men were celebrity bloggers and women were the majority of professional athletes, perhaps the most expensive advertising spots would be for televised covereage of New York fashion week.

John Althouse Cohen said...

PB: I called my mom's comment grimly ironic because she was spoofing the standard feminist line that women receive "inequitable compensation." Paying someone a lot for acting in a self-destructive manner is generally going to work to their detriment, since they'll be incentivized to harm themselves.

I don't know that I agree with your general point about masculine vs. feminine activities. Of course, working on mechanical things is considered good. But I don't see this as gender-biased. Men and women alike benefit from mechanical work. The only exception would be if you're in a country like Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive cars. If I look out the window and see trash collectors picking up my trash, I'm naturally going to think, "Gee, I'm glad there are people who are willing to do that unpleasant job. It benefits me, and I wouldn't be willing to do it." It just so happens that those workers are overwhelmingly men, but I'd think the same thing if they were overwhelmingly women. It's about the benefit the activity confers on society, not the demographic composition of those doing the activity.

Are shopping and fashion considered a waste of time? I recently subscribed to the paper edition of the New York Times, and several times a week they send me a whole section called "Fashion." I have no interest in reading this, but it's considered important enough to be a major component of the most esteemed newspaper in the country.

Surely there are plenty of people out there who consider fashion frivolous, but there are also people out there who have the same attitude toward working on cars. There isn't a single being called Society that officially evaluates each activity. Society is just an aggregate of a lot of individuals, and I haven't seen a poll that asks people for their opinions of working on cars vs. shopping for clothes. So I don't know whether society overall views certain traditionally masculine activities more or less favorably than traditionally feminine ones.

But none of that goes to the topic of self-destructiveness. You invoke the idea of what if "the tables were turned," but I (and my mom) are suggesting that when it comes to self-destructive behaviors, the tables are turned — relative to the conventional wisdom that women are the ones who are oppressed by gender norms.

As one more example, consider the military (particularly combat). Do men receive lavish benefits and a lot of glory for fighting in the military? Sure. But is this a straightforward benefit to men? Assuming we're talking about the present-day United States (so all service is voluntary), the fact that men get extra glory might appear to advantage men. But if it encourages young men to sign up for the military and end up getting sent off to war, it's easy to see how this apparently pro-man attitude can work to men's detriment.

Jennifer said...

Lavish benefits for military service? I'm honestly curious as to what you believe those are.