Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Long Goodbye

Thanks largely to the Bengals and their homicidal players (though that team is not unique in that respect), the Pittsburgh Steelers lost their second playoff game in a year they had a real shot at the Super Bowl.  The following week, one of the heroes of their first Super Bowl victory since the 70s glory years, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El told a Pittsburgh reporter than he wished he had never played football.  Not yet 40, he has trouble walking and maintaining balance, and is showing since of cognitive problems similar to those suffered by people twice his age.

Randle El was not a bruising lineman, but a swift and graceful wide receiver.  He did not take hits on every down.  Yet he apparently suffered substantial damage.  He told the reporter he thought professional football would be gone in 25 years because of the results of its fashionable brutality.

Apart from the injury to quarterback Big Ben which involved some extra action meant to injure, the felonious hit that hurt the Steelers was a visibly brutal one to its latest swift and graceful wide receiver, Antonio Brown.  Though to my knowledge he hasn't made waves over this incident, he also took a group of high school players to see the Will Smith movie about NFL football called "Concussion."

In his meditations on the subject in the New Yorker, its editor David Remnick relates aspects of  football's history to make the case that this brutality has always been part of the game.  It was in many ways worse when it was primarily a college sport, in the early 20th century, when 19 players were actually killed in one season.

Rules were changed, equipment improved, but Remnick writes the pressure to make big showy hits was unrelenting.  Yet, he says, people who see this violence and its results can't quite back away from watching:

 But the modern football fan in possession of a conscience and a reasonable knowledge of the horrific statistics about injuries suffered by players comes to resemble a nacho-scarfing version of St. Augustine, who, faced with his own lust, addresses God: “Lord, let me be pure . . . but not yet.” Precisely. Let’s confront the crisis in football . . . but not yet. It’s kickoff!

In a way I fall into this category, but for me it is not because I have a love-hate relationship with the violence.  Maybe I'm a pollyanna on this, but I maintain that football is a great game that doesn't need homicidal hitting.  I played it, though not in more than a semi-organized way, up until leaving high school, and though high school football was king in my western Pennsylvania (which was known for incubating college and NFL stars), there was blocking and tackling, but not hitting. Not really, or at least not much.

It's those aspects of the game--the skills, the strategies--that appeal to many fans.  It's harder and harder to look past the homicidal hits and the people (the NFL, non-playing team leaders and sports media) that promote it.

Unless the NFL radically reforms its game, it is doomed.  As Remnick says, even legendary figures of the game like Mike Ditka say they wouldn't let their children play football now.  In the short term, teams from high school to colleges will survive on players from poor families, the analogue of slaves in the gladitorial ring, with the ability to take care of their families as the suicide incentive.  Before the whole thing collapses.

For now we've got Denver and Carolina in Super Bowl Fifty.  Denver doesn't have a chance.

Basketball in the NBA is about to get especially interesting, as the much publicized Golden State Warriors have the first of four regular season games with the San Antonio Spurs, who have quietly had a season almost the match of Golden State's.  Incredibly they have not played each other this year yet.  Golden State demolished Cleveland last week--a forty point destruction of their Finals opponent last year, that probably led directly to their coach being fired, despite a winning record at the top of their division.  The Spurs seem like the Warriors real competition.

Update: The Spurs brought a 13 game winning streak and a 38-6 record to the Golden State arena in a meeting of the two most dominant NBA teams in at least a generation.  The Warriors destroyed them by 30 points, 120-90.  Department of defending Steph Curry--guarding him close and harrassing him provided him opportunities to make them look silly with his ball handling and magnetic attraction to the hoop.

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