Culture change and sports
Westerners like to point at other cultures as stubbornly clinging to exotic beliefs and practices, some of which might even be harmful, and to use these to argue that these other societies are primitive, even barbaric.
Yet history tells us Western societies had, and still have, their share of “irrationality.” Even when there’s overwhelming evidence that a cultural practice is harmful, people will in fact rationalize to keep the practice.
I will focus on one particular aspect of American culture to show how complicated culture can be, especially when it comes to cultural change.
If there’s anything unique to US culture, and mysteriously so, it is football, sometimes called American football to differentiate it from soccer. I’ll dare say that for most non-Americans, and perhaps even some Americans, it’s a strange sport where a bunch of men just keep running around the field and butting each other’s heads like bulls. Yet in the United States, major league football is watched by thousands — millions if we count those who watch via television — in what has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
Football is the heart of American culture, bringing families together… or tearing them apart because of different allegiances. Its players have superstar status, with fans following their personal lives in gossip magazines, much like they do Hollywood actors. Lately, football has even become political, with African-American superstar players protesting racial discrimination by refusing to stand, and instead kneeling, when the US national anthem is played at the beginning of a game.
Even in the Philippines, where we ape anything American, basketball being the prime example if we look at sports, football never became popular. Yes, there’s interest in the Super Bowl, but only for the halftime show, which we see as a musical extravaganza. This year’s halftime show featured Justin Timberlake, and had 103.4 million viewers.
Coverage of the Super Bowl was front-page material for the mass media but this year, together with the coverage and analysis of the Super Bowl program (which has also become political), there have been articles analyzing what is being called The American Dilemma: Should Americans still patronize and encourage a sport that is now known to result in brain injuries with long-term life-threatening effects on the players?
The articles that appeared this year have included those coming from the wives of players now retired and suffering from brain injury, from football players themselves wondering if they want their children to follow their footsteps, and even a noted Catholic theologian, Fr. James Martin, talking about the troubling ethical questions that have emerged, even as he
admits that he continues to enjoy football.
The roughness of the sport, with repeated blows to the head, has always been known, which is why there is so much protective gear involved. But medical research into the problems of football players was slow to come, until in 2005 when a Nigerian-American forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu, began to report in great detail the problem in National Football League (NFL) players. A term, CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, began to appear more often in journals. His work was criticized and for years, the NFL’s medical experts denied any link between the sport and brain diseases.
Today, CTE has become almost a household word, to the point where American newspapers sometimes don’t even bother to spell out the entire name. It is described as a four-stage disease that begins to show signs and symptoms from eight to 10 years after the trauma. Early signs are confusion, disorientation and headaches, moving on to memory loss, depression and dementia.
In 2015, the film “Concussion” revolving around Bennet Omalu was made. The film contributed to even more awareness of the problem.
The ethical questions that are now being asked are well put, succinctly, by Fr. Martin in a New York Times interview: “Are we using their bodies for profit? Are we using their bodies for our enjoyment?”
Denial of the problem continues, including from older pro football players, but even for those who recognize the problem, football seems to be just too American to abandon. Even Alan Schwarz, one of the first to write about the CTE problem, says he has no problems watching NFL and argues that the sport
involves “grown men making grown men’s decisions.”
Changes have been introduced with some schools now shutting down their football programs for young children. Others are shifting to flag football, where there is no body contact and athletes try to get a flag of the opponent. There’s even a differentiation now in terms: tackle football, with the body contact and head-butting, versus flag football.
Medical research continues, one of the most disturbing coming out just last year, when the American Medical Association published results of a study by a neuropathologist, Ann McKee, who examined the brains of 202 deceased football players, 111 of whom had played in the NFL. In that sample, 110 were found to have CTE.
The medical research is supposed to guide industry in its search for more safety measures and protective equipment. Ironically, one study in Stanford University found that the protective face mask might even be contributing to the problems because it causes more twisting of the head when the player suffers from blows of a competing athlete.
The problem is that CTE comes not just from severe blows, but from the accumulation of many so-called minor ones. In the Stanford study, they found one football player who suffered 62 blows in one game, with an average impact force equivalent to the injury you would get crashing a car into a wall, at a speed of 48 kilometers per hour.
All these figures should make us think hard too about a sport with similar potentials for brain injury, but which remains popular in many countries, particularly the Philippines. I was in La Union last month and got caught in the traffic because of a fiesta in San Fernando, where they had the usual religious rituals, all eclipsed by the male and female beauty pageants … and boxing in the city plaza.
CTE was in fact being described as early as the 1920s, then
referred to as “punch-drunk” and found mainly in boxers.
The ethical questions raised about American football need to be asked as well for boxing, together with the class factor: The rich enjoy the sport and stop there while the poor are also fans, but go on to dream of their sons following Manny Pacquiao’s footsteps.
Our definitions of what constitutes a sport are cultural: How do you explain to your son that he can be expelled from school or jailed for boxing, while it can bring celebrity status, and a seat in the Senate, for Pacquiao? It is also society that shapes the way we feel about those sports, a kind of mob effect takes over as we cheer, and jeer, in athletic events.
We think of sporting events as fast-paced and indeed they are, but change comes slowly when you think of sports as culture.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.