Shakespeare, America and the Superbowl

“Mad I call it; for, to define true madness, What is ‘t but to be nothing else but mad? Head hits, dementia and CTE“Mad I call it; for, to define true madness,
What is ‘t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.”

(Hamlet, act 2, sc. 2)

This article may irritate or alienate some American Internauts who regularly visit this site. If so, I am sorry but the information is based on publicly available data. In theory, controversial issues should be resolved by examining their related evidence. It is when evidence is denied or distorted for reasons unconnected with the issue, that controversies become unresolvable. They almost take the color of an ideology. In the instance the ideology is American football.

Personally I never watched a football game. Gods willing, I never will and for a simple reason. To say that a football fan is a “sportsman” is lexically and logically absurd. He who watches a sport is anything but a sportsman. If he were one, he would be spending that time practicing a sport. Even a badminton player makes more sport than a fan, be it of football or other.

Still, I nourish a distinct dislike of American football for its ideological implications. What reported here is right out of a recent TV broadcast of “Frontline” (find link to the full program at the end of this article). The video covers the effects of concussions leading to dementia and to the early death of football players. The controversy stems from the denial by the NFL (National Football League) that the dementia and death of ex-players had anything to do with football.

From the neo-liberal point of view of economics the matter is understandable. The “sport” generates 9 billions of annual revenue for the NFL and anything that potentially hurts profit should be avoided or denied, as the case may be.

But the remarkably unattractive aspect of the sport, is its inherent promotion of an idea of masculinity that migrates to other areas of life and society unconnected with football. Through endlessly repeated media messages, the “fans” are made to feel that American football represents life as it should be lived. For example, the sentence “search and destroy” describes an American football tactic. It also happens to be a self-descriptive Pentagon military operation aimed at destroying people in their own countries.

Philosopher Alan Watts hinted at this when he wrote that such a frame of mind “is destructive and deadly in those young and unrealized homosexuals who affect machismo (masculinity) and who constitute the hard core of our military-industrial-police-mafia combine. If they were to go and fuck themselves (and I use the term in its most positive and appreciative sense), the world would be vastly improved. They make it with women only to brag about it, but are actually far happier in barracks than in boudoirs. This is perhaps, the real meaning of the slogan, “Make love, not war”. We may be destroying ourselves through the repression of homosexuality.”

And here is the text of an NFL promotional spot, transcribed from the video, and spoken with a deep and raspy voice.

This (Pittsburgh) is a tough town, the people here are tough minded. The way the players play here matches p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y with the people. They love their hard hitting, brutal, punishing defense that they play. It matches p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y with the way people see their own life and with what they need to do to survive.

In another promotional spot, another low and raspy voice says, “In this down and dirty dance-floor, huge men perform a punishing pirouette (shrieks of pain in the background as two players bang their heads together). The meek will never inherit this turf because every play is hand-to-hand and body-to-body combat. In the pit there is more violence per square foot than anywhere else in sport.”

It is the same tone of voice that, on Spanish speaking TV channels, accompanies the Pentagon’s advertisements to recruit Latinos in the army.

And not long ago it was the voice of the tough “Marlborough man”, who acquired manliness by smoking the Marlborough cigarettes, before (finally) it was admitted that cigarettes, rather than conferring, actually reduce manliness. The latter idea conveyed (in poor taste), via large billboards on public buildings featuring a “Marlborough man” with a pendulous and flaccid cigarette hanging from his lips.

With American football, the NFL promotional machine markets violence and the pseudo-Darwinian idea that only the toughest and more violent will win or actually survive. Given that TV is the current school of the mind, even more so for the under-privileged, American football is the modern response to the circus gladiators of Rome.

Gladiators fights were a ruse by the emperors to keep the proletarians’ minds free from thought, by pandering to their fantasies. History labeled the Roman spectacles “panem and circenses” (bread and circus). American football, beamed in prime time into the house of millions, features circus-type entertainment, show, glory and violence. People are taught to enjoy the violence and the biggest cheers go for the nasty hit, the moment of impact when the players utter a grunt of pain – while commentators gleefully shout that player X was “knocked silly” or player Y was “knocked to the moon”.

The most favorite weapon in the sport is the head. One NFL video-logo depicts two helmets discharging electric shocks between each other, like a Ruhmkorff machine. At each head hit, the brain is thrust against the skull and the shock is equivalent to hitting a brick-wall while travelling in a car at 35 miles per hour. In a year a player takes from 1000 to 1500 head hits.

Common sense, let alone medical expertise, would suggest that such continuous pounding of the head is not beneficial to the brain. But for 20 years the NFL did everything possible to dispel the notion that the sport is anything but unhealthy. They did so via the related pronouncements of doctors in their payroll – which should tell us something about the Hippocratic oath and the “integrity” of medicine.

This week, while 30% of TV news time is dedicated to creating a frenzy about the so-called super-bowl, the NFL still denies any link between head-hits and dementia. To date 46 brains of ex-players who died young (or committed suicide) have been analyzed. 45 out of 46 showed the agreed-upon evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Recently, in an out-of-court settlement,  the NFL has agreed to pay about 800 million dollars to 4500 ex-players. But in the settlement document the NFL denies any connection between the game and the onset of CTE! Meaning that the recipients of the settlement had to sign on to a document that contained an obvious and patent lie.

The history of how the settlement came about is worthy of notice – worthy in itself but also for its ominous parallels with certain aspects of American politics. The NFL’s denial of responsibility is willful, malicious and frankly criminal.  But it is the counterpart of the brazen affirmation by the American government that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction”. A willful, malicious and criminal lie to justify the invasion, the occupation and the destruction of a country, accompanied by the death of over one  million people and countless abominable atrocities.

That is not the only parallel, as we will see next.

Football player Mike Webster died at 50, 11 years after retirement. His home life had become a nightmare – when he died he lived alone in a trailer. His body was delivered to a Pittsburgh pathologist, Dr. Omalu, for an autopsy. Dr. Omalu, who did not follow football, ignored who Webster was.

The examination revealed that Webster had multiple cracks in his legs and feet which he attempted to mend, literally with duck tape while he used superglue to keep his teeth from falling. There were broken vertebrae, a torn shoulder, torn rotator cuff, cellulitis and an enlarged heart. But the most crucial finding was in his brain, which exhibited the symptoms of a malady that the medical profession has defined as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). From what we can learn by reading, in CTE there seems to be a protein called “tau” which attaches or grows at various points in the brain, disrupting the signals exchanged among brain cells, and causing increasing symptoms of memory loss and dementia.

Dr. Omalu sent his findings to the NFL. There was no reply though soon later an article penned by a team of NFL doctors was sent to the magazine “Neurophysiology”. The article maintained that American football was “safe”. As it was revealed later, an internal NFL paper, produced in the early 1990s, described the very connection between head hits and early dementia, now denied in the article.

Dr. Omalu found identical evidence in the brain of another prematurely dead football player. A related  article, written by him and co-authored by recognized authorities in neuropathy, was later published in the same magazine. NFL’s reaction was to vilify Omalu, suggesting that he was “unstable” and that “there was no science” in his research.

Still, the wall of secrecy around the affair began to crack. And the NFL, through the voice of the chief doctor, Ira Kassen, kept denying any connection between football and CTE. The arrogant sequence of “nos” uttered by Kassen to journalists’ questions about the connection, earned him the nickname of Dr. No.

Meanwhile, the humiliated pathologist Dr. Omalu moved to a hospital in Lodi, California. A few years later he was informed that a young football player, Julian Seau, had recently committed suicide in Los Angeles. Still interested in the matter, he obtained the verbal consent of the player’s brother to examine Seau’s brain. But at the hospital he was blocked from examining the brain. Why? The NFL had called the player’s brother and told him that Dr. Omalu was unqualified and “unethical”.

All in all Dr. Omalu was fortunate. Chelsea Manning who exposed the Pentagon’s and contractors’ crimes in Iraq, is in prison condemned to a 35-year sentence. Snowden, who exposed the doings of the US “thought police” is labeled a “traitor”. It is impossible to avoid drawing the ideological parallels with the NFL’s case, in mode of thought and ideology. Meaning that the fault is not with the criminal but with him who exposed the crime.

To conclude, 20 years after its own internal findings to the contrary, football is a “safe” sport, according to the NFL. It is the researchers who have shown the connection between concussions and  CTE, who have something wrong with their own head.

…meanwhile, on Sunday, while everyone is watching the super-bowl, I’ll wear my boots and walk up a mountain trail till the snow line. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll see a deer, or an elk, a fox, or  maybe (as it happened once), a bear. They will be the “fans” of me, or I the fan of them.

Link to the complete video: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/league-of-denial/

In the Play: After a pompous and long preamble, Polonius equally pompously delivers the news about Hamlet’s madness.

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  • Wonderfully-analysed, Jimmie, but also very disturbing. How inhuman have we become whilst pursuing Mammon. Just like Coke, Pepsi and McDonald’s, the craze for football is also going to spread havoc across the world. The analogy between NFL’s denial of the risks of playing football and that of the American government’s affirmation of WMDs in Iraq, is telling indeed.