The Sporting “Life”

Malcolm Gladwell has written an article in The New Yorker about brain injuries in (American) football players. Its subtitle reads, “How different are dogfighting and football?” The piece left me with some thoughts on the modern entertainment that we call sport and the industry that supports it.

Playing a sport that involves repeated blows to the head will inevitably have deleterious effects on one’s health. The connection between Parkinson’s and boxing has been known for decades; I don’t see why football players who undergo multiple cranial collisions should be exempt from neurological damage. The organizations in charge of regulating the sport should be more proactive in educating the players about the long-term health risks associated with a career in the sport. As college football in the United States is almost as big of a deal as professional football, these players can be as young as 17 or 18 years of age. The collective institution that is American collegiate sports does not need to add the irony of its football players spending most of their four years at an institution of higher education destroying their brains to its list of myriad issues.

While I don’t think the comparison between dogfighting and football is fair to the athletes who can choose to walk away from the sport, the public’s thirst for gladiatorial combat underpins both. The problem, however, is broader. Beyond the demand for physical contact, the general attitude of “citius, altius, fortius” escalates all aspects of sport. This can have disastrous consequences: consider FINA’s inability to regulate the technological doping that has cast a shadow over all of competitive swimming for some years now. Most media coverage of the international competition this year in Rome focused on which team and individual was wearing which company’s swimsuit. The R&D that is spent on these suits is staggering, and it has left FINA in its wake. Who now regulates swimming – FINA or the swimsuit manufacturers?

There are more examples. Beyond politics, hosting the Olympics has become ludicrously expensive, with little empirical benefit. The Winter Olympics are already an affair attended almost exclusively by the wealthy countries. Zhang Yimou’s mind-blowing opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics reportedly cost $100 million USD. Never mind the more economically optimal uses for this chunk of change, think of the number of athletes from impoverished countries that could have benefited from some fraction of this amount. Perhaps the IOC should mandate that the host country set aside some amount of funds for athlete aid to ensure that the Olympics remain truly global.

As a last example, consider tennis. Innovations in racquet technology have pushed tennis from a game of inches to a game of margins too difficult for the human eye to resolve (Hawk-Eye, anyone?) The Grand Slam results for this year set off another round of Greatest-Of-All-Time debates. Most seasoned players and commentators agree that this debate is impossible to settle: tennis, as it is played now, is unrecognizable from tennis played in the era of the first Opens. It is faster, flashier, louder, more “spinny”, and even looks completely different than the pre-Lendl era. Although the average tennis player’s fitness is greater in the modern era, this hyperbolic increase in pace has invariably taken a toll on the athletes’ bodies. Coupled with the frequent international travel required in tennis, it is no surprise that injuries hamper most players in the last quarter of the year following the US Open. Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick have recently reiterated complaints about the grueling eleven-month schedule, citing the absence of Roger Federer (No. 1) and Andy Murray (previously No. 3) from the Shanghai Masters tournament (the nine Masters tournaments being the second most prestigious tennis tournaments after the Grand Slams).

As Gladwell points out, nothing may be able to “compete with the destructive power” of our obsession with athletes. Perhaps the vast increases in player compensation (coupled with ballooning endorsement contracts) are our only way of making up for the increased physical stress that we, the voyeuristic public, require the players to endure. Society needs the conflict and drama that sports, with its contests of mind and body, supplies. To paraphrase a friend of mine, sports are the only real reality television left.

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