The Cumulative Effect of Sub-Violent Events

Concussions and football are in the news again. Actually, they’ve been in the news pretty much continually lately, with revelations and horror stories about football and brain injuries popping up at every turn.

This week, it’s the big documentary appearing on PBS that seems to be dropping the hammer on the NFL, and what the organization may or may not have known about the real risks of professional football when it comes to repeated knocks to the head.

football1I have a boy playing football these days, and I’d be loath to yank him out, even after hearing some of the brain injury stories here and there. He’s in 8th-grade, and sure there’s a risk, but at that level, the chances of some kind of life-altering brain slam are slim. Cris loves the game and the camaraderie, and this year he’s playing both sides of the ball, offense and defense, every weekend. That means he’s getting banged up a bunch, but it’s all part of the action and the thrill, right? As long as he doesn’t snap his spine or black out completely, it’s just routine collateral damage, right?

That’s what I thought, but then I heard a segment on on Sound Medicine about that new documentary League of DenialProducer Michael Kirk made reference to the long-term consequences of “repeated sub-concussive effects,” especially for kids who start playing football at very young ages. This was a major point brought up in a PBS Newshour report which included an interview with ESPN writer and League of Denial investigator, Mark Fainaru-Wada:

The issue with football is not necessarily these big hits that we see all the time shown on highlight, but rather the repetitive nature of playing the game, the sub-concussive blows that happen everyday at the line of scrimmage.

And whether you can mitigate those out of the game or not remains to be seen, and whether you would want to, frankly, remains to be seen. It’s a brutal, violent sport, but very popular, obviously. I love it. My brother, who co-authored the book with me, we both love the sport. And, obviously, millions of people love it.

Indeed, we love it, and not despite it’s violence—it’s “danger” and “gladiatorial” character in the words of Michael Kirk—but because of it. In fact, would there be much left to football if we eliminated those factors? Hard to know. Should I reconsider letting my son play now, or give some serious thought to whether he should play in high school? I don’t know.

But I digress. What really caught my attention and imagination in these reports was the idea of sub-concussive events and their cumulative impact. Could it be that something similar has gone on in our culture with regards to our acceptance of killing as a way of life?

This came to mind as I read through a WSJ story about Ross Ulbricht, the creator and driving force behind the Silk Road website, now shut down by the feds. Silk Road dealt in the shady side of the internet, brokering transactions off the legal radar, especially illicit drugs. It sounds like Ross was a pretty smart guy, but he got tangled up with some nasty business, and it led him down a dark, dangerous path.

[Ulbricht] allegedly agreed to pay $80,000 to a Silk Road customer—an undercover federal agent—to have the associate tortured and killed, according to a federal indictment.

When the undercover agent sent Mr. Ulbricht doctored photos of the victim post-torture and beat up, but not dead, Mr. Ulbricht allegedly responded that he was “a little disturbed, but I’m OK,” and “I’m new to this kind of thing is all,” according to the indictment.

Right. New to this kind of thing—this kind of “thing” being torture and murder. How did Ulbrict get to the place where he’d even consider dabbling in that kind of thing? And, come to think of it, how about those kids in Texas who made their headline splash back in August when they shot and killed the Australian exchange student out of sheer boredom?

Now, you can’t tell me that Ulbricht and those Texas teens were genetically programmed for that kind of senseless violence, and it doesn’t sound like they had particularly jarring childhoods or any significant violent events in their personal histories. Instead, I’d be willing to bet that their embrace of wanton amorality and cruelty came after a gradual acclimation that involved repeated exposures to miniaturized, second-hand violence in the form of entertainment and news—almost like repeated sub-concussive hits to the soul that result in a broken moral compass.water_drip

It’s not any single massive assault, but rather a lifetime of little assaults via television and film, internet and gaming, not to mention the broader society’s easy acceptance of abortion on demand, terminal dehydration of the frail and failing, and drone-mediated targeted killings with associated “collateral damage.” If you grow up with an understanding that such things are commonplace and normal, then is it such a leap that you’d have your business foes tortured and snuffed out? That you’d take potshots off your porch at joggers just for grins?

Debt ceiling? Healthcare reform? I’d say we’ve got even more pressing matters to address. Way more pressing.

And could it be that we have to start on the gridiron itself? Perhaps. Football is, after all, a “brutal, violent sport,” as Fainaru-Wada put it—even “gladiatorial” according to Michael Kirk.

Maybe sub-concussive effects aren’t the only cumulative dangers we’re subjecting our young players to.

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