An op-ed piece in TheNew York Times today chastised the NFL medical professionals for acting as if the evidence that concussions and repeated blows to the head can cause long-term brain injury were new. The piece cites research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1928 that came to that very conclusion, from a study of former boxers who had been rendered, as the saying goes, "punch drunk."
How is it, says Deborah Blum, the piece's author, that we are still discussing this problem as new and perhaps unproven, 80 years after the fact?
It's simple. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
The NFL, and football in general, has not developed its warrior culture of clashing helmets, hand-to-hand combat, and hard-hitting sacks and tackles in a vacuum. Or even against the wishes of not only its coaches and owners, but the people who come to the coliseum to watch the gladiators grapple. As the Super Bowl looms this weekend, the crowds that gather to watch will be hoping more for battle than ballet. Without the bloodshed, of course, and with some really poetic passes and fakes, speed in motion, brilliant strategy, and breathtaking feats of impossibility in the fray. But battle, nonetheless.
There is money and excitement in the combat, so seeing the medical evidence that the action is not entirely without bloodshed or casualties is a really inconvenient truth. But the culture of football is also so closely linked with its fierce contact element that changing its approach to that element is not a simple switch.
Can a sport's culture change? Given that football players already wear far more padding than they used to, the easy answer is "yes." At least to some degree. And sportscasters are now making an effort not to glorify getting "jacked up" or the sounds of clashing helmets. Nobody gets a sense that they like it; it's just that sportscasters and networks recognize the fact that, somehow, a tide has turned.
But the truth remains that changing any culture is a slow and difficult process--especially in sports where participants get a certain amount of pride in the fact that it's not entirely safe.
Take, for example, the sports of flying and SCUBA diving. Both activities started out as necessarily "macho" endeavors, because the technology for each was pretty rudimentary, and the environments in which they operated were naturally hostile. An article in California Medicine in 1970 (23 years after Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented the first regulator and open-circuit breathing system) estimated that SCUBA diving was approximately 96 times more dangerous than driving a car.
I don't have the exact statistics on early flying fatalities, but they were staggeringly high. A fighter pilot's average life expectancy in World War I was something in the order of three weeks. And in Ernest Gann's classic book Fate is the Hunter, he devotes five full pages to a double-column list of early airline pilots who died on the job, just flying the line. And that was after engines and materials had progressed considerably from the days of the barnstormer.
But those early risks meant that those who took on those risks took a lot of pride in survival. The swaggering barnstormers knew they were defying death, as did the diving pioneers of Jacques Cousteau's early era. And so a kind of "macho" culture evolved; one where risk-taking was at least tacitly admired.
Today, the culture associated with SCUBA diving is markedly different. Those who dismiss safety or regulations are not held up as heroes, but as idiots, and there's a much greater focus on safety practices like having a dive buddy, decompression stops, and strict adherence to dive times and depths. Recreational SCUBA diving still has some risk (each year, somewhere around 100 people still die out millions of divers, worldwide), but its safety record, and its culture, have shifted dramatically toward the safety end of the scale.
How did the SCUBA industry improve its safety record so dramatically? Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a greater emphasis on training and technique was certainly was a piece of it. But improved equipment also meant that the sport could start attracting less physically fit and risk-tolerant people into its midst. And the greater number of clients that allowed meant more money for SCUBA industry operators. So there was an incentive to skew toward safety. There may have been other factors at play, as well. But at some point, a critical mass developed to turn the tide, and the sport developed a culture and reputation as something relatively "safe," with safety as a high priority for its promoters and participants.
Aviation, on the other hand, has remained a tougher nut to crack. It still requires a lot of training and investment of money to become a pilot, and airplanes are far more expensive to buy, and far more complex to maintain, than SCUBA equipment. So despite all the manufacturers' efforts to market the idea of "an airplane in every garage," the pilot population, unlike the SCUBA population, has not grown significantly in the past three decades. As a result, the old guard who pride themselves on their bravery remain a larger percentage of the pilot population. And there is less internal pressure for the culture to change.
Given that football is not about to start attracting less physically fit individuals, and that the NFL is not about to become a recreational family sport, what is perhaps surprising is not that it's taken this long for the tide to start turning with regard to the injuries its players sustain, but that it's even beginning to turn now.
What caused the shift? The fact that football, unlike flying or diving, is a spectator sport. So even if we're not playing on the teams, we--the ticket-buying, bet-placing, television-watching public--influence its culture. And over the past year, enough evidence and stories emerged, with enough publicity, in enough places, that even if we wanted to believe otherwise, it became difficult to avoid the truth. Images of former hero athletes no longer able to conduct their daily lives, or even fill out a form without help, began to tweak our collective conscience. It's hard not to have the realization lodge, somewhere inside, that this heartbreaking damage occurred, at least in part, because of our own selfish desire for entertainment.
If we didn't have those twinges of guilt, the impassioned arguments of people like Gay Culverhouse, the former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who's become a leading advocate for disabled players, would not have had such an impact. Indeed, the NFL's initial resistance to the growing swell of publicity and medical reports this past fall arguing a link between on-the-job head injuries and neurological problems later in life felt very much like an unfortunate delayed reaction on the part of its managers. The public got over its reluctance to see the evidence before the industry did.
Football is still a contact sport, and its appeal will remain rooted in its conflict. So it's unlikely to become domesticated anytime soon. But quarterbacks now routinely wear rib protection. Helmets are larger. Change has already begun creeping in around the edges, if only to protect each team's assets. And we, the spectators, have adjusted. Just as collegiate ice hockey players today can't imagine a world in which face guards didn't exist, we will soon get used to players going off the field and not coming back in the game--and a culture that doesn't glorify the crash of helmets quite so gleefully.
The old guard might complain that the sport is losing its edge. But what we gain is an ability to enjoy the game with a little less guilt. We may still cringe at some of the more spectacular take-downs on the field. But at least our consciences won't have to cringe, as well.
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Humbled by his struggling presidential campaign, can the once-mighty New Jersey governor vault back into contention after Saturday’s debate?
SALEM, New Hampshire—Chris Christie was accustomed to being a big man: a man of stature, a man of power, a man who demands and gets his way.
But recently, the big man (this is a description of his personality, not his size) was seeming awfully small.
On Friday evening here, the governor of New Jersey was desperately trying to talk some sense into the people of New Hampshire, a couple hundred of whom had come out to see him on a snowy night. The night before, Christie’s rival Marco Rubio had played the same venue, filling a larger room of the elementary school beyond its capacity. Christie was begging the crowd not to pile on the bandwagon of the apparent winner, but instead, to show some courage.
Will the Democratic Party nominate a candidate who hasn’t been a member of their party, and who has long denounced it?
When a party chooses its presidential candidate, it also chooses its party leader in the election. This year the Democrats face an unusual situation. Bernie Sanders isn’t just an outsider to the party establishment; he’s not even been a member of the party, and has long excoriated it in unsparing language. Although the media haven’t much focused on this history, the early signs suggest it could become a problem for Sanders in getting the nomination—and a problem for the party if he does get it.
According to the entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, there was a 30-percentage-point split between self-identified Democrats and independents in their support for Sanders. Hillary Clinton won 56 percent of self-identified Democrats but only 26 percent of independents, while Sanders won only 39 percent of Democrats but 69 percent of independents.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
In Homs, Syria, where entire city blocks have been reduced to rubble by years of civil war, a Syrian wedding photographer thought of using the destruction of the city as a backdrop for pictures of newlywed couples “to show that life is stronger than death.”
In Homs, Syria, where entire city blocks have been reduced to rubble by years of civil war, a Syrian wedding photographer thought of using the destruction of the city as a backdrop for pictures of newlywed couples “to show that life is stronger than death,” according to AFP photographer Joseph Eid. Here, Nada Merhi, 18, and her husband, Syrian army soldier Hassan Youssef, 27, pose for a series of wedding pictures amid heavily damaged buildings in Homs on February 5, 2016.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.