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.
The staggering scope of the country’s infrastructure initiative—and what it means for the international order
The Pakistani town of Gwadar was until recently filled with the dust-colored cinderblock houses of about 50,000 fishermen. Ringed by cliffs, desert, and the Arabian Sea, it was at the forgotten edge of the earth. Now it’s one centerpiece of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and the town has transformed as a result. Gwadar is experiencing a storm of construction: a brand-new container port, new hotels, and 1,800 miles of superhighway and high-speed railway to connect it to China’s landlocked western provinces. China and Pakistan aspire to turn Gwadar into a new Dubai, making it a city that will ultimately house 2 million people.
China is quickly growing into the world’s most extensive commercial empire. By way of comparison, after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided the equivalent of $800 billion in reconstruction funds to Europe (if calculated as a percentage of today’s GDP). In the decades after the war the United States was also the world’s largest trading nation, and its largest bilateral lender to others.
Ivana Trump’s new book is a parenting memoir—and an ode to being better than everyone else.
There’s a story Ivana Trump tells in Raising Trump, her new memoir of parenting, work, and marriage. It was New Year’s Eve, 1977; she and Donald Trump were together in the hospital room after their first child had been born, discussing the matter of what name to give their new infant. Ivana suggested that the son should be named after the father: Donald Trump Jr. Donald, however, balked at this.
“What if he’s a loser?” he said.
Ivana got her way, in this instance as in many she describes in Raising Trump, which begins and ends with the premise that none of the three children Ivana and Donald Trump created together have been consigned to a life of loserdom. The book may be a parenting memoir; it may feature practical tips about punishments and allowances and the compulsory writing of thank-you notes; it may even feature a curated selection of awkward family photos and treasured family recipes; but it is about parenting, as most people practice it, in only the most superficial sense. By virtue of its core characters—a man who becomes the American president, a daughter who becomes his advisor, a son-in-law who becomes responsible for criminal justice reform and opioid crisis managementand bringing peace to the Middle East—Raising Trump is less a straightforward memoir than it is a teasing exploration of the workings of the presidential family. Here are the oft-discussed “Trump family values,” as explained by the woman who helped to create them.
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.
The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.
The director is blaming the critical aggregator for dooming more complex films, but the deeper problem is studio neglect.
Last weekend, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a drama about the creator of the famed comic-book character, became the latest mid-budget casualty. It was marketed on the back of its connection with Wonder Woman, one of the biggest hits of the year. It received a moderately wide release and got strong reviews, but its three-day box-office total was just $736,883—a flimsy average of $600 per theater, which essentially doomed any future chance of success. Critics and industry insiders alike have lamented for years the decline of modestly budgeted movies aimed at grownups, the sort of film that was once the backbone of Hollywood.
Professor Marston would likely have at least one sympathizer in Martin Scorsese, who recently wrote an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter on how many good, artistic movies are struggling to find receptive audiences in this new era for the industry. “Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it’s more than just an undercurrent,” said the Academy Award-winning director, who also works tirelessly in the field of film preservation. Indeed, in most cases, a movie is judged a flop or a hit within the first few days of its release. Box-office prognosticators can predict a film’s final grosses almost immediately, and there’s very little chance for word-of-mouth to help build up hype, except in the cases of certain smaller independent works.
We spend two full years of our lives washing ourselves. How much of that time (and money and water) is a waste?
12,167 hours of washing our bodies.
That’s how much life you use, if you spend 20 minutes per day washing and moisturizing your skin and hair (and you live to be 100, as we all surely will).
That adds up to nearly two entire years of washing every waking hour.
Not to mention water usage and the cost of cosmetic products—which we need, because commercials tell us to remove the oil from our skin with soap, and then to moisturize with lotion. Other commercials tell us to remove the oils from our hair, and then moisturize with conditioner.
That’s four products—plus a lot of water and time— and few people question whether it’s anything short of necessary.
It’s not just the fault of advertising, but also because most of us know from personal experience that if we go a few days without showering, even one day, we become oily, smelly beasts.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
About 10 years ago, after I’d graduated college but when I was still waitressing full-time, I attended an empowerment seminar. It was the kind of nebulous weekend-long event sold as helping people discover their dreams and unburden themselves from past trauma through honesty exercises and the encouragement to “be present.” But there was one moment I’ve never forgotten. The group leader, a man in his 40s, asked anyone in the room of 200 or so people who’d been sexually or physically abused to raise their hands. Six or seven hands tentatively went up. The leader instructed us to close our eyes, and asked the question again. Then he told us to open our eyes. Almost every hand in the room was raised.