In light of the ongoing concussion crisis, domestic violence scandals, and more problems plaguing the NFL, Matt Vasilogambros leads a discussion with readers on why they’ve stopped watching football or stuck with the sport.
“We really don’t have reason to trust the NFL, and I don’t think they mind either way,” Sherman says in the video. “At the end of the day, they’re going to do what they have to do to make their money and to make as much money as they can for the owners.”
A long-time reader, Tim, has been following our debate over the NFL and shifts our attention to another contact sport:
Count me among the many who have drifted away from the NFL, for all the reasons your readers have named: cheap patriotism, endless games, nitpicky rules unevenly enforced, CTE CTE CTE. This as a Pats fan who for most of the 2000s was riding a high.
I also join reader Ed in switching my interest to rugby, in the limited way I can with a basic cable contract. The constant action and amazing athleticism is one reason. An equal one is the “culture of respect” that’s one of the game’s foundations and most carefully guarded traditions. Players rarely deliberately hurt one another; when they do, they are banned for months on end. Their infrequent scuffles are in the wrestling/bristling mode, not punching with venom.
And, crucially, the referee is The Law—and more in the Solomonic than the Draconian mode. Disputes and fouls are resolved swiftly, fairly, and decisively. This supercut of the legendary Welsh ref Nigel Owens explains the appeal of this approach, versus the NFL’s endless rulebook, far better than I can.
With a word (“Christopher!”) he ends a debate full-stop (and gets a schoolboy's meek “Sorry, sir” from a mountain of a man). After breaking up a big scuffle, he has the captains call all the players to him, puts out the flames, and resets the order of play, all while keeping the game’s competitive spirit firmly in the players’ hands:
I don’t want to make a big issue of this, OK? But things like that are not acceptable in the game. What happened here or what happened afterwards, I did not see it. It ends there. Is that clear? You’re adults. You’ll be treated like it as long as you behave like it. We’re going to go back to the original penalty down there.
It’s of note that Owens is openly gay—and that both he and the world’s best players are comfortable with that to the point that Owens even famously had a bit of fun with it. (The throw here is supposed to come in perpendicular to the sideline. When it doesn’t...)
Knowing how hard it was for Owens to accept himself as a gay man makes his acceptance by and respect from the game’s best all the sweeter to behold.
So which sport is more dangerous? Rugby players wear far fewer pads, but it’s those pads that enable and embolden someone to hit another player with greater speed and force—and it’s the sudden stopping, not the impact itself, that causes the brain to crash into the inside of the skull, causing a concussion. Rugby players don’t wear helmets, but rather scrum caps, which do little more than prevent cauliflower ear—though again, it’s the helmet that allows for harder hits and a harder projectile, so helmets can be more dangerous for players than caps.
Rugby doesn’t have a system of downs like football, so it’s not as important to contest every single yard. In rugby, it’s more important that the man simply gets tackled—it’s ok if he drags you a yard or two as long as he doesn’t score. In football, that extra yard might mean a new set of downs so you get defensive players impacting the players hard and high—trying to stop the runner's forward movement immediately.
The Redditor also points to a 2008 study showing lower rates of injury in college rugby than college football. Another key distinction between the two sports comes from a rugby coach on his blog:
Another major contributing factor is that in football, offensive players are often looking backwards over their shoulder for the ball while the defensive player is in front of them. There is no way for the offensive player to see the hit coming and prepare himself for the contact. In rugby, the ball must always be passed backwards, and the defense is in front of the ball and much closer. The offensive player is able to see the ball coming and simultaneously the tackler, allowing the player to prepare for contact.
So, are there any aspects of rugby that are more dangerous than football? Football may have a bigger concussion crisis, and a higher injury rate overall, but rugby has a distinct and serious problem: spinal injuries. As The Guardiannotes, “In rugby it is spinal injuries from scrums that are the most dangerous (110 rugby players in Britain have been paralysed by playing the game).” What’s a scrum exactly? This video vividly explains it and its perils:
Have you played football and rugby and can personally attest to the different risks? Drop us an email. Carly played at least one of those sports:
I find the condemnation of some other readers of the violence and “barbarism” of the NFL interesting. I played rugby throughout college and for awhile after graduation in a local adults’ league. There is something inherently, viscerally satisfying in putting my body on the line, in executing a solid tackle and bringing an opponent to the ground, or in stiff-arming a defender. It’s violent, but it’s a violence with rules and a code of conduct. It can be deeply invigorating and empowering. I don’t think the damage the players inflict on each other is barbaric. (The exploitation of the players by the owners, on the other hand … )
I ended up retiring from rugby after my 3rd concussion (I am a chronic klutz and was terrible at maintaining the proper form to reduce my risk for injury). Playing the sport was my choice to make, but I wasn’t helping make millions of dollars for my coaches or any administrative staff. Providing support for the physical trade-offs players make would seem to be basic consideration given the sums they bring in. Given the money that floods the NFL, every player ought to be given the best possible health insurance for life—insurance that should cover therapy and psychiatrists and anger management and couples' counseling.
That, and they could take some tips from rugby to speed the game along a bit. It’s crazy how a football game drags out!
Update from another reader, an expat from across the Pond:
I haven’t played both football and rugby, but I have watched them lots. To use a rather salty British expression (I’m an American living in Britain for the past 14 years, and in Ireland for the three years before that), it’s bollocks to say that rugby players who set out to injure opponents are routinely banned for long stretches of time. Just search YouTube for “Brian O’Driscoll spear tackle.” [A video of the O’Driscoll scandal is seen below, and here’s a video of “Top 5 Spear Tackles”—essentially picking a player up and dropping him on his head.]
The guys who did that [to O’Driscoll]—which could have killed the man or left him paralyzed — weren’t banned at all.
More recently, opposing teams have routinely targeted Irish flyhalf Jonny Sexton because he’s had problems with concussion. (Yes, I support Ireland.) And little is done. The International Rugby Board is much more unforgiving about eye gouging in the scrum.
That said, I believe rugby is a far better sport than its American cousin: the referee definitely rules the roost, the lack of hard helmets more or less eliminates the possibility of a Darryl Stingley-like event, no endless list of specialists who can be introduced whenever, no television breaks AT ALL ... and the beer and banter afterwards can’t be topped.
But what the sport that most of the world calls football—soccer? How bad are those head injuries? (Readers have previously tackled rugby.) Innes, a reader of Jim’s piece, flags “a more worrying report today about the effects of football on the brain”:
There is no doubt that American football and rugby as contact sports have more head knocks, concussions, and long-term health effects. But even soccer has been linked to premature deaths due to players repeatedly heading the ball. Today the University of Stirling released a study that showed even a short practice round of heading the ball led to immediate short-term memory degradation. The U.S. has already taken the lead by banning heading in the children’s game. [CB note: The ban last year successfully stopped a class-action lawsuit involving concussions.] Hopefully the U.K. will follow. However, if this effect can be measured in a relatively soft, non-contact sport like soccer, imagine how much worse it is in American football.
There are two relatively modern (well, my era) Scottish insults: Ba’ Heid and the more recent Heid the Ba’. “Ball Head” either meant someone bald but more often someone with air between their ears, preferably both bald and stupid. “Head the ball” was a play of words on that, but it was informed by the folk knowledge that footballers who headed a football rather than play it off their feet were stupid.
One time I headed a very high ball rather than try to control it. I heard a crunch from my neck. I’ve had worse head knocks in real life—car-crashes and fighting. I also have read various science studies over the decades about how head knocks have long-term effects, especially on children—not just long-term effects like dementia, but immediate increased aggression. This latest study kind of proves that, and it is disgraceful that the sports bodies have ignored the overwhelming evidence and left it to universities to prove it.
I hate to make a sick pun on such a serious subject, but it’s a “no-brainer” that children’s brains should not be knocked against the inside of their skulls in the name of sport.
This biggest danger in going up for a header is not the ball, of course, but other heads—which, unlike American football and rugby, don’t have any protective gear:
Do you have anything to add over the risks of playing soccer? Or do you think such risks are overblown—or just plain worth it? Send us a note and we’ll continue the discussion: firstname.lastname@example.org. Update from a reader, who snarks:
I think that all American children should be bubble-wrapped until age 18. (Except bubble wrap might have harmful chemicals that would cause brain damage.)
Another reader, Elise, is more earnest:
As a 6th grade teacher I vote for Ultimate (aka Ultimate Frisbee) as my favorite sport to teach, watch, or play. It is fast, action packed, and full of opportunities for an athlete to stretch themselves. It is not a contact sport, and players rarely get hit in the head. Almost anyone can play, but it requires much practice to be really good. Ultimate is self refereed, requiring a level of maturity and fair play from its players that most sports delegate to an outside authority. This is called The Spirit of the Game, and it is what makes the game great. For your readers who are looking for a new sport to love, check out Ultimate!
Here’s one more reader, who brings us back to soccer and conveys the somber story of his son:
He is 21 now, and was 14 when he suffered his first concussion. Let me tell you about what he’s dealt with:
1. He was diagnosed with a grade 3 concussion after a GK, in an U-16 USSF Academy away game, punched him in the back of the head. He was unconscious for 3-10 minuets (not one person could tell me the real time).
2. He was home schooled the 2nd half of his freshman year and 1st half of sophomore year in H.S. because of headaches, dizziness, bad memory, mood swings, numbness in extremities, and fainting. He slept for 11-15 hours a day, and couldn’t keep solid foods down.
3. The doctors cleared him to practice (no heading) after a year and was cleared to play in a game 6 months later. He returned to school for the second half of sophomore year and started playing with the team again. First game back and in the first half he was tackled from behind while attempting a cross. The player sweeped his legs from under him and he landed head first on the turf. He was airlifted to the nearest trauma hospital. He suffered his second grade 3 concussion and didn’t return to school until his senior year.
4. He has not played competitive soccer since. He is a completely different person. He still has the same symptoms he suffered earlier every day. He is very sensitive to light, headaches all the time, can't sleep more than 4 hours, has short term memory loss, no memory of older events, mood swings, depression, blackouts and short term amnesia.
This is long, because it needed to be. Nobody from USSF followed up, USSF is helping with any rehab, no medical staff at the 1st game and I was told about his injury hours later only after I called the manager of the team. He was off and acting weird in the car when I picked him up from the airport. His teammate told me he was punched and he looked concerned, because he was talking to us like it was a tournament 2 years ago.
Head injuries in any sport is bad, but to everyone that thinks soccer is safe … it’s not!
The following reader, Stephen, sent us a note a few days ago to revive the richdiscussion we had back in the fall over the ethics of watching football:
I am a resident of Houston. As you can guess right now, the city is getting a little hectic as we countdown to the largest sporting event on U.S. soil. There was a time when I watched every football game I could, played in multiple fantasy football leagues, and was up to date on everything football. ESPN was a regular rotation. All my free time revolved around the NFL.
Not anymore. I am disgusted with the NFL.
The more time goes by, the less accessibility to true fans I am seeing. Affordability of regular season games is ludicrous. Twenty-five minutes of game time with 1.5 hours of commercials … what a waste of time.
The Super Bowl has become the Red Carpet of the NFL; it’s more for celebrities and non fans to be seen than for the true diehards. For crying out loud, the commercials of this event are celebrated. For such a lucrative game, they get volunteers to work and compel cities to fork over the money to host. Essentially, the NFL is paid to host the Super Bowl, not the other way around.
I guess what I hate is how money and soap-opera type drama dominates the game. I watch many people struggle to pay bills, yet this NFL machine won’t stop consuming. All for what? What is the return? A 20-minute game?
Many players are treated like cattle, not human beings. They are subjected to injuries, and horrific conditions. They earn high salaries, but what is their quality of life after the game?
I can’t stand football anymore.
Speaking of the quality of life of ex-players, this next reader, Jeremy, digs into our debate over traumatic and long-term head injuries:
I love football. I played through high school. I love to watch it. I just won my fantasy football league this year. But the reality of the game is becoming harder and harder for me to ignore.
Junior Seau’s suicide, Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, Luke Kuechly’s big hit [seen above], and that devastating GQ article on HS football player Zac Easter … everything just keeps chipping away at my love for the game. Which is crazy because enough should have already been enough!
But the sense of community and camaraderie among fans is what keeps me in it. And is there anything more exciting than the end of a close football game? Less than two minutes left. Your team takes the field, down a score. Then they start marching …
The fact remains, however, that football (and to a lesser extent hockey) is the only major American sport that is actively killing its players. Baseball, basketball, and soccer players [the latter covered by readers here, and rugby here] may end up with bad knees or elbows or ankles, but they don’t routinely lose their minds as a result of playing the game as it is meant to be played. And that’s the sad reality that every football fan has to face. Is this game that we love worth it?
And people will defend it: “Grown adults making informed decisions.” But how can you weigh the risks of losing your mind while you still have it?
It’s just a lot. And it should be enough to say “stop.” I think that watching and contributing to the sport is wrong. But when it feels like our entire society watches and condones it, it’s hard to give up.
I went cold turkey about four years ago and haven’t watched American football at any level since then. The mounting evidence that traumatic brain injuries are a feature and not a bug became too much. I just couldn’t justify treating as entertainment a sport that systematically inflicts traumatic brain injury. I’m not sure why the fact that players more or less voluntarily participate makes any difference. All that means is that the viewer is, in effect, indirectly paying the players to harm one another for the viewer’s entertainment.
This final reader, Jeff, is personally struggling with past injuries and emotionally struggling with whether to give up the sport completely:
Great discussion. I have decided to give up pro football, and it was that Panthers game that pushed me over the edge. I posted a message on Facebook to that effect. All the talk from the NFL about how it was now taking concussions seriously—how, this time, things were going to be different. Yet we saw what we saw. It was too much.
I do have a personal bias in all of this. For the past 2 1/2 years, I’ve suffered from the life-upending effects of Post Concussion Syndrome. I write this now, in fact, from another hotel room in another city not my own, seeking out the help of a Chicago doctor who may be able to help put my broken life back together. I’ve seen some of the most renowned doctors in the country. The struggle goes on.
So, when Cam takes the hits he took [similar to the one above], I do more than wince. I get a little more nauseous than maybe I already was. It’s just too much.
And yet. It’s still not easy. Not even close. You know how many “likes” I got on my Facebook post? Zero. Goose egg.
I live in Charlotte. Sure, other fans were upset about Cam as well. But enough to stop cheering for the Panthers? Enough to give up football? By no means. Folks have gotten a taste of winning around here, and that’s hard to give up.
I see it in my kids’ eyes. My wife’s chatter. Folks at my church on Sunday mornings wearing their No. 1 and No. 59 jerseys. They’re not walking away. Not happening.
How do I explain this to my two young boys? Especially when—get this—I have not given up the college game. Somehow I’ve convinced myself it’s OK for 19-year-olds to play this violent game. This has become sort of my weird compromise, a way to not completely let go. At least for now.
Daniel, a reader who describes himself as “a current football fan and an ex football player,” offers a nuanced defense of the sport:
I played in high school, where I sustained a separated shoulder and concussion that kept me out of athletic activity for five months. I walked onto my college football team, where I sustained a second concussion. While I have successfully healed from these injuries, I continue to deal with their aftereffects in various ways.
Even so, it breaks my heart to see the way many concerned citizens are responding to the game today. Much has been made of the way the NCAA and the NFL exploit their athletes—a claim I find valid, to a degree. In the case of the NCAA, I find it abhorrent that athletes receive nothing in return for their service to the universities they enrich.
The NFL is a slightly different animal, in that more effort is made to support ex-players economically, and players make salaries that allow them to live comfortably. (A caveat here: I recognize that lots of ex-NFL players have not been treated well after their playing days. This is something the league is moving to remedy. Today, it is possible for a player to be cut or retire and transition smoothly into sustainable employment.)
But is it exploitation if the players love to play the game? We are so quick to decry the game as brutal and violent that we never ask why the players allow themselves to experience such things. Could they have agency of their own, who freely chose to come back to take the punishment year after year because the game is a joyful experience?
This is what my experience suggests. If I could do it all over again, knowing how it would end, I would not change a thing. I am sure there are many collegiate and NFL players who would say the same thing because they love the game they play.
I want it to be clear: It is beyond dispute that the NFL and the NCAA have failed to educate their players on the dangers of repeated concussions and injuries, and both organizations need to take the dangers of injury more seriously. But in my mind, it is just as important to understand why so many young men feel they must return to the game year after year even when they do not enjoy the game and know that their bodies are breaking down.
Maybe, instead of taking down the game of football, we need to have a conversation about race and poverty—forces the opportunities of would-be football players for advancement outside of sports. I knew I had other options, and though I loved the game of football, I found other areas of work that brought me joy. But I could afford an excellent education, and had many opportunities for advancement. Maybe, in addition to the NFL and the NCAA, we are failing our athletes as a society. And maybe, if we as a society were to change, we could help our athletes avoid the suffering of permanent injury.
This next reader is less sympathetic when it comes to low-income football players because they often get athletic scholarships and a free college education:
My brother played professionally for a couple years. He was outstanding enough to earn a paycheck, but not fabulously talented enough to make a career. I’m 13 years younger than he is, so my childhood was spent driving to college football games. I tracked the NFL standings on my bulletin board. To be like the men in my family (my brother and dad), I dutifully watched the games every weekend from age 6 to 14.
For all the talk of college athletes being exploited as non-employees, there’s another side to it: My brother had a full ride in college. Yet after four years, he was a few credits short and never finished. Although I was an A student, I had to toil my way through school, working part-time to self-fund my education. So I refuse to join the “scholar-athletes’” pity party.
In short, I’m unlike most fallen-away fans because as I matured, I realized that jock culture has nothing to do with authentic manhood, so I generally developed an anti-jock / pro-scholar outlook.
Regardless, this news about CTE is infuriating. How can any responsible person allow the game to continue until science somehow finds an acceptable preventive strategy?
Funny thing is, my brother now regrets ever playing and grows ever more opposed to the game. He agrees that I should prohibit my son from playing, and he’s acutely aware of his risk for CTE and related brain injuries.
“How many concussions did you suffer?” I asked. Reply: “At least six that I know of.” What’s more terrifying: the known quantity of six, or the fact that he almost certainly suffered more and played through them?
More readers defending football and the NFL are here. One of them, Noah, wrote in part:
Football players know there is great risk, but they also know they have the opportunity to live like kings, if only for a few years, and if only in their own domain. That risk is central to both the pride of playing the game and the fascination we have in watching it.
Malcolm Gladwell is largely correct to point out that such a harsh payoff structure can only appeal to people from poorer upbringings. He and other football-haters seem to forget that players of all backgrounds make a conscious and (by this point in time, at least) well-informed choice to continue playing the game. To suggest players can’t think for themselves is to patronize them, which I find rather disgusting in light of Gladwell’s hypothesis.
The Bowlin family knew they had a history of malformations in the brain. But they had no idea how far back it went.
Of the three Bowlin sisters, Margaret, the middle one, was the first to show signs. She began having seizures as a toddler. Then the eldest, Bettina, had a brief and mysterious episode of weakness in her right hand. In 1986, as an adult, she had a two-week migraine that got so bad, she couldn’t hold food in her mouth or money in her right hand. The youngest, Susan, felt fine, but her parents still took her for an exam in 1989, when she was 19. A brain scan found abnormal clusters of blood vessels that, as it turns out, were in her sisters’ brains too. These malformations in the brain can be silent. But they can also leak or, worse, burst without warning, causing the seizures, migraines, and strokelike symptoms Bettina and Margaret experienced. If the bleeding in the brain gets bad enough, it can be deadly.
Boris Johnson’s unseriousness may have finally caught up to him.
We were in the white room in 10 Downing Street, and Boris Johnson was joking around with the photographer who was taking his portrait. “You’re like the kind-of taxidermist in The Godfather,” Johnson said, laughing. “Do you remember? The funeral—the undertaker?” He then launched into his Don Corleone impression. “‘Buona sera, buona sera, see what a massacre they’ve made of my son.’ Do you remember? ‘Use all your arts, use all your arts.’”
The scene was almost perfectly Johnsonian, capturing the British prime minister’s instinct to amuse and distract, to pull a veil of humor over anything remotely serious. Watching him can be like watching a child, in this instance a child shuffling uncomfortably having his picture taken, desperate to grin and ruffle his hair, to mock and undermine, to play up to the inherent absurdity of the situation.
Years after these titles were popular, they’re still worth picking up.
Hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States each year, and this dramatic influx of titles largely runs the calendars of the publishing and media industries—usually to the detriment of any work that isn’t brand new. Even best sellers or novels by famous authors get lost in the deluge, and books that were beloved on release can fall off readers’ radar quickly. But many were popular or critically acclaimed for good reasons, and they’re worth revisiting.
Here is a list of 15 fiction titles from the past two decades that you may have forgotten about in the years since. Some are from familiar names such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich; others are by authors you may not have heard of at all. These selections include plenty of drama, and there’s an undercurrent of gentle comedy, even in novels with dark themes or plots. Their characters define love in many different ways, and they seek fulfillment across geographies and time periods—contemporary London, Vichy France, Nigeria, North Korea. Ultimately, these stories are bound together by a compassion for their characters’ struggles and shortcomings—a quality that only our finest writers are able to cultivate.
The clean-energy revolution is unleashing a rush on cobalt, reviving old mines—and old questions—in a remote forest.
On September 13, I took my first plane trip in 18 months: Kansas City to Boise with a layover in Denver. The trip itself was largely uneventful, with one exception. After I boarded my connecting flight in Denver, a pilot announced that we would be briefly delayed because Air Force One was also en route to Boise. President Biden was responding to yet another record-setting wildfire season, during which 5.3 million acres of the U.S., an area the size of New Jersey, had already burned. “We can’t ignore the reality that these wildfires are being supercharged by climate change,” he would say later that day. “It isn’t about red or blue states. It’s about fires. Just fires.”
The wildfires had both everything and nothing to do with my trip to Boise and, from there, to the Salmon-Challis National Forest, a five-hour drive northeast of the city. For me, the area’s most immediate draw was cobalt, a hard, silvery-gray metal used to make heat-resistant alloys for jet engines and, more recently, most of the lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The Salmon-Challis sits atop what is known as the Idaho Cobalt Belt, a 34-mile-long geological formation of sedimentary rock that contains some of the largest cobalt deposits in the country. As the global market for lithium-ion batteries has grown—and the price of cobalt along with it—so has commercial interest in the belt. At least six mining companies have applied for permits from the U.S. Forest Service to operate in the region. Most of these companies are in the early stages of exploration; one has started to build a mine. In Idaho, as in much of the world, the clean-energy revolution is reshaping the geography of resource extraction.
This was always unsustainable. Now it’s simply impossible.
Last Thursday, a group of 20 mothers in Boston met up outside a local high school. Their goal wasn’t to socialize, drink wine, or even share COVID-related tips. They were there for one reason and one reason only: to stand in a circle—socially distanced, of course—and scream.
“I knew that we all needed to come together and support each other in our rage, resistance and disappointment,” Sarah Harmon, the group’s organizer, wrote on Instagram before the gathering. Ironically, some 20 other moms who had RSVP’d “yes” had to cancel at the last minute because they or other family members had COVID, Harmon told me.
When mothers feel there is no more appealing way to spend an evening than to yell into the frigid January darkness, something is very, very wrong. Parents in the United States are living through a universally terrible moment. For two years, we’ve been spending each and every day navigating an ever-changing virus that’s threatening not only our well-being but our livelihoods. The situation has reached a fever pitch during this wave, when we’re expected to function normally even though nothing is normal and none of the puzzle pieces in front of us fit together.
Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market. Even worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking.
Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.
The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.
The James Webb Space Telescope is now 1 million miles from Earth, and almost ready to scan the cosmos.
The world’s most powerful space telescope was ready to uncover the wonders of the universe, but first it needed some help from a little blue truck. The truck had to haul the James Webb Space Telescope, perched atop a more than 165-foot-tall rocket, to the launchpad at a spaceport in South America in late December. Next to the rocket, the vehicle looked almost decorative. I asked Bruno Gérard how the Ariane 5 rocket, standing crane-your-neck tall in front of us, on a platform hitched to the truck, would make the journey without tipping over.
Like me, Gérard—a vice president at Arianespace, which operates rockets like this one—was wearing a blue hard hat and gripping a gas mask. The rocket wasn’t completely fueled for launch yet, but its firecrackerlike boosters, one on each side, were packed with highly explosive propellant. How was this whole thing tied down?
The variant is spreading widely, but won’t necessarily give us strong protection from new infections.
Even before Omicron hit the United States in full force, most of our bodies had already wised up to SARS-CoV-2’s insidious spike—through infection, injection, or both. By the end of October 2021, some 86.2 percent of American immune systems may have glimpsed the virus’s most infamous protein, according to one estimate; now, as Omicron adds roughly 800,000 known cases to the national roster each day, the cohort of spike-zero Americans, the truly immunologically naive, is shrinkingfast. Virginia Pitzer, an epidemiologist at Yale’s School of Public Health and one of the scientists who arrived at the 86.2 percent estimate, has a guess for what fraction of the U.S. population will have had some experience with the spike protein when the Omicron wave subsides: 90 to 95 percent.
At the March for Life, activists felt certain that their triumph was finally at hand.
The activists who had gathered at the National Mall for the March for Life knew they were winning. With every cheer, every prayer, and every round of applause, the attendees assembled in the shadow of the Washington Monument reminded themselves that this year’s rally and march could be the last one to happen in a country where abortion was at least nominally legal in every state. They waved signs: WE ARE THE POST-ROE GENERATION.
I felt the rally’s triumphant spirit as I traipsed from the Supreme Court down to the march’s meeting spot behind the Smithsonian American History Museum on Friday. After last year’s in-person events had been canceled because of the pandemic, I could see and hear groups of friends reunited, hugging and taking photos in front of the Supreme Court and Capitol Building, and comparing their signs and placards. As I wandered down Constitution Avenue a little before noon, I was surprised at how large the crowds were; despite the below-freezing temperature and threat of the Omicron variant, I saw school groups and religious orders from upstate New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. I recognized logos from a few Catholic universities. Seeing teens in Carhartt beanies and Canada Goose parkas gave me flashbacks to my own education at an all-boys Catholic school.
Nudging people toward third shots with financial incentives may be one of the lowest-hanging fruits in pandemic policy making.
Unfortunately, Omicron is far from done with us. More than 700,000 Americans are testing positive for COVID-19 every day, COVID hospitalizations in the United States are at a record high, and the variant is so contagious that an encounter with it can be postponed for only so long. The single best thing people can do to protect themselves is, yes, get vaccinated. And that includes booster shots.
The immunity boost of that third shot is something of a game changer: CDC data have shown that booster shots significantly ratchet up protection from Omicron hospitalization, compared with two vaccine doses. In some charts of COVID deaths and hospitalizations, the number of triple-jabbed patients is so low, you have to squint to find them in the graphs. And though it’s not clear how long this extra protection will last, what makes getting boosted now even more of a no-brainer is that the added protection starts to build in just a few days—far quicker than after the first shot—meaning that even this long into the Omicron wave, third shots can help stave off COVID’s worst outcomes, as well as immunologically arm us for whatever variant comes next.