Monday, November 26, 2012

Sanitizing the Game

         During the time the NFL officials (they are not all referees – there is only one referee in each game – every official has a specific assignment) were locked out due to a contract dispute, I grew increasingly worried each week due to the increasingly blatant major violations going uncalled in the games. The safety of every player on the field was at risk with each call that was not made.

         Scientific discoveries in the last decade, spurred more by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than professional football, have cast light on the permanent damage head injuries such as concussions have on those who experience them. Historically the “minor” head injuries, such as concussions have been considered healed as soon as the symptoms disappeared. We now know that is not true.

Football (though hardly the only sport) has long been known as a sport whose participants frequently experienced concussions. Big men traveling at high speeds colliding with one another tended to have that effect on the anatomy. As new information has been discovered, the NFL has been responsive by creating rules and equipment designed to protect the safety of the players. They have attempted to sanitize the game as much as a notoriously violent game can be sanitized.

         What frustrates me are the people seeking to hold the NFL responsible for injuries that occurred prior to the knowledge we have now. They are like the people suing companies for using asbestos in the 1950’s. Knowledge of the harm of the product did not exist at that time. Since the 1970’s, with the widespread use of computers and the exponential growth of knowledge, we find it easy to forget that all we know now has not always been known. In many cases, the means to know did even not exist.

         I am a football fan and applaud the efforts of the NFL to make the game safer for the players. Rules the NFL implements trickle down to college, high school, and pee-wee leagues. However, I do not want new rules to be seen as an admission to prior knowledge. While ample internal documents exist that confirm the cigarette industry knew the harm smoking did to smokers while they continued to market smoking as healthy, to date, no internal documents indicate that the NFL knew the lifetime impact a head injury could have on a player.

         I am proud to live in a world that is making such amazing progress regarding human health. I cannot, however, support any of the litigants who sue over the “should have known” argument. As an educator, it would take me minutes to construct a test anyone would fail, but should have passed because the knowledge society has gained since they left school changed what they were taught.

         We live in extraordinary times (compared to other eras in history) regarding the acquisition of knowledge. There have been bursts of knowledge in historical periods, but nothing that remotely compares to the exponential growth we see today. We need as much common sense in the application of knowledge as we see acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding are worthless without a viable application of that knowledge. If we cannot use it, archive it. Do not litigate it.

         One reason I am a fan of professional (and college) football is the hand-to-hand combat between the warriors on the field. I enjoy the strategy in the game and variance in performance between players from week to week. No one can have their “best game ever” every week. Even the underdog sometimes wins; that is why we play the games. We have replaced gladiator-style battles with rule-bound sports: it meets a societal need. All of humanity has a degree of competition even as our talents fall in different areas.

         I applaud leading football organizations for adapting the rules to protect the players and the integrity of the game as new knowledge has become available. As much as we want everything to be made right in the world, we cannot retroactively correct historical wrongs; with new knowledge we can, and should, prevent future wrongs. Unfortunately knowledge is fluid and justice based on that knowledge is equally fluid. Instead of attacking organizations/institutions that adapt to the knowledge available to them, celebrate them for the responsive work they are doing. Justice and fairness are not the same and only the most naïve pretend they are.

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