Harvest of Sorrow

Christopher Hitchens tells the possibly (probably) apocryphal story of Robert Conquest, the historian: after writing a first book on the brutalities of Soviet socialism, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s, Conquest submitted a second as-yet untitled manuscript on Stalin’s program of forced collectivization.  Asked what he wanted to call it, he came up with the ungracious and yet apt title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. The book was, in the end, called The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine, followed by a third, Stalin: Breaker of Nations. 

I lack Robert Conquest’s erudition, productivity, or grace, but I do have one thing in common with him: I told you so, too–not about Stalin, but about “football,” i.e., American football, a bloodsport whose deceptions begin with its name.

Damar Hamlin’s recent collapse and near-death experience after an “ordinary” tackle during a Buffalo Bills game has produced some salutary, but much belated hand-wringing about football: “Grappling With, but Not Yet Turning Away From, Football’s Violent Pull” reads a near-perfect, if somewhat over-charitable headline in today’s New York Times. I call it “over-charitable” because I question the propriety of the word “grapple.” It’s only “grappling” if people hold on.

Apparently, people had to see Hamlin’s collapse on TV, before their inexplicably shocked eyes, to be persuaded of the blatantly obvious fact that the human body was not meant for football, or vice versa. Yes, well. I’ve been saying that for years, almost always to deaf ears. Here’s my last jeremiad on the topic, a little more than a year ago.

I happen to be taking a course right now on medical terminology, and by some gruesome irony, the three chapters I read tonight in my textbook were “Skeletal System,” “Muscular System,” and “Nervous System and Mental Health” (Barbara Janson Cohen and Shirley A. Jones, Medical Terminology: An Illustrated Guide, 9th ed). I highly recommend spending a few hours with this, or some comparable textbook–and on those specific topics–if only to re-acquaint yourself with that over-familiar thing, the human body.

You may be surprised at what you find or what you may have missed about how you yourself and your fellow humans are physically constituted, and how easily all of it can be made to fall apart. Pertinent sub-topics: “Fractures,” “Stress Injuries,” “Head Injury,” and “Protecting the Brain.” Granted, I haven’t yet gotten to chapter 10, on the “Cardiovascular and Lymphatic Systems” (Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest), but 200 pages into the book, I don’t expect to find anything there to suggest that football-style tackles are precisely what the doctor ordered.

Is it in bad taste of me to bring this all up now, or is it instead a case of what the ancient Greeks called ho kairos, the perfect time and place to do so? If you think it’s “too soon” to be getting so “political,” you might want take a good, hard squint at the Times article I linked above, and ask yourself about the priorities and thought-processes of some of the people described in it. Pause a bit on the hand-wringing moms wondering whether they should let their kids play tackle football: what are they thinking? But nothing can beat Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, ready to tough it out and fucking move on already. “I’ve got a lot of love for that young man,” he’s quoted as saying. “We lift him and that organization up in prayer.”

When reporters tried to ask him about Hamlin, Tomlin added, “Anybody got any questions regarding this week’s matchup?”

Too soon, huh? Never too soon in this universe to avert one’s eyes, forget the past, and get on with business as usual. If this is the look of love, I’d hate to see the look of hate.

Hamlin is in the ICU now, fighting for his life. Every medical resource is doubtless being put into his care and recovery, just as it ought to be. Every decent person would wish for his full recovery. But it would be a travesty to follow his medical progress, only to find ourselves back at square one, with nothing to show in the way of lessons learned but the illusion that we can, in the last resort, trust in the miracles of emergency medicine and intensive care, supplemented by prayer. No one who works in health care believes that. And no one who doesn’t, should.

If this event doesn’t give people pause about football, I’m not sure what will. But don’t say I didn’t tell you so. My next title might not display the good taste that this one does.

10 thoughts on “Harvest of Sorrow

  1. If this is, as it seems to be, a case of the heart being struck reasonably sharply at a very precise moment in the heartbeat, causing the heart to stop, then the plight of Damar Hamlin does not really support the idea (however reasonable or true) that American football is unreasonably dangerous. I believe this rare, often fatal, injury is most often caused by hard-hit baseballs and hockey pucks. I suppose false instances rallying attention to real problems can do real good, though (maybe this happens all the time and we are all better off for it). In any case, hoping for a full, speedy-as-possible recovery. And for the Pats to beat the Bills on Sunday. Go Pats!


    • There’s abundant evidence of how dangerous football is. It’s far more dangerous than either baseball or even hockey. I’ve collected a bunch of studies, and will post them here when I get a chance.

      Though the particular sort of injury that Hamlin suffered is rare in all three sports, the difference is that football demands precisely the kind of hit to the person that led to Hamlin’s injury. Neither baseball nor hockey demand that you throw the ball or aim the puck at the person. Football demands that you hit the person exactly as Hamlin was hit (or exactly as he did the hitting), then comfort yourself with the thought that such injuries are very rare. Cardiac arrest due to a direct hit to the rib cage is rare, but serious injury due to direct, intentional hits to the person are far more common in football than any other sport, excluding boxing and MMA, but including hockey. I don’t like hockey, but the rate of serious injury in hockey is not comparable to football. And baseball is not even on the map.

      The irony is that now that the NFL has banned direct “crown to crown” hits to the head, players have to re-distribute the same hits elsewhere. So expect a new, “unprecedented” round of injuries as an unintended but totally predictable consequence of the rule.

      The folly of football is that it explicitly demands direct hits to the person. There is no way to work around this fact until football is fundamentally re-conceived along the lines of soccer, which demands that all physical contact be directed at the ball and only incidentally involve the person. Given the contemporary American “ethos” of treating football as a proxy for gladiatorial combat, and dogmatically refusing to consider the medical evidence against it (or of employing flimsy work-arounds, or of engaging in diversions), this is unlikely to happen soon.

      Hamlin survived only because he received extraordinary trauma care. The level of trauma support required for professional football far, far exceeds what is involved for any non-martial sport. One can focus on the rarity of this particular type of injury, or one can focus on that anomaly. Why does football require the equivalent of battlefield trauma care? Because its practitioners are engaged in an enterprise violent enough to require it. Hamlin got lucky, but his case draws attention to the exorbitant risks and exorbitant costs involved.


    • My view of rugby is essentially the same as that of American football, but I think football is worse than rugby, especially in the version that existed before the very recent rules adopted in football banning direct hits to the head.

      On the whole, rugby, influenced perhaps by soccer, is more restrictive in the kinds of direct contact it allows. It still has a very high injury rate, and strikes me as a gratuitously violent sport.

      That said, on purely aesthetic or personal grounds, rugby seems more interesting to watch than football, which manages to combine gratuitous violence with mind-numbing tedium.


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