Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

The Dementia Bonus: Football as Black Servitude

THE CDC AT WORKMy favorite contribution to the fake motivational poster meme is "Reinstated Slavery." In deference to those who've not seen it, it depicts a white man–a coach, perhaps?–with his arm around the shoulder of a much younger black man, who's got the netting from a basketball hoop draped loosely around his neck. The white man is smiling gleefully, his eyes on some wonderful prize off in the distance; the young black man is weeping. The caption reads, "Catch yourself a strong one."

I don't know much about sports, so I can't tell you the name of the coach or the player or why they were behaving the way the were in that moment of time (though I imagine they'd won a championship of some sort). What I do know is that the poster succinctly sums up how I've come to look at football, boxing and, to a lesser extent, basketball, the older I've become: glorified servitude.

Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men. Anymore, I don't just not watch sports; I dislike them in a very visceral way.

Recently a new poster debuted that now rivals "Reinstated Slavery" for my favorite commentary on modern professional athletics. This one wasn't a joke. Starting immediately, a poster explaining the severity and symptoms of concussions will be hung in every NFL team's locker room, probably in a place not easily seen, like an OSHA informational sheet. (It's in part a project of the CDC, which is expanding its concussion and sports awareness program.)

"Concussion is a brain injury that alters the way your brain functions," it says. "Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family's life forever."

Life-changing injuries are what precipitated the poster in the first place. According to a study from last year, NFL players develop dementia and Alzheimer's at a rate more than five times that of average Americans. The same study showed that "players ages 30 through 49 reported dementia-related diagnoses at a rate of 1.9 percent-19 times the national average of 0.1 percent…."

In others words, many professional football players–almost 70 percent of whom are black–are literally killing their brains, and that's just the numbers on players in their 30s and 40s. For players over 50, it's more than 1 in 20.

It's shocking but actually perfectly sensible considering that football players slam each other into the ground at the end of almost every play. One would never guess it, though, from hearing NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello speak. "[T]here are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems," Aiello said when told about how many black men were ruining themselves to enrich him and his bosses. "Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports." For context here, think of a general sating a bereaved mother with, "There are many people who die of gunshot wounds who have never been to war."

Lest you think it's just the PR people who don't care, the NFL's legal team is indeed doing its part to contribute to the stonewalling:

On April 30, [2010,] an outside lawyer for the league, Lawrence L. Lamade, wrote a memo to the lead lawyer for the league's and union's joint disability plan, Douglas Ell, discrediting connections between football head trauma and cognitive decline. The letter, obtained by The New York Times, explained, "We can point to the current state of uncertainty in scientific and medical understanding" on the subject to deny players' claims that their neurological impairments are related to football.


Exacerbating its unwillingness to accept that football can cause brain damage is that the NFL isn't doing everything within its power to prevent head injuries in the first place. As recently as February, helmet-manufacturers were questioning the league's helmet-testing program, worried that it was dangerously flawed. The tests proved so bad, in fact, that one manufacturer pulled out, with its CEO saying the NFL's tests are "not deserving of credibility."

For reasons that are obvious yet difficult to describe, the NFL's policy of allowing its players to gradually destroy themselves would probably be less offensive were African Americans involved in ways other than just running, jumping and hitting. They aren't. As of today, there are still no black majority owners in the NFL, and only one who comes close (Reggie Fowler owns 40 percent of the Minnesota Vikings). Out of 32, only six of the league's head coaches are African American, a dearth that may be part of why blacks don't even watch the NFL. According to an ABC study, less than 13 percent of the league's viewership is black. Football fans are primarily white and relatively wealthy, earning $55,000 annually on average. 40 percent are over the age of 50. "Football has demographics that baseball would kill for," said one CNN analyst, who, were he more direct, would have said, "White guys with hefty disposable incomes watch football."

Maybe it's a fair trade–black kids losing the ability to remember their mother's name in exchange for a decade of big checks and fame amongst middle-aged white men. What's not fair by any reasonable metric is what comes next, when players retire. Although the NFL recently started a fund that will give ex-players with dementia $50,000 a year for medical treatment, it's also installed a byzantine bureaucracy between the patients and that money. Brent Boyd, a former Vikings lineman who now suffers from dizziness and chronic headaches, has been deemed ineligible for funds multiple times by league doctors, who say that one of his major on-field concussions "could not organically be responsible for all or even a major portion" of his symptoms.

Without the dementia bonus, the average NFL pension payments, which kick in at age 55, are hardly enough to cover a person's living expenses and specialty medical care. As of 2006, a 10-year veteran who retired in 1998 would receive about $51,000 annually.

Boxing, which drops the niceties of football and lets minorities and poor whites pound each other's heads sans helmets, sometimes until someone dies, has no nationwide pension plan at all. The assumption certainly being that all pugilists develop significant financial acumen while hitting the heavy bag for hours on end.

For a stark contrast, consider Major League Baseball, a sport that's about 60 percent white and eight percent black. Bolstered by a strong player's union, the MLB has a pension plan that dwarfs that of the NFL, despite the fact that most baseball players rarely hit the ball, let alone each other. Any player who gives just 43 days of service to the MLB is guaranteed $34,000 in pension benefits-just one day as a member of an active roster qualifies him for comprehensive medical coverage. Beyond that, a major-leaguer with at least 10 years under his belt is set to receive $100,000 per year at age 62.

Then there's the NHL, a vastly, strikingly white organization. While the average NHL pension payment is about the same as the NFL's, full benefits begin an entire decade earlier than they do for football players. What's more, NHL veterans who play at least 400 games–about five seasons–are also recipients of a lump sum payout of around $250,000 when they reach 55.

Though the NHL and MLB take care of their players a little and a lot more than the NFL, respectively, both organizations make less in yearly revenues–the NHL about $4 billion less.

It's all indefensible and disgusting and sad, but perhaps the sickest twist in America's black-on-black violence as sport is how everyone reacts when our vaunted, dark-skinned gladiators explore bloodshed and aggression off the field, or outside of the ring. Vegas takes bets on when boxers will be knocked unconscious and football fans cheer when they think one man's hit another hard enough to cause paralysis, yet it's incomprehensible–inhuman, even–when Michael Vick makes dogs fight for his amusement when he's not fighting for other people's amusement. Imagine Mike Tyson's surprise at how differently witnesses reacted when he wasn't knocking a man's teeth out in Madison Square Garden, but some $500-a-bottle nightclub in Manhattan. "You animal!" they must have screamed. "What makes you think it's OK to punch someone?"

When I was growing up, I had a friend named Joey whose father, Rocco, was a beach ball of an Italian from northern New Jersey. Rocco was always tremendously affable whenever I saw him, being sure to ask me how my parents were and telling me I looked great, all in a charming, gravelly, thickly accented baritone. This warmth never surprised me until years later, when another friend told me that Rocco had a strange habit that emerged whenever he watched the NFL. When black players scored a touchdown and celebrated in the end zone, Rocco would shout at the television, as if he had Tourrette's. "Do the nigger dance," he'd yell. "Do the nigger dance."

Cord Jefferson also writes at The Root.

82 Comments / Post A Comment

doubled277 (#2,783)

Excellent points about the disparity between NHL/MLB and NFL pay-grades. It's always struck me as outright racist when the white guy with a beer gut (many of whom are my friends, mind you!) sits there and screams at the tv when someone does a celebration or a news story about contract negotation comes on and in utter contempt and disgust, he says something about how "they" should feel lucky for just being there and oh by the way how much money do they NEED? Well, how much money do you need, friend? I ask them. More to the point, how much money does the NFL need? Because based on how much they take in, the players are getting squat. What's more, why is your outrage directed at the players rather than the NFL who hoards it's money like a pat-rack? The NFL has margins that most business would kill for. Yet, who do we scream at? The black players. For being greedy. For being uppity, I assume.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

My sense is that we're a bit less of a pro-labor country than we were, say, when my folks were growing up, but I'm always stunned at how anti-labor sports fans can be when it comes to players and the contracts they sign. It's tough to think of the Peyton Mannings and Alex Rodriguez's of the world as "labor," but they're at the top of a very wide pyramid of players who get eaten up and spit out of the professional sports machine. And yet the prevailing attitude is that a player that holds out, that tries to maximize his bargaining power, that gets the biggest slice of pie he can while he still can, is greedy, and should just feel lucky to be able to play in the first place. (I haven't really thought about this along racial lines, although that's probably worth thinking about.)

The Lebron James kerfuffle is a good example. Lost in all the bloviation and moralizing about loyalty, greed, legacy, greatness, and whatever else was the fact that we saw players taking firm control of their futures and their team's direction, roles traditionally filled by management and ownership. We usually applaud when the little guy does good, but not really in this case. Maybe because James and Wade and Bosh are big compared to you and I, but they're definitely small compared to billionaire sports team and league owners.

I also know these were some pretty broad brush strokes! I welcome any picking apart they have coming! I also thought "The Decision" was a dick move!

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Kind of a crappy example, actually. He was an unrestricted free agent and made the decision best for him. Most of the bloviation was about the rather ham-handed way in which he handled it.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

pete, I just twice had this browser refresh on me in the middle of a long and winding response that I now recognize as not being that important, as I don't have the will to try it a third time. See ya in Thursday's posts.

Hamilton (#122)

Football is maybe even more brain-damaging than boxing. This story was fucking terrifying:

iantenna (#5,160)

while i don't really disagree with any of this i think it's a bit problematic to treat the players as unwilling participants.

No, it isn't. Not when it's the only conceivable way for a teenager to move his family out of their trailer in small-town Mississippi. When the coach, the team, the town, the county are relying on you to win state, get a scholarship, and play pro ball. When so many others you played with and against were good, but not good enough, and you're going to turn it down, boy?

Legs Sadovsky (#6,269)

I don't agree that pro sports (or the military) are the only *conceivable* ways out of poverty. Those of us with vaginas have had to find other methods for years. Title IX passed the year my mom graduated college on a full academic scholarship, part of the condition of which was tutoring football players (making sure they passed). An avid football fan, she refuses to watch college ball to this day.

But even assuming that the only conceivable option is pro sports, there's still a matter of free will and personal responsibility. If a player graduates college he should have a skill set appropriate for entree into the middle class, barring this economic climate, etc. He should also have the decision making skills to do a cost-benefit analysis of the lucrative NFL contract and the potential for injury.

That said, it's a hell of a lot of money thrown at a 22 year old. But the brain damage is most severe among lineman, who are often cornfed midwesterners, as mentioned below, and begins long before they enter the NFL. It's not like these guys aren't sustaining head injuries from Pop Warner through college. And the guys who weren't quite good enough and also the guys who were nowhere near good enough are at risk for brain damage. Injuries that cause paralysis and death aren't uncommon at any level of the game, so the risk is pretty well known. Teenagers we'll never hear of are getting concussions every day. The brain injury problem is football, not the NFL.

Is it a complete fucking travesty that young men are graduating high school and college functionally illiterate and woefully unprepared for any workplace other than pro sports? Yes. Is there a big race element to that? Absolutely.

There are shitty teachers and administrators that let athletes get away with poor performance and bad behavior everywhere. That's compounded by the massive race and class divide in our education system.

There are also coaches that hold athletes to high academic (and conduct) standards, notably Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

I guess I'm thinking of Dexter Manley, the Redskins player. He was severely dyslexic and never learned how to read past a 2nd grade level, and was enabled for years and years, long before the NFL was a part of his life, including a scholarship to Oklahoma State with an ACT score of 6. But it's on him that he never asked for help, and to his credit that he finally did go to an adult literacy center when Theisman's leg snapped, and he realized he'd need a backup plan. But how many talented athletes, but nowhere near as talented as Manley, are disserviced by schools looking the other way when they can't complete coursework?

I guess that's my contribution to the rants…I guess George Carlin was right about football being the true American passtime.

I do want to give props to a well-reasoned response, but (there has to be a but) I used "conceivable" to take it to the young player's perspective. There is still the issue of academics and "acting white," combined with a teenager's skewed perception of risk – so I'm just not as sanguine. I also hear the claims about the linebackers' demographics, but I can't accept them without data.

mmmark (#4,458)

That poster is a Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves, if I'm not mistaken. Cleaves is now a music talent manager, apparently.

mmmark (#4,458)

Rather *of*

petejayhawk (#1,249)

And while Cord Jefferson is bemoaning Mateen Cleaves' subhuman status, he made over $5 million dollars in the NBA for being a horrible point guard.

If that's slavery, sign me the fuck up.

Assuming you get signed.

Shabadoo (#6,815)

This is a recapitulation of Forty Million Dollar Slaves.

Shabadoo (#6,815)

Also, I should mention, there are two conflated issues here – ownership structure and risk-reward. I think football just may be a special case; the NBA is predominately black and I would think has lower injury rates than hockey.

namethebats (#6,814)

The picture in the "Reinstated Slavery" poster is of Michigan State University player Mateen Cleaves and coach Tom Izzo, presumably after their NCAA title win in 2000.

The "NFL's Greatest Hits" mentality is pretty well ingrained, but looks to be changing. Bill Simmons, who positions himself as the representative of the average sports fan, talks a bit about the evolution in his thinking here (scroll down to #2):

Mister_Neutron (#5,921)

This Simmons article also makes the same point as my comment below. And re: the labor vs. ownership comments, Simmons likes to point out that a shockingly high percentage of professional athletes in fact live paycheck-to-paycheck, the owners know it, and they use this information to their advantage in negotiations.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

While I agree with some of the points made, I think Mr. Jefferson ignores a significant reason why the NHL and the MLB have such substantial pension benefits, while the NFL's are so limited: The length of the average career in the respective sports.

In the NFL, the average career lasts between 3 and 5 years I believe. In the MLB and NHL, careers are much longer. That means, when it is time to stand firm as a union, players in the MLB and the NHL are much more willing to sacrifice paychecks than football players. If the NFL were to go on strike, many players would lose substantial portions of the money they stand to earn over the course of their entire professional career.

It gives them an incentive to get back on that field, rather than stand firm and demand better benefits. MLB, NHL and NBA players are more willing to stand their ground. That's why we've seen lockouts and strikes in the other three sports and not in football.

The legal structure of boxing, which is organized in a radically different way than the four major American sports, is a different issue entirely.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

Don't get me wrong. I agree race is a major factor in American sports. But I think there are structural elements of the games themselves, as well as specific historical factors, that affected the developments of the leagues and their particular labor agreements. And although race is never irrelevant, I don't always know if it is best to see those primarily through a racial lens.

For instance, I think it's tough to talk about the MLBPA without tipping one's hat to the genius and courage of the union's former Executive Director Marvin Miller. Individual figures like Miller hamper our ability to talk about the four leagues and their respective labor relations so broadly.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I think that race is indeed a major factor in American sports, and one that is way too often swept under the rug (as are most "serious" issues relating to sports, not all of which are race-related).

But it's painfully obvious here that the author has, at best, a very, very, very superficial understanding of anything about the business of sports.

Mister_Neutron (#5,921)

The embarrassing thing about this is that the long-term physical consequences of playing football (repeated blows to the head in particular) seem awfully fucking obvious in retrospect. Gosh, you're telling me that putting your body through the equivalent of a minor car crash every few minutes for several hours at a time, five months of the year, is HARMFUL? Who could possibly have guessed?

flotsam (#6,816)

I agree that there is a huge problem with head injuries in the NFL, and the league has been woefully slow to respond. And it does seem that football is played by primarily African-American men for the enjoyment of well-to-do white guys. But I don't see how you can neglect to include the NBA in your coverage of the issue of pensions. The NBA is the most dominantly African-American sport in the US with regards to percent of players (almost 90% are black) and it is watched by a far higher percent of African-Americans than any other sport in this country. Sadly, though, the NBA pension is as woefully inadequate as the NFL's. A player receives just over $300 per month for each season played. Thus, Michael Jordan (or anyone else with his long career) is eligible for just about $50,000 a year – a pittance, and nearly identical to what the NFL offers. Fortunately, NBA players are less likely to have the head injuries that plague football players, but that doesn't excuse the NBA's neglect of its retirees.

garge (#736)

Thank you for this addendum, it is a helpful contribution.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@flotsam Ask Bill Walton if the NBA is any easier on the body than the NFL.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I don't know much about sports, so I can't tell you the name of the coach or the player or why they were behaving the way the were in that moment of time (though I imagine they'd won a championship of some sort). What I do know is that the poster succinctly sums up how I've come to look at football, boxing and, to a lesser extent, basketball, the older I've become: glorified servitude.

And that's when I clicked close tab. No, wait, after hitting "submit comment" is when I will click close tab. Because this article has been written much better by people that actually know what the fuck they're talking about.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Oh, wait, the ghost of Justin Strzelczyk (not black, in case it wasn't immediately obvious) also told me to tell you to fuck off.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I should mention, as long as you've turned the gross mistreatment of NFL players into a racial thing, that the players suffering the most damage are linemen, the majority of whom are cracker-ass crackers. What of them, Cord?

Abe Sauer (#148)

How did I start commending under Pete's name?????

petejayhawk (#1,249)

About time you showed up.

Pete, you incensed is a glorious sight to behold, indeed.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Thank you, dear.

The thing that really pisses me off about all of this is that there is a very good conversation to be had about this. But this is not it.

Yes, go along home now Cord, leave the arguing to the big boys.

Jared (#1,227)

But, but… what about The Blind Side!?

keisertroll (#1,117)

They're renaming it "The Blind, Confused, Groggy, Amnesiac, Disoriented and Unconscious Side".

Corey Mull (#6,822)

Aren't head injuries more concentrated among linemen, who are, in turn, more diverse than the rest of the team? Just thinking of my football team – three of the five o-linemen are white, one's Asian and one's black; d-linemen – two black, one white.

And maybe that's why articles about sports are best written by people who watch them.

Corey Mull (#6,822)

Oh, and another thing. Head injuries are currently a very serious concern in the NHL, and driver safety concerns were equally an issue in NASCAR 8-10 years ago. There's no racial exploitation element there.

There's no data to assert that a lineman's injuries are what causes the dementia. A running tackle subjects the body to more G-forces, so why not receivers?

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Vexation won't let me go!

OK, can we also address the idea that MLB is "8% black?"

That's just an idiotic, if not xenophobic, thing to write.

iantenna (#5,160)

dominicans aren't black, they're dominican. duh.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

This is obviously a subject very near to your heart, a subject on which we'll probably not come to any agreement no matter how long we go back and forth. However, I will say that if you think Dominicans and Puerto Ricans like to be considered "black," you're not very aware of the racial politics of those islands.

Exhibit A:

MattP (#475)

@Cord: Does this mean we can use the singular example of Michael Jackson destroying his nose and making his lips thinner to prove that black Americans don't want to be considered black?

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

No, but you can use that singular example of a racially conflicted Sammy Sosa to infer–not prove–that the subject of race in the Dominican Republic is nebulous enough to warrant saying the MLB is "eight percent black."

Exhibit B:

petejayhawk (#1,249)

So then, Cord, we should lump the Latino players – a group that has been exploited infinitely more than Black Americans – in with the whiteys? Because, unless you're Torii Hunter, claiming that Black Latino players are "impostors," I don't get what you're saying about MLB. And none of that addresses the points I've made about NFL players.

And re: NHL – is it racist of me to say that perhaps the fact that the NHL is made up of mostly white Canadians (ignoring the fact that many of its premier players are neither white nor American) is not a heinous racist thing?

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

No, you shouldn't. But I'm a half-black person who wrote about issues relating to black people.

This is, of course, anecdotal, but I find it endlessly interesting how white writers can write about issues pertaining to solely whites without anyone saying a thing. But if a minority tries to write about issues pertaining to their minority group, everyone's so quick to say, "Well what about [this other minority group different from yours]? Do you not care about them?"

Abe Sauer (#148)

Actually, usually they call those writers skinheads. I would love to see an example of one of these "solely white" writers who isn't, like, anne coulter.

Zach Bates (#5,537)

So much wrong here that I guess I'll just cherrypick this one:"According to an ABC study, less than 13% of the league's viewership is black". Weird that black people account for 12.8% of the American population. Probably no correlation between these two numbers though.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

Talk about cherrypicking. By that logic, why isn't every American sport composed of predominately white players?

Zach Bates (#5,537)

Ummm dude…. you were using that earlier ABC stat as proof that the NFL doesn't appeal to African Americans. You were wrong and a quick look at census numbers would have proven that. The racial makeup of the sport itself is an entirely different topic on which I'm sure you could write any number of ill informed posts. Apologies for the tone, but you wrote a screed about a subject you've admitted knowing nothing about. Expect some blowback. I don't even like the NFL much, and you got my ire up.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

My point is that about a quarter of the NBA's viewership is black:

In that sport, the black people don't smash each other's heads into the ground.

Abe Sauer (#148)

But aren't a higher percentage of the NBA's players also black?

I'd be curious to note how many black or hispanic people were in a community where football was played. Baseball and basketball are cheap sports. It's rare to find a high school that doesn't have a basketball team. But it is not uncommon to have a find high school that doesn't have a football team — because it is expensive to cover the insurance costs and to outfit players.

Might it be that there's a lack of early exposure to football as entertainment for most blacks — no tradition of watching it on a Sunday afternoon, no going out on a Friday night to support the local high school team? — and without that exposure football just looks like a bunch guys in tights running into each other instead of the glorious game of strategy that it is?

maebefunke (#154)

'Vegas takes bets on when boxers will be knocked unconscious and football fans cheer when they think one man's hit another hard enough to cause paralysis, yet it's incomprehensible-inhuman, even-when Michael Vick makes dogs fight for his amusement when he's not fighting for other people's amusement. Imagine Mike Tyson's surprise at how differently witnesses reacted when he wasn't knocking a man's teeth out in Madison Square Garden, but some $500-a-bottle nightclub in Manhattan. "You animal!" they must have screamed. "What makes you think it's OK to punch someone?"'

I'm glad you made this point, Cord. Every time I talk to someone about Michael Vick (which is fairly often, as I'm an Eagle's fan) I try to articulate this. I don't always get it across in the right way and usually end up having to convince whoever I'm talking to that I don't tie razor-blades to chicken's legs for fun in my spare time.

But I could see myself using this tricky issue as a talking point in an anthropology course I might teach in the future for a discussion on the cultural relativism of violence-a topic I find to be so incredibly fascinating. When you really start thinking about it, it gets really messy. If you don't want to think about it in the context of sports or animal fighting, try thinking in terms of female circumcision. At what point is something completely, absolutely wrong in spite of all cultural context?

Abe Sauer (#148)

Racism in American pro sports? Always an interesting subject. But a few questions raised by the above essay:
"…the NFL's policy of allowing its players to gradually destroy themselves would probably be less offensive were African Americans involved in ways other than just running, jumping and hitting." Are you suggesting that the NFL's policy of letting human beings destroy themselves would be "less offensive" if it were only focused on Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic players? (Because that's what that sentence seems to mean.) Or are you suggesting that African American players ONLY run, jump and hit, as compared to what other races do on the football field such as _________? Or are you suggesting there is an NFL policy "allowing" African American players to do nothing else?
.."blacks don't even watch the NFL." BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Mr. Jefferson, I just…. your statement… really… Black people don't even watch football? "Less than 13%." 13% is about the black makeup of the US population. In fact, by many measures, the US black population of 12.4% is LOWER than the stats you cite in that link of a Black NFL viewership of 12.8%. You actually have a staff job for The Root, right? Well, if you lose it, this is the kind of stat-framing hit job that would get you a job with Breitbart.
"football players slam each other into the ground at the end of almost every play.." No they don't. Really, not at all. In factfact, by FAR those who fall down the most and get hit the most on every play are linemen who, as many have pointed out here, are mostly white. (Ok, so that's not a question.)
No mention of MLB and its Hispanic makeup?
The NHL is "strikingly white?" Oh lord. There are so many factors here re: race and culture and geography that are ignored, including the HUGE representation of foreign players and their population makeups. nearly 50% of the NHL is Canadian. Another 15% is Eastern European. You now who the NHL is really racist against? Asians. Also, just see Graydon's notes above.
"When I was growing up, I had a friend named Joey"… sounds a lot like "I have a friend I'll call Patrick.." A racist personal friend anecdote for every specific story about race. How convenient.
Finally, we are to believe you have a list of "ironically" appreciated motivational posters?
And isn't the NFL poster just a poster, and not a motivational poster; so that it "rivals 'Reinstated Slavery' for my favorite commentary on modern professional athletics" means your consideration of athletic commentary posters overlaps with appreciation for motivational posters? What the Awl really needs is that examination of hybrid motivational modern athletic commentary posters.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Jesus, Abe. Please use italics and paragraph breaks next time. I can't navigate this right now.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I navigated it. Well done. I have thoughts, but I think maybe we should collaborate (or maybe I'll just cheer you) on a rebuttal piece.

Zach Bates (#5,537)

Oh, you've got a new point now. Fantastic. Just quit digging yourself in deeper pal. Also, if you had ever watched the nba, you would be aware that people's heads both black and white are often smashed into the ground. By the by, did you happen to attend some sort of GOP rhetorical summer camp?
And now I'm done arguing on the internet.

Zach Bates (#5,537)

Almost done, right after I note that this was meant to be a reply to Cord's last bout of inanity up there.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

Comparing the incidental tumbles of the NBA to the calculated, frequent tackling of the NFL is so disingenuous it's practically lying.

Don't rile the sports nerds.

Pete / Abe,

I'd respond to a specific comment, but there are so many, it probably makes more sense to start a new thread.

To Pete specifically, as a die-hard college football & basketball fan (it brings me untold happiness when your Jayhawks lose, especially when they lost to UCLA in the Elite 8), I can understand the initial defensiveness. This post had me conflicted. But as a brown person, this instant commenter backlash to race being brought into the discussion only proves the point that race — even if it's not overt or written into public policy — is still extremely relevant.

There seems to be this narrative that brown/black/yellow/whatever people are obsessed w/ race, and that if they would just get over it, race wouldn't be such a big issue anymore.
But it's not always about you. Just because a sport or some other activity you enjoy is associated with some form of racism doesn't mean you're being accused of racism.

If you disagree with some of the examples, then fine, but a certain nastiness seems to come out when race is brought up. Abe, even though I don't comment on them, I always enjoy your posts here & respect the fact that you consistently comment & present an alternate point of view here. But it was almost like you couldn't wait for Cord to post and bring up the "friend" specter again so that you could attack him about it. If you're still pissed off about the Arizona piece, then fine, (after all, I still can't read a Danial D'Addario piece without being consumed by how horrible that one piece about someone who possibly may have been moving to New York was, and wondering why the editors whom I respect greatly continue to publish him) but when I read this specific piece, I couldn't help but think that you get pissed off anytime race is brought up. As if it was some attack on your way of life, when in reality, it's about the same people you also criticize.

This could go on much longer, but since this is an Awl comment, I'll just say that isn't an either/or proposition and that just because someone entertains the idea of systemic racism existing within football doesn't mean you're automatically being implicated.

Even if we disagree on a lot of points, I've always thought that we were all on the same side.

Except when your school plays the Pac-10. Then I hope your quarterback breaks his leg & never even has the opportunity to be fucked over by the NFL.

It's OK to discuss issues of sexism in entertainment, but not to discuss issues of racism in sport, discuss:

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I think you missed my point, which, admittedly, I probably haven't made well. I don't deny that there are racial issues in American sports. I just think Cord did a really shitty job of discussing them here.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

On a larger level, for the record, I think most of the racial problems in American sports come well before the pro ranks.

Well then, I guess that clears then of any kind of obligation.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Pope, Are you saying the friend thing isn't a bit of a tick? As for nasty, what the author here is essentially saying is that because I love football, and I'm white, I am racist. What's nastier than that?

Nice strawman, bro.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

I'm not calling you a racist. I'm calling you someone who gives their resources over to an industry that works diligently to avoid being faulted for young black men ruining their brains and bodies. That's not racist. It's something, but it's not racist.

Also interesting to note in this cultural climate – just who are the people over-sensitive to accusations or implications of racism?

@Abe, I really don't think he was saying that any white person who loves football is racist. If you were a team owner or something, that would be a different story. But yes, I'll agree w/ you that the friend thing could be considered a bit of a crutch. But that was just one paragraph that, IMHO, didn't take away from the rest of the piece.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Really? Because it sounds like he's saying only white people watch football, and football has a conspiracy to specifically destroy the brains of black players whose only involvement is "running, jumping, and hitting." Jefferson writes that "Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men." He then identifies these old joyful white men as "Football fans are primarily white and relatively wealthy, earning $55,000 annually on average. 40 percent are over the age of 50." So, isn;t his argument is that only white men watch football and an football largely exists to destroy black men? That sounds quite racist. I mean, he wrote this: "black kids losing the ability to remember their mother's name in exchange for a decade of big checks and fame amongst middle-aged white men." Now, maybe Jefferson didn't intend to imply all football fans are pretty much racists. But are you saying there's no sweeping implication there that football's all white fans are maybe kinda' racist?

saudi-jeff (#6,828)

Perspective. From the perspective of a 68 year old black male, such as I, the medical issues of the NFL obtusely affecting blacks, as opposed to whites, is a win. There were times when white soldiers died at astronomical rates when compared to black soldiers; when no black players suffered injuries in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, ATP or suffered embarrassing life-issues in the PGA; when no black writers got to write articles on racism in national media; when no one would think of using profanity in a national medium; or a woman commenting on professional male sports, anywhere for any reason! From my perspective, it seems that things are rolling along nicely.

lbf (#2,343)

"[...]blacks don't even watch the NFL. According to an ABC study, less than 13 percent of the league's viewership is black."
If you're going to tell lies through statistics, make sure you at least manipulate them first. 12% of the American population is black. If 13% of the NFL's viewership is black, blacks are exactly as likely as the rest of Americans to watch football.
This is only tangential to the serious problem of brain damage and compensation in football, but since you'e trying to tie everything into a single overarching argument, try to keep the bullshit out.

lbf (#2,343)

aaaaaaaaand Abe made the same remark a couple of comments above me. #commentfail

lbf (#2,343)

seriously, I stopped reading the comments and posted this A SINGLE POST BEFORE someone made that point. Cord's answer is wholly unsatisfactory though – if you think the racial makeup of an audience should be the same as the one of the players on the field, say it out loud and back it up.

KarenUhOh (#19)

What happened to John Mackey is a tragic and symbolic example of how the NFL finds excuses to turn its back on the toll it takes.

Some of the enormous piles of cash earned in the sport should have been directed decades ago to retired and damaged inventory–players–who put the cash in the coffers. The mere assumption that a lot of $ in front, well invested, do the trick is and always has been bullshit.

And while you've highlighted many salient issues about race–ones that benefit from spirited and impassioned discussion–I don't see much here about servitude. Perhaps I missed it.

"Servitude," to me, is a nation/society/culture that compels an African-American Male to believe that he finds his true opportunity to become a "success" by–or only by–putting on a uniform and playing ball. With the fallback of putting on a different kind of uniform.

Atencio (#399)

I'm jumping in here to echo the sentiments of quite a few other commentators here. It seems as thought you came up with a conclusion to draw, then pursued the anecdotes and statistics you felt would support your point. It's no surprise that institutional racism is apparent in sports, because it's yet to be eliminated in pretty much every corner of our society. But the damage athletes do to their bodies affects all of them, not just certain races. If anything, the most salient bit that you touched on only briefly is the issue of college sports. For people to risk serious damage to their bodies to generate profit for others without being allowed to share in those rewards is far closer to slavery than anything that happens in the NFL. However, it's also an injustice that is color blind.

An important point was that the NFL provides less compensation for those accumulated injuries than other sports.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Good grief… yeah subtle race bait is there, sure. It's almost everywhere in society. It's our national curse. Things are much better than they used to be though, in my opinion. At least we can talk about it in such blunt terms like we are here, for example.

What worries me more than any of this race talk, though, is the pervasive and aggressive spread of fundamentalist, Evangelical Christianity in sports. It really grosses me out and turns me the fuck off to all of it, when Batter #1 or Wide Receiver #6 starts dropping all the Jesus talk about why they were able to pull off the game-winning move that they just did. It also grosses me out that the FCA is headquartered in my town and that they promote this shit, they ostracize players who don't want to join in on their little bible-thumping shitshow, and they use the players as high-paid mouthpieces.

Andrew Gauthier (#3,713)

There is evidence indicating that white NFL players suffer head injuries at a higher rate than black players…

Of the six documented cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in former NFL players, only one of the six players was black:

The two positions in football that are typically most susceptible to head injuries are quarterback and offensive line. Roughly 80% of the starting quarterbacks from the 2008 and 2009 seasons are white and more than half of the starting offensive lineman from those seasons are white. Repeated concussions ended the careers of white quarterbacks Troy Aikman (who suffered 10 concussions in 12 years) and Steve Young (who quit after suffering his 4th concussions in 3 years). Brent Boyd, the lineman referenced in this article, is white.

Portraying the NFL as black-on-black bloodsport based solely on the basic racial makeup of the league is impractical. The truth is that ALL PLAYERS are "losing the ability to remember their mother's name in exchange for a decade of big checks"

mbrett (#6,838)

Wow. Just. Wow. This piece is gawd awful. The easiest way to invalidate an argument is to piece it together with out-of-context and incomplete information. I'm going to say something here, and it's going to piss you off. But organized athletics is one of the few places of near equality in our society.

I know what you are going to say- "Bullsh%t Mike. What about Michael Vick, Allen Iverson, or Maurice Clarett? Where's the equality there?" My response- put those individuals' actions outside of sport and into the reality of our own professional existences. Where would individuals who acted in such a manner find that kind of leeway for their actions, if not not in athletics? And since you don't follow sports admittedly, I give you one Ben Roethlisberger, pasty-white QB of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben is out for the first six games this season, and he was never charged with anything! He was just a flaming $sshole. That's it. White, green, purple, orange- the NFL doesn't care who you are, they just want to protect their image.

I am a HS coach. I coach in a very diverse HS with a predominantly black team. The notion that I, as a coach on the bottom rung of the organized athletic ladder, would start somebody over another because of the color of their skin is ridiculous. One, the girls would know it. Two, it would decrease our chances of winning. I like to win. So do the girls.

Facts are facts- there are not many valid options for an uneducated minority to make a living in America anymore. Organized athletics offer the promise of millions. Yes, they don't take care of their players. Yes, they don't believe in education. Yes, they most likely wouldn't want this minority to marry their daughter. But, you know what? They want to win even more. They want to flash their championship ring at all the other pasty-white rich people. And to do so, they pay very, very well. Yes, they don't teach how to use your money. But the money is there, and the opportunity is there. After that, individual responsibility kicks in.

I wish that we lived in a country that didn't jail such a high percentage of black young men. I wish that our economy still produced living wage jobs for those who pass through our apartheid education system. I do. We have many racial problems still to overcome.

But athletics is not one. And you only display ignorance when you characterize as racist an activity that offers so many benefits to young people, no matter the race.

Michael Stewart (#6,847)

There are legitimate race issues in pro sports, but you have not addressed any of them here. A few trivial responses to your trivial article:

1. The percentage of NFL fans who are black is almost exactly the percentage of Americans who are black. The NFL has a huge, huge audience in black America.
2. It's not only the owners in the NFL who are white, but a large percentage of the players, many of whom have also had their own careers ruined by concussions and stress-related injuries.
3. If you really cannot understand the difference between sanctioning dogfighting and the contact that occurs in sport, then you don't have much business writing about sports in the first place.

Your last paragraph probably explains this article better than anything else: you've taken a decade(s) old memory and generalized it to the attitudes of millions of people. You were right at the beginning of the article: you don't know much about sports.

Lane (#2,809)

+1 to everyone in this comment thread.

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