"The networks, all of them, dance to the NFL's tune."
February 11, 2019 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Bob Costas speaks out on CTE, NBC, and how he got pulled off the Super Bowl LII broadcast.
On Nov. 7, 2017, Costas appeared at a journalism symposium at the University of Maryland.

There, he told a crowd of more than 400, "The issue [in sports] that is most substantial -- the existential issue -- is the nature of football itself."

He then went on a nearly one-and-a-half minute riff about football and brain damage that was punctuated by this statement: "The reality is that this game destroys people's brains -- not everyone's, but a substantial number. It's not a small number, it's a considerable number. It destroys their brains."
posted by chainsofreedom (49 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, I had no idea. Thanks for this. I always just assumed that Costas left because the screens just love age discrimination. What an amazing guy.

(also: who the FUCK needs Thursday night football?!)
posted by Melismata at 11:26 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Seems like his first mistake was submitting his essay for approval instead of just delivering it first. When dealing with dubious businesses, it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.

The attitude and deference the NFL gets and the way NBC and other networks capitulate to them is infuriating. Like, the NFL has gone out of it's way to give a good, solid, moral reasons to hate their sport, teams, and stadiums. Long gone are the days where you hated sportsball for being sportsball, nowadays there are legitimate ethical issues fans interested in the sport have to come to terms with in their support, and if you're not inclined, you have so many good reasons to never support the NFL and similar pro leagues.

Bob Costas sounds like a relatively good dude in the positions he has put himself in. Shame he's barred, one less voice in the football circuit to tell truth to power, in a field that desperately needs many.

Fuck the NFL. Fuck NBC. Fuck Fox. Fuck CBS, and fuck anyone who deals with the NFL.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:33 AM on February 11 [23 favorites]


I was introduced to Bob Costas by his TV show "Later with Bob Costas" which was one of the last shows of the evening to be broadcast (I forget what time it aired, I want to say about 1am); it was an incredible interview show and Bob's interview skills are unsurpassed.

I'm not surprised that he showed the integrity that he did. I get the feeling that he has no regrets on the matter.
posted by el io at 11:35 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]


I love Costas; I am not surprised that honesty is what got him removed.

I would very much like to have an hour of Costas just chatting each week. Come on PodCostas!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:38 AM on February 11 [9 favorites]


Like, the NFL has gone out of it's way to give a good, solid, moral reasons to hate their sport, teams, and stadiums. Long gone are the days where you hated sportsball for being sportsball, nowadays there are legitimate ethical issues fans interested in the sport have to come to terms with in their support, and if you're not inclined, you have so many good reasons to never support the NFL and similar pro leagues.

Present. I've even defended the NFL here before, which I regret. I watched nearly every Ravens game for a decade as a fan, and grew disgusted last year due to awful owners, trumpist politics, blackballing and silencing protest, and CTE. I've seen maybe 4 games since 2016, and I'm honestly pretty happy with it gone from my life.
posted by codacorolla at 11:38 AM on February 11 [16 favorites]


the way NBC and other networks capitulate to them is infuriating

There are people still paying attention to the NFL?



One of the notes in the piece is about CBS's decision to opt out of the NFL bidding war and it basically tanked their network. Not their profitability or some market segment...without the NFL CBS suffered business losses that they still haven't recovered from nearly two decades later.

I'm not saying this makes the NFL right, I'm just saying this is how it works.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 11:58 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


"We have historically given our commentators a lot of leeway to speak on our air about issues and controversies, and Bob has benefited most from this policy. We're very disappointed that after 40 years with NBC, he has chosen to mischaracterize and share these private interactions."

Yeah, you guys are on par with the National Enquirer folk in my book. Fucking corrupt liars.

Good on Costas for continuing to speak the truth, and good on ESPN for not being afraid to give him venue.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:03 PM on February 11 [8 favorites]


It's possible this is covered in TFA, which I have yet to read, but it's not just the NFL. It's the fact that for every man who makes it to the NFL there are hundreds of thousands (does that seem right? Good lord, is it more?) who play from Pop Warner all the way through high school and then go on to try to have normal lives with apparent ticking time bombs in their brains.

And also that participation in this ritual brain grinder is often culturally synonymous with masculinity. I used to know someone who's father owed his entire career -- as an oil executive who became rich, and then a very successful state level politician -- almost entirely to his status as a former star for a beloved state football program. Tbh it often seems like football is all the worst parts of America rolled into one: the elevation of toxic masculinity and dominance hierarchies established through violence, plus a shit ton of misogyny and racism. (I'm reminded of that Amy Schumer sketch that parodied Friday Night Lights, where Josh Charles had to convince his team to just stop raping.) And of course, most of the men who go through this 12-16 year brain grinder through the most vulnerable part of their development will never be paid a single cent for their work, even as they make millions upon millions of dollars for television networks and universities, and even though for many of them it will cost them their literal futures.

So it's not just the NFL. It's the weird place that football occupies in a large part of American culture. Seriously, try explaining football and the NFL to someone not from the US, or pretend trying to explain it to an alien. It gets real absurd, real quick.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:07 PM on February 11 [36 favorites]


"We have historically given our commentators a lot of leeway to speak on our air about issues and controversies, and Bob has benefited most from this policy. "

Or, perhaps, CBS has benefited most from these policies; you know, by having a reputation as a network that allowed folks to talk about 'issues and controversies'. But that reputation is gone.

Also, CBS, if you want to refute someone, you need to deny the truth of their statements with something more vague than "mischaracterize ". Your position seems to be "he lied! also, that stuff I said that he's repeating was supposed to be private." You can't have it both ways.
posted by el io at 12:08 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Like we talk a lot about deplatforming Nazis. We should do that.

We should also maybe deplatform football. But I know that sounds insane.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:08 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


It's possible this is covered in TFA, which I have yet to read, but it's not just the NFL. It's the fact that for every man who makes it to the NFL there are hundreds of thousands (does that seem right? Good lord, is it more?) who play from Pop Warner all the way through high school and then go on to try to have normal lives with apparent ticking time bombs in their brains.

We really need to see kids who played high school football, and had issues later suing for significant amounts. That'll make the actuaries revise the premiums, and high schools will be unable to pay the true costs.

Then the college programs dry up. And then the NFL dies.
posted by mikelieman at 12:24 PM on February 11 [8 favorites]


When Costas had decided he wanted to stop hosting Super Bowls and Olympics, the plan was to take on an emeritus role that would have him appearing to host or offer commentary on select major events or programs. Instead, Costas and NBC agreed to terms this past fall to end his contract early.

They paid Costas off. What's interesting, though, is that he's still talking about it to a major news media outlet. Which means the terms for his silence must not have been very strict. They just didn't want him on the air any more.

Fuck you Roger Goodell. This is the reason I won't watch your sport any more.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:25 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]


Seriously, try explaining football and the NFL to someone not from the US, or pretend trying to explain it to an alien. It gets real absurd, real quick.

I considered doing an AskMe on this but I must admit I was kind of confused when I travelled around suburbs of LA last autumn and noticed that just about every high school we passed had a football field and bleachers - from the poorest schools to the wealthiest. Every single one of them had a football field with bleachers. I found it pretty weird. That's not to say schools don't have sports fields here in Canada but they are not always explicitly for football as they seem to be in the US. I guess hockey would be the Canadian equivalent but not every school has a rink.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:33 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


an oil executive who became rich, and then a very successful state level politician -- almost entirely to his status as a former star for a beloved state football program.

Without naming the Fortune 300 business that I've had some recent dealings with, I did research the corporate officers and found that many if not most of the senior execs had sports achievements. From what I could tell, they didn't seem like the jocky linebackers I knew in High School, but more like that quarterback who was also in AP math. There is a chance in my mind that military leadership and sports excellence might actually be a true management asset, in a mid-western heavy-machinery industry. The quarterbacks don't get their brains scrambled as much, do they?
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:40 PM on February 11


An interesting part of this was the financial power the NFL holds, which comes from its monopoly power. I seem to recall that the courts or Congress or somebody has decided that the NFL isn't actually a monopoly, for some good patriotic American reason or another.
posted by clawsoon at 12:43 PM on February 11


  • Brain Injuries
  • Strong-Arming Newsmen into Cover-Ups
  • Off-Field Behavior of the Players
  • Treatment of Cheerleaders
  • Team Names
  • Stadium Deals
  • Tax Status
  • Preventing Players from Speaking Out on Matters of Race
What good, exactly, does professional football do for society?
posted by MrGuilt at 12:52 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


I guess hockey would be the Canadian equivalent but not every school has a rink.

A hockey rink and a football field are two different levels of construction/maintenance. I have no idea how different, but I would hazard to guess that a hockey rink is the more resource-intensive of the two. Like, football fields don't have zambonis. So the question is, if money weren't an issue, would all canadian high schools have rinks?

Also, football can go die under a rock somewhere.
posted by axiom at 12:58 PM on February 11


This article, by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" unit & hosted on espn.com, includes critical coverage of ESPN's choices:
Those tensions have surfaced at ESPN, which famously cancelled its popular 2003 series Playmakers after only one season following complaints from the NFL. Outside the Lines' yearslong reporting on football's concussion crisis has led to numerous complaints from the NFL.
Thanks and go you, OTL.

Jon Bois's 17776 always comes back to me when I think about CTEs and football. And Mako Hill's "Cultivated Disinterest in Professional Sports" is what comes to mind when I think about the way that small talk about football is a bridge for many people in the US... what good does it do for society? It is an institution that people use to connect, although that good thing does not offset all the bad things.
posted by brainwane at 12:59 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


My NFL fandom held out for way longer than it should have because I thought it was important to continue to have critical voices in the "discourse" about the sport. I live in Baltimore and like, giving a fuck about the Ravens is sort of a baseline for connecting with a lot of the people I meet around the neighborhood, etc (when i venture outside of my punk rock queer artsy bubble anyway)

But after a certain point I just could NOT give my mental energy to the sport anymore. (the ray rice situation. the colin kaepernick situation. the kneeling situation. the CTE situation. the nine thousand other situations.) My heart just wouldn't let me continue to care about the NFL and honestly, it's kind of great to have my Sundays back. I'm not like, half drunk and probably depressed after watching the 1pm game that the Ravens probably lost and then flying into a rage any time anyone mentions Tom Brady.

Sometimes I'll catch a couple of plays while i'm out at a bar or something and DANG THO football is just suuuuch an addictive, fun, interesting thing to watch on TV. I can watch like, any game, any team, and most likely find something to enjoy. (I don't feel like it's such a "cult of personality" type game as like, baseball, for example, which (to me) is much more enjoyable if you are familiar with the players. For me at least, football is inherently fun to watch.)
I even like the delays and time outs and constant play stoppage! It gives me time to worry, which is my favorite thing to do while watching sports!

BUT I JUST CANT ANYMORE. i wish i could sometimes, but the NFL's constant and endless shittiness has finally reached the point where any joy i'd get out of watching a game or being a fan or whatever is just completely drowned out by the utter odiousness of the National. Football. League.

Great piece, great post. (also, i gotta watch Concussion!)
posted by capnsue at 1:03 PM on February 11 [8 favorites]


So glad I did not play football in HS.

My regular PE coach was also the football coach. I made the mistake of angrily running a 5:40 mile while weighing like 230-240 pounds, and I was fat but ripped from surfing and skateboarding. And I was doing dumb shit like doing 1000 pound leg presses and not realizing that that wasn't really average or normal because my legs were monsters from all the skateboarding and surfing and generally moving around like a much lighter, smaller person

And I was obviously smart and nerdy.

He wanted me bad. The speed, size and brains probably made me a dream candidate. He kept dropping hints I should try out for football.

He finally pulled me aside and basically tried to tell me I HAD to play football, I would be wasting my gifts if I didn't, and he even went as far as insinuating it would get me laid... By hot cheerleaders or something.

The older I get the more I appreciate my snappy responses. "No way!" "Why not?" "For one I hate football, for two I hate coaches, but most importantly I have better things to do with my brain than ram it into other people's brains."

I can still remember watching his face react to that. Repulsed and insulted, at first, then like I just slapped him hard across the face with a big greasy dildo. I still savor it because this dude was a huge jerk and a creep, and it may have been the first time I properly told an adult to go fuck themselves.

And back then openly calling out football for brain damage was about as unorthodox as calling out smoking in the 1950s. It just wasn't even talked about and was a forbidden topic and practically unamerican.

I failed PE that year. He started riding my ass and making me do extra shit like I was one of his players anyway. He probably thought he was helping me develop character. I just started ditching that class, often just intentionally, blatantly strolling right by the class I was supposed to be in to go off campus.

So, so glad I didn't play. My knees would be gone, and so would my fun, lovely brain. Thanks brain, I love you.
posted by loquacious at 1:14 PM on February 11 [62 favorites]


So, so glad I didn't play. My knees would be gone, and so would my fun, lovely brain. Thanks brain, I love you.

I signed up for football in Junior High. Got a uniform, helmet, shoulderpads, and the coolest part of all, the custom mouthguard. My mother waited until I committed some kind of behavioral infraction, and... BOOM! the punishment was no football for LIFE! Thanks mom, I love you.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:29 PM on February 11 [16 favorites]


There is a chance in my mind that military leadership and sports excellence might actually be a true management asset, in a mid-western heavy-machinery industry.

lol no

there's a similar bias (or used to be) for traders. it has literally nothing to do with their ability to trade and everything to do with the biases of the people doing the hiring
posted by schadenfrau at 1:38 PM on February 11 [15 favorites]


I wanted to play football as a kid but was above the weight limit. So, so glad. Nine years ago, one of my best friends, a former player with lots of pounding-headache and sociopathic-coach stories, had no clue that my wife was pregnant just a week after we'd had an hourlong conversation about it. Scary.
posted by Lyme Drop at 1:39 PM on February 11


What good, exactly, does professional football do for society?

Indeed. It's one reason why I have shifted away from watching Football/NFL and am more interested in eSports/competitive fighting video-games. That being said, eSports has an ugly misogyny and toxic gamergate problem, so it's not like it's that much better. The abuse is just different and pointed elsewhere.

The common denominators here seem to be masculinity, capitalism, & competition. This perfect recipe of ugly toxicity and violence. Ugh, I made myself sad. Fuck.
posted by Fizz at 1:42 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]


This issue makes me SO ANGRY. My cousin played a lot of football in high school and then MYSTERIOUSLY around starting college started to get these MYSTERIOUS symptoms of his brain not working so good???????? Almost like it got all bashed around for a long time and there are defined symptoms of that and that’s the problem he’s having??? It’s just so UNFORTUNATE that mental illness could mysteriously arrive out of nowhere. Of course for his parents to get him evaluated for traumatic brain injury would be to admit fault soooo. That’s that.
posted by bleep at 2:55 PM on February 11 [5 favorites]


I just hate football so much - it’s fascist, sexist, racist, brutal, hurts people in about every single possible way humans have ever hurt each other - and I feel so helpless bc my husband will put it on and expect me to sit there and tolerate it, and he doesn’t even care about it very much. But that’s what he wants. Everything about it makes me want to punch someone across a room. It’s toxic and needs to go.
posted by bleep at 2:59 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Let's center ourselves with the wisdom of George Carlin. on Football vs. Baseball.
posted by mikelieman at 3:45 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


And this is kind of why a lot of people are like "Yay, sportsball." about these things. It's not that we're just not interested or think it's weird lame jock stuff because we're nerds, it's that we find the game and industry to be harmful, violent and even atavistically retrograde like gladiatorial combat or something.

And it's definitely not because we're nerds who would be or are bad at football/sportsball. I would have been a fantastic football player. I've played pick up fun mud football games and it would devolve into me against everyone one else and I could just walk the ball up the field with people hanging on to me like a giant human Voltron, with full grown average size adults clingingto my legs like kids taking a ride on dad's foot. It was hilarious.

I definitely wasn't opposed to bashing people around, I played street hockey and did SCA mock combat stuff. I was a surfer and skateboarder, and worse, a skimboarder!

It's telling that one of the screening questions for depression and other issues now - if they know what they're doing - is brain trauma and injuries. If you check yourself in or are checked in for a 72 hour pysch watch and hold, this is one of the primary questions they ask or should be asking.

And so we build a multi-billion dollar industry around this glorified brain trauma and recreational violence and call it sport? Millions and millions of youth feeding this machine from youth to collegiate football and then, for some, pro? And we're spending huge amounts of educational dollars at thousands of schools from primary and high school to college and uni - places of education! - revolving around a sport that involves this much brain trauma and mental health issues?

And then we practically have a national holiday about it where even non-football fans join Superbowl parties? And we all sit around and watch a bunch of very expensive advertisements as entertainment and some often hyped up and/or controversial and/or milquetoast halftime show?

I'm sorry, is this not more than a just little casually barbaric?
posted by loquacious at 3:57 PM on February 11 [12 favorites]


An example of Bob Costa's TV show 'Later with Bob Costa': Bob interviews Glen Campbell. There are plenty more on youtube to watch, I recommend you find one whose subject interests you and marvel at his interviewing skills/research ability.
posted by el io at 4:06 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


if money weren't an issue, would all canadian high schools have rinks?

High schools? Hell, junior high schools would have them. The number of kids I see getting signed in late each day in elementary school here is baffling. And while the issue of concussions in hockey isn't as bad as in football, it's still significant. I know kids who have given up on the sport before their teen years due to head injuries.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 4:28 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Indeed. I don't dislike pro sports because I think they're boring or because I think jocks are assholes, I dislike pro sports because I think they are fucking evil.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:38 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


And bleep, not to get in the middle of your marriage or anything, but why do you put up with something that makes you want to hulk smash when your husband doesn't even care very much about it? It seems important to you and not very important to him, so…
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:58 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


What I've found is that it's much easier for me to just take football down from the outside via angry internet comments if I don't want to watch it.
posted by bleep at 5:04 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


What good, exactly, does professional football do for society?

I can name one thing. In my city, on Sunday when we don black and gold, we forget about red and blue, for a day. Then when we see each other on Monday, we're not so fast to get polarized again either. That's valuable. It keeps lines of communication open.
posted by M-x shell at 6:37 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


I live in Pittsburgh which is one of if not the most fanatical football cities so it took me a while to work up the resolve to quit but I've found it very freeing to not care about football any more. Unfortunately, I live a few blocks from the stadium so even if I'm not watching TV, I can hear the game from my house and of course most people don't believe me that I don't care about Dah Stillers and didn't watch last night's game.

On the other hand, it's a great time to go to the movies or do your grocery shopping. The Giant Eagles in Pittsburgh are totally empty during games so you can just breeze right through.
posted by octothorpe at 7:37 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Bob Costas is such an astonishingly good interviewer that it's kind-of a shame his true love is sports. Every now and then he interviews a politician for some reason and he usually takes them apart, in a way that political reporters/interviewers never do.

(If you want to see some major contrast between someone who's excellent at his job and someone who's terrible at his job, watch Olympic coverage from NBC from the last couple Olympics, and observe the difference between Bob Costas's interesting, smart, humane interviewing of athletes, often drawing out nervous athletes who've never been on camera before and addressing controversies or painful losses with straightforward honesty but also warmth and sensitivity, whether he's holding Ryan Lochte to account or drawing out shy gymnasts. Then watch Matt Lauer interview the same athletes at the same Olympics, where he asks INANE questions, frequently answers them himself, steps all over his interview subject's words, while bro-ing around in the most toxic way with the men, and leering and smirking at the women who are clearly uncomfortable.)

"We should also maybe deplatform football. But I know that sounds insane."

This is happening a little bit. When I started on school board almost ten years ago, we were discussing city stadium renovation and I was the lone resister against the idea of pumping big money into the stadium renovation, which was going to "set us up for another 40 years," and I asked, "But are we even going to be playing football in 40 years? I mean, the state's tightening concussion rules as we speak and fewer parents are enrolling their sons ..." and everyone thought I was nuts. By the time I left the board, five years ago, they had decided not to renovate the city stadium but instead to create (much cheaper) multipurpose fields at the high schools that could serve football, soccer, lacrosse, etc. Now when they talk about the budget, football is a real concern -- not only is it a cash-intensive sport with all the equipment required (and the many coaches and many players), but the insurance for it is INSANE. (Only hockey costs more to insure in my state, which is why most teams are club teams, not school teams.) The district spends about $1.2 million on sports, of which $600,000 is football, of which $300,000 is just the insurance. It's NUTS.

Ten years ago not letting you kids play football was a position you quietly admitted to and hedged around a little bit; now it's super-normal and when someone says they WILL let their kids play, sometimes the other moms gasp in shock. The people who are letting their kids play are apologetic when they say so and explain the concussion policy of the league in question. It's just a huge sea change in a short period of time. And while that won't choke the pipeline immediately, it's going to start having effects. Pop Warner clubs are smaller than they used to be just a decade ago. In some places -- the south, Texas -- kids will probably keep playing as much for cultural reasons as anything. In other places (poor urban areas in the north), football is sometimes the one safe space for young men trying to stay out of trouble. But a lot of middle-class parents who would have let their sons play a generation ago just won't, and it's going to start to choke out suburban high school teams, who will have a lot less talent to draw on, and whose schools will start losing interest in programs that don't do very well (not because they're huge on winning, but because losing 6 of 8 games a season isn't really any fun and boys will drift into other sports where more of their friends are and where it's not a lose-every-game slog).

"I did research the corporate officers and found that many if not most of the senior execs had sports achievements. From what I could tell, they didn't seem like the jocky linebackers I knew in High School, but more like that quarterback who was also in AP math. There is a chance in my mind that military leadership and sports excellence might actually be a true management asset, in a mid-western heavy-machinery industry. "

It's actually a super well-known statistic that high school students involved in sports tend (on average) to be academically higher achievers than their non-sports peers, and this holds up and down the academic range -- gifted students involved in sports tend to overachieve their gifted-but-no-sports peers, but remedial students involved in sports ALSO tend to do better than their non-sports peers. Kids involved in sports are less likely to drop out, even if they have chaotic home lives.

There are other activities that can create the same kind of effect -- strong music departments or drama programs, for example -- where kids a) have a thing they love about school and b) have a thing they need to keep their grades up to keep participating in and c) have coach/teacher-mentors who encourage excellence and use the extracurricular to impart lessons about hard work, practice, self-control, etc. and d) feel like part of a team. Sports is just one of the easiest and most culturally-available ways to do this, and there's so many of them to choose from that most people can find at least one they like, and while music takes a lot of years of specialized lessons, almost anybody can walk in off the street and join the underclass track team, because you know how to run and jump and throw things, even if you suck at it.

Anyway there's definitely also a cultural thing where people who make it to the pro leagues, even if they don't get very far, get a lot of opportunities in jobs that are unrelated. But there's also just a lot of talented, hardworking people who busted their butts in college while ALSO playing varsity volleyball or running track or fencing or playing soccer or whatever. That's not surprising at all! You expect smart, highly driven people to have some achievements in realms outside their jobs, and one of the most common realms is sports.

--

Anyway. I grew up loving football, went to a football college, and I can barely watch at this point. I can't watch college at all, even when my alma mater is making a playoff run, because they're KIDS and they're not getting PAID. I can still watch pro, but I don't enjoy it very much anymore. I just know too much about how much damage it's doing. But at least the pros are getting paid so I don't have to just turn off the TV or leave the room, like I do when college ball is on. It's too awful to watch.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:50 PM on February 11 [15 favorites]


It's actually a super well-known statistic that high school students involved in sports tend (on average) to be academically higher achievers than their non-sports peers, and this holds up and down the academic range -- gifted students involved in sports tend to overachieve their gifted-but-no-sports peers, but remedial students involved in sports ALSO tend to do better than their non-sports peers. Kids involved in sports are less likely to drop out, even if they have chaotic home lives.

Part of the utility of this though is in what is being measured and deemed valuable, and how that can vary by context, both of the individual and their needs and by the societal interest. There's no question that some students can really gain by having an activity that provides a solid base for greater investment into study and builds a stronger sense of self accomplishment, but at the same time the team oriented coach first hierarchy of sports carries its own social rules that can be as destructive as they are empowering depending on the sport and situation. It doesn't take much digging, for example, to see how the premier male team sports warp the reality of high school and college lifer and learning, where the emphasis is placed on the sport before and adherence to a rigid social structure before any thought of learning, leading to numerous instances of academic fraud on the one hand and rampant physical and sexual abuse being tolerated on the other.

Other extracurricular activities sometimes also share this problem, where the demand to force the individual to bow to the group has caused serious incidents of harm or just "better" feeds a social order that relies on people knowing their place and not trying to exceed it. Some activities or similar activities in different settings, however, can help develop a stronger sense of individuality and aid in helping students work to overcome obstacles, so it isn't a one size fits all issue even with team sports, but those are often the worst offenders in abusing power. That team building and the associated demands of those sorts of activities also can create repercussions for people who do not want to join that kind of structure is also something that needs noting since those that choose not to join in can be labelled as outsiders by dint of the importance of how we use sports and teams as a measure of worth. There is something a bit self defining in that which isn't so great.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:30 PM on February 11


Bob Costas on NFL protests on Sept 25 2017 (articulate critique of Trump, but the entire interview is worth watching its in entirety). Midway through that interview, Bob makes an aside about brain injury in the NFL - "The science is clear, and the more that science emerges.... Football and brain trauma are linked... and to deny that is to live in a fantasy world."
posted by el io at 12:11 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


There's also the fact that students athletes are sometimes literally not allowed to receive bad grades, because bad grades would prevent them from being permitted to play and their team needs their contribution, so excuse me Ms. Smith but little Johnny here really deserves at least a B in your class, don't you think? Thanks, I knew you'd understand.

Athletes, especially talented ones, often receive academic support that non-athletes do not, sometimes including straight-up fabrication of grades. So that may be part of why they perform better academically than non-athletes—they are considered too valuable to be allowed to fail.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:28 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


Athletes, especially talented ones, often receive academic support that non-athletes do not, sometimes including straight-up fabrication of grades. So that may be part of why they perform better academically than non-athletes—they are considered too valuable to be allowed to fail.

Exactly, but even were that not true or a minimal issue, one might still just point to the added individual attention and social reward athletes and students involved in officially sanctioned after school activities receive that other students don't. If all students received the same level of attention and found social reward for their interests how much of a difference in grades would there be?
posted by gusottertrout at 3:56 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"Athletes, especially talented ones, often receive academic support that non-athletes do not, sometimes including straight-up fabrication of grades. So that may be part of why they perform better academically than non-athletes—they are considered too valuable to be allowed to fail."

Sorry, I should have been more clear -- they perform better on objective (-ish) measures such as the SAT and ACT. (And while college athletes institutionally have access to tutors that might help with that sort of test prep, high school athletes don't.)

Look, there's no question that marquee sports can be super fucked up. But the vast majority of varsity high school athletes don't go on to play in college, and don't intend to. And the vast, vast majority of college athletes don't go pro (and don't intend to). And the majority of high schools sports programs are things like six local high schools playing a round-robin season with practices twice a week and games once a week, with a math teacher earning an extra $60/week during the season as the football coach in the fall and the track coach in the spring, under an administration that values sports as an extracurricular activity that engages students in the school community, not as a thing to win at at all costs, where homecoming is about a dance and people can't really be arsed to go to the attached football game because they have other things to do. The refs tend heavily towards college students who started reffing youth recreational sports when they were in high school (it pays okay for a high school weekend job) and now ref high school sports for college spending money and parents who don't actually know that much about the game but heard more refs were needed and took the state's class. (In most districts these days, hardly anybody but the players' parents go to football games. Most students at a typical urban or suburban high school couldn't tell you who the quarterback is and only know who's on sports teams because they dress up on game day. Schools are always trying to gin up spectator attendance at student extracurriculars, with very limited success.)

(In my old district, it was large enough and had enough phys ed teachers that you'd think that's where the coaches would come from, but the high school phys ed teachers were, as a group, intense chess nerds who poured all their after-school commitments into running chess clubs at every elementary school in the district, organizing the largest youth chess tournament in the state, and running community chess programs to encourage interest by parents. I have no idea how this particular state of affairs came about, like if one started playing and got everyone else hooked?, but all the chess clubs were run by high school gym teachers who had no time to coach volleyball or baseball because they were too busy teaching 7-year-olds chess, and I swear to God the entire city was playing chess. And I am not very good at chess! Slightly better than I am at sports, I guess, but pretty bad.)

Anyway, the main point remains, Bob Costas is good at his job and fewer parents are letting their kids play football these days. Side point, high school athletics tend to have beneficial effects for students, when properly run and supervised and properly subordinated to academics, although definitely we hear a lot more about fucked-up programs and win-at-all-costs asshole coaches auditioning for college jobs. Side point to the side point, I did not participate in high school athletics and was not interested in doing so and would rather have actually showed up at a math test naked than be forced to engage in sports, so I'm not like a personal sports partisan where it's something I personally loved and it was an important part of my high school career. My personal feelings are a lot more along the lines of "uggggggggggggh, whyyyyyyyyyyy"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:46 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I hear what you're saying Eyebrows, and don't want to get into the weeds over this, but I think it's important to really emphasize the social acceptance aspect of this and how it filters down to students because it informs how the society also views the NFL and sports in general.

Unless the claim is that playing sports actually makes people smarter just for participating then there are other elements involved beyond the activity itself. My suggestion is that the excessive value society places on sports and, and maybe even more competition in general provides an added morale boost to those who join, signals competition is the expected form of social dominance, and as importantly can signal to those who don't participate your interests aren't as important and you aren't as valuable a member of society as those who who compete. If there's a better way to kill the advancement of young people than to tell them they don't matter all that much I'm not sure what it is.

There've been enough studies to show SAT tests aren't neutral measures of assessment to say that using them as evidence has some problems. It isn't to say that people who play sports are less likely to succeed or to have a better self image, that may well be true and lead to better results in testing, but that the values that provide that boost are themselves questionable and need to be revisited. That the NFL and other pro sports leagues have such outsized influence on society goes back to that same issue as it starts at the bottom and feeds the entire social order.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:19 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Am I the only person here who played football all through high school?

Lucky for me I was moderately athletic at best, so I played wide receiver on a team that always ran the ball.
posted by clawsoon at 8:18 AM on February 12


Unless the claim is that playing sports actually makes people smarter just for participating then there are other elements involved beyond the activity itself.

I think you might be confusing correlation and causation? Kids who are good at long term planning and strategy and grinding out tedious types of practice to get better in the long run and showing up every day to do the work even if you don't see payoffs right away are in a better position to succeed in academic settings. The habits that make for a good athlete are similar to the habits that make for a decent to good student.

When I taught college English at a D1 school, the student athletes (most of whom did not play the big sports) were often driven and patient and able to listen to feedback and use it to improve. They weren't necessarily brilliant, but they were good at school, because being good at school consists of a series of skills you can practice, and those skills are pretty similar to the ones you practice to get good at sports. They were less likely to use "but I tried hard!!!" as the reason they deserved an A. They were less likely to skip class. I had sort of a vague anti-jock mindset before that (nerd circles, you know), and I was surprised at how little my expectations lined up with reality.

(Also, FWIW, one of our teams was a national powerhouse, and the coach never urged teachers to "fix" grades-- something that honestly shocked me at the time. We all kept waiting for him to try to strongarm TAs into taking care of his students, and instead he would use their bad grades as a teaching moment. whaaaaaaaaaat??)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:26 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I was a gymnast in high school. My coach would not infrequently make reference to the fact that gymnastics had a similar injury rate as football, which he used to mean that we were tough and serious athletes. Which we were, but it's a weird thing to make a point of pride, even if culturally it makes sense. My joints are probably a little creakier these days than they would have been otherwise, which I pretty much expected would happen, but at least I never had head injuries, or major risk of them.

For me, it was perfect to have a physically demanding sport with absolutely no competitive aspect. We had people in our program who did competitions, but most of us there didn't. It was just about pushing yourself and learning flashy new things you could make your body do.

Sports are great, and I don't think there's anything wrong with having a sport that is also a game, per se, but making it a masculinized competition (or a competition of masculinity) is where things start to go south pretty quick.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:05 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I was on the gridiron for my 7th and 8th grade years in school. Lucky for me, I hadn't hit my growth spurt (which would propel me to the size of NFL linebackers/tight ends) so I was on the "C" team, the worst of three tiers for my grade. As such, the hits came from unathletic kids with poor technique, and my brain was affected far less than some of my peers those years.

When I hit high school and my growth spurt, I started swimming (I learned years later that my dad, whose collegiate football career was derailed in high school when he refused to snitch on his teammates for smoking, was secretly EXTREMELY happy I chose not to throw my body away for football), and my athletic prowess eventually put me ahead of 99% of the swimmers in the nation (for my events). Thank god I made that choice. It turns out I'm highly motivated when it comes to athletic endeavors, and I would have thrown my all at whichever sport I chose to focus on. It's likely I would have had a fruitful collegiate career as well, since my HS was a football powerhouse in Texas and would have sent a dozen players from my graduating year to D1 schools if not for a bunch of them getting caught with drugs or being violent. I'd almost certainly have CTE if I chose to play.

Now I enjoy two sports on complete opposite ends of the discussion regarding brain trauma: eSports and MMA. I try to reconcile MMA and CTE with the notion that fighters don't have to sustain trauma when they are training, and the brain trauma incurred during fights (in my understanding) isn't nearly as negatively impactful as sustained sub-concussive shots to the head seen in football.

Of course, fighters of all levels will always spar pretty heavily in practice, and expecting a fighter to hang it up when they should is like asking an opiate addict to just stop doing drugs, so I'm watching dudes incur brain damage similarly to NFL players, and with the same environment of toxic masculinity as football.

I try to minimize the material impact I could have by...finding modern solutions to modern problems...in order to watch MMA events without buying access to the event or giving them ad/click revenue, but I still satiate my desire to watch this guilty pleasure called fighting.
posted by Gatyr at 10:10 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


STL misses you, Bob Costas.

Also, fuck Stan Kroenke. For everything.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 11:57 AM on February 12


I love football and I miss it so much, but I can't watch it anymore. The CTE issue is hardly the only one on my mind, but it was the the proverbial straw. This was my first full year where I skipped every single game, didn't check scores and wandered away from work conversations on the topic. There are other sports that I love, but nothing quite scratches the same itch as football.

None the less, I can't watch it without thinking "did that kid just mess up his brain forever" every time the ball snaps. Good on Bob Costas for keeping this topic out front.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:00 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I just finished listening to "The Gladiator" podcast about Aaron Hernandez (himself discussed here in 2013). I'm not sure the tone of the podcast was exactly right but it was interesting. For such a short life, it does appear that Hernandez got into a lot of trouble. The study of his brain post-mortem revealed so much damage. I remember growing up that there was talk about the sport of boxing and how we couldn't support something that was so clearly damaging to the players. Football seems to really have a hold on the imaginations and wallets of the fans, I don't know what else could come to light (in what is also a completely corrupt system) to change the tide.

What struck me, listening especially toward the end of "The Gladiator" is how so many of these issues with players are behind the veil of masculinity. (Nothing more masculine than a veil, amiright?) Carousing, drinking, bro-ing, sports, chasing women, body-building, skirting the law, taking drugs – a lot of that seems to naturally fall under "boys will be boys." And youth! We are always willing to give a pass to young men who behave like crazy louts because....c'mon! Boys! We never stop giving them a pass no matter how old they get but that's a separate issue. When you combine our cultural tendency to wait this youthful phase out with star-making, sports-hero-worship, and a money-making agenda, it's all too easy to miss (refuse to see, gloss over, deny) the issues Hernandez (and so many others) are struggling with. Like, is he just being a bro or is he suffering from cognitive impairment? Is he a "thug" or suffering from mini strokes and blackouts? We don't really want to know.

I wonder if we'd tolerate the sport if we knew that the players were lobotomized before being sent out on the field to "play" a game of thrashing each other? A segment of sports fans would probably be fine with that but I like to think that would end our national obsession with "gladiators." And, yeah, "lobotomy" is an extreme and inexact way of putting this but for some players, I think, it's not far from the mark.
posted by amanda at 8:00 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


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