Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel — Samuel Johnson
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others — Matthew 23:23
In late May, the NFL announced that, starting with the 2018 season, players could no longer kneel during the national anthem. They could remain in the locker room during its playing but if they knelt they and/or their teams would be subject to a fine.
Commissioner Roger Goodell told the media that “clearly our objective as a league and to all 32 clubs, which was unanimous, is that we want people to be respectful of the national anthem.”
Well, not exactly “unanimous.” Jets owner Christopher Johnson, of these Johnsons, told Newsday that he wouldn’t discipline any player who took a knee and would pay any fine imposed by the league on their behalf. San Francisco 49er CEO Jed York said that he abstained on the vote.
Clearly, while no owner wants to encourage disrespect for the national anthem, any “consensus” on what constitutes disrespect exists mostly in the commissioner’s imagination.
The same week the NFL announced its new policy, the second episode of Season Three of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” dropped. The episode, “Burden of Proof,” told two seemingly-unrelated stories.
The first was the story of a young man named Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania student who committed suicide in 2010. Or, to be more precise, it was the story of how Thomas’ death shocked and devastated his family.
The second story was about Frederick Hoffman who, at the turn of the 20th century, was the chief statistician for Prudential Insurance Company. As part of his job, Hoffman kept close tabs on the health of workers insured by the company.
Those workers included coal miners who often suffered from what was then known as “miner’s asthma,” what today is called “Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis” or “black lung disease.” They would have “coughing fits and spit up this black inky substance.” The longer they worked in the mines, the worse their “asthma” got.
As Gladwell pointed out, none of this was disputed at the time. What was disputed was whether breathing all this coal dust and then coughing up a “black inky substance” was bad for you. Really. So, Hoffman set out to answer the question.
His findings, published in a report entitled “Mortality from Respiratory Diseases in the Dusty Trades,” was a methodical examination of mortality rates among coal miners. He concluded that miner’s asthma was reducing life expectancy to a significant degree, and that the government, industry, and the medical profession should be concerned.
The response was silence. The mountain of evidence Hoffman produced wasn’t enough for them and wouldn’t be for another fifty-plus years.
As Gladwell noted, our response to this story is most likely a self-satisfied “We would never do that.” Belief in our sophistication, moral sensitivity, and “chronological snobbery,” makes it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine ourselves failing to act in the wake of this kind of evidence.
Gladwell’s answer was one word: football.
At this point, the connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is indisputable. While, thankfully, not everyone who plays football will develop CTE, playing football puts people at a much higher risk of developing it than those who don’t.
What’s more, you don’t have to play in the NFL, with its improbably large and fast men throwing their bodies around, to be afflicted with CTE. Owen Thomas, whose family Gladwell spoke to, had developed it by his early twenties despite “only” playing in the Ivy League.
That’s because the “trauma” in CTE isn’t only, or even primarily, caused by hits like this one. It’s the result of repeated blows to the head, many of which occur in practice and others that are regarded as a routine part of the game.
But as with miner’s asthma, I suspect that no amount of evidence will change people’s minds, starting with the owners, about the game. Upton Sinclair, by way of explaining his loss in the 1934 California gubernatorial election, said that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Similarly, for many Americans, football is more than a game — it’s a way of life. It’s a source of their identity. Nearly $2 billion was bet on professional and college football in Nevada alone last year. Thanks to the Supreme Court, that number is set to rise. By a lot. What’s a few destroyed minds compared to all that enjoyment and revenue?
While I don’t really watch football anymore, my favorite team in any sport are still the New York Football Giants. Their four Super Bowl victories are some of my happiest memories, not just in sports but, if I’m honest, in life. I loved it when Justin Tuck trolled Cowboy fans at the recent NFL Draft. It’s difficult to let go of a lifetime-long emotional attachment.
Apparently, what isn’t difficult is hiding behind the national anthem and patriotism to distract attention from what the game itself is doing to the players. What’s not difficult is not only denying and downplaying the risks associated with the game but also pressuring your “broadcast partners” to join you in the denial and downplaying.
The same league that acted with such urgency regarding standing during the national anthem dragged and continues to drag its feet on issues of player safety. It’s “concussion protocol” is widely regarded as a joke.
So, spare me the sanctimonious “patriotism.” The NFL doesn’t “respect” the national anthem. If it did, it wouldn’t have charged the Pentagon millions of dollars “to honor service members and put on elaborate, ‘patriotic salutes’ to the military.” It would have done these things for free. Instead it wrapped itself in a flag that you and I paid for.
That makes them scoundrels and the worst kind of hypocrites. And it makes us fools if the distraction works. As the verse I quoted above makes it plain, our Lord had no patience for hypocrites, especially those who neglect “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” while making a public show of their piety, and neither should we.
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