Head Injuries, Dog-Fighting, and Disproportionate Damage

In response to: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/07/dog-fighting-and-american-football?fsrc=rss

“Older teen boys and young men, especially, are more or less capable stewards of their own welfare, and ought to be allowed to make most of their own decisions about risk.”

Ah, the question of agency!

“Mr Gladwell seems to argue that, in any event, we’re socialising our boys into an activity that will become dangerous should they rise to a level of competition at which the power, speed and brutality of the game genuinely threatens the health of its players’ brains (and knees and much else). However, by this age, it seems we really should take the agency of the players rather more seriously than Mr Gladwell seems willing to do.”

I find this contradictory and a weak argument. If Gladwell posits that we are socializing kids into a brutal game, then it should follow that the older players are more socialized into the game (as Gladwell suggests). The author is holding rather fast to the assumption of pure agency and seems to deny any influence of socialization.

“…we ought to leave him more or less free to make his own choices about peril.”

Military training is considered to be effective because of the distinct weakening of personal considerations of peril. Not convinced football training is different.

“…therefore it is not enough simply to inform young men about the serious risks of smashing into one another, because we cannot expect them to really evaluate those risks rationally.”

Yes. The failure of “rational” judgment is one of the key failures of neoclassical economic theory. People smoke, drink, drive, have unprotected sex, etc. etc. while completely acknowledging the risks. The failure to account for temporal selves or so-called “rational” ends beyond personal well-being is an error of this line of thinking.

“Similar reasoning would support banning military service for men and women under, say, 25, and especially for those with few other economic prospects.”

Side note: the military effectively does “ban” those with other economic prospects and the bulk of ground forces come for the lower-middle class. Weak argument.

“American culture relentlessly glamourises the car, and our infrastructure makes it hard not to own one. Yet driving is the most dangerous thing we routinely do. Therefore, parents who give their kids Hot Wheels for Christmas are the moral equivalent of Michael Vick? Obviously not. Ban cars? Obviously not.”

Logical failures: scale and context. The author acknowledges the failure of his analogy before suggesting it (and our infrastructure makes it hard not to own one). The obviously not is not so obvious. And driving doesn’t necessarily involve head injuries–it can, and thus, yes, it is imperative on the parent teaching the kid to drive to educate the new driver on how to deal with the dangers inherent in this (sadly) necessary activity. I don’t disagree with the author’s brief discussion of incentivizing alternatives to driving–but note the similarities between this and his military reasoning. To those with resources and alternatives go the spoils. To those with fewer recourses go the “rationally” less attractive alternatives. Some people can’t afford to live in urban areas where biking and walking are options. Some people can’t afford the better equipped cars if they do in fact live in need-to-drive areas. Incentives are a great market mechanism, but the presence of a market and alternatives doesn’t absolve it from furthering stratification.

“…[not a] public health issue…In any case, football can and should be made safer. That requires changing the rules to forbid especially dangerous forms of contact, a development already well under way.”

No doubt. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a public health issue. I’ll touch on this in a second.

“I will freely admit that it has taken me many decades to free my mind from the thrilling propaganda of NFL Films and see football for what it really is: hours of tedious milling-about punctuated occasionally by a few seconds of largely incoherent shoving and scrambling.”

Wait. He’s admitting that he’s even been socialized as a spectator. And he’s supposed to be smart…he writes for the Economist…


What both the author of this article and Gladwell (as cited here) miss, is that the dog-fighting analogy doesn’t only extend to football, but to other arenas as well. This most certainly can be viewed as a public health issue, especially since the damages fall disproportionately on minorities and the economically disenfranchised. In some ways, and it pains me, the game of football appears the the famous Battle Royale scene in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Black men beating each other up for the entertainment of the moneyed-whites. That a few suffer at the expense of this entertainment is largely immaterial to the those in power who are beholden to the doctrine of individualism and who believe those engaged in the fight are “freely choosing” to be there. That isn’t to say people don’t love the sport of football. And that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to get hurt for it. But, to say that football is germane to the human existence would be a stretch (as it would be with any sport or form of put-on competition). People act on the opportunities before them and find meaning in the activities they are socialized into. Gladwell’s argument isn’t far from the truth in my estimation. But the problem must be realized as the somewhat more controversial issue of disproportionate damages. And football and head injuries aren’t the only manifestation of this fact.


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