Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The NFL and The Hunger Games

Andrew Sullivan has been likening the NFL to Big Tobacco, an enterprise that millions enjoy but appears to be unhealthy, even lethal, to participants. The analogy is not a perfect one, but if you watch The Hunger Games, we can see that the analogy both holds some water while not necessarily proving the NFL to be a lethal enterprise.

Two years ago, I read Peter Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk, in which Mlodinow demonstrates how we have far less control over life than we think we do, but also how we misunderstand statistics. The relevant example from the book is the lottery. Mldinow refers to state lotteries in America, but this would be true in many places: the lottery effectively kills one person while rewarding another with a large cash prize. The number of extra car trips generated by the purchase of state lottery tickets means that one person will die as a result.

In The Hunger Games, too, there is a weeks-long sporting event that completely rivets society for its duration while killing 23 people for their entertainment. The NFL doesn't quite kill people with such immediacy, but I think it's not absurd to say that 23 (if not more) out of the 2,000 or so players involved in professional football will die an early death. Technically, the Hunger Games kills people every year, while there probably aren't 2,000 new NFL players every year, so the Hunger Games are more lethal on balance, but you already knew that to begin with.

While it's true that the NFL can be seen as people killed for the entertainment of others, it's really not without precedent or equivalent. Even if we leave out the fact that the NFL enriches its participants tremendously, paying them wages over a career that it would take the average person decades if not a lifetime to earn, we have the example of lottery tickets, where one person's riches all but entails the death of another.

Concern for the health of the players and the athletes we profess to admire is necessary, and I think fans should be cognizant of how dangerous the game has become. Still, in the quest to make football safer, our voice is weak if it is even existent in the first place, far overshadowed by that the of the medical profession, the league, the players and their union.

While the concern is incumbent on our part, it is not true that we should feel guilty for watching the game. It'll be a long time before somebody can convince me that I should feel guilt for the seven hours I spent one Sunday afternoon and evening watching the Patriots, Ravens, Giants and 49ers play for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, particularly since everyone involved is a grown adult.

So, the NFL is not quite The Hunger Games, but not without its own lethal aspects that require our attention. As for the movie, it is worth watching as a sports fan for the way it parodies, quite skillfully, the hype machine of gobbledygook that accompanies virtually any significant sporting event around the world, or even the idea of sport as a spectator event itself.

1 comment:

Alex said...

Confession: this is probably the first of your football posts I've actually read all the way through. All you had to do was mention the Hunger Games.