“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”
That was George Orwell in “The Sporting Spirit” in December 1945 – and everyone ignored him. The Nazis would be gone soon. And soon the Americans would take care of the Japs, which they did, with two massive atomic bombs. And that was that. And no one wanted to hear that “serious” sport was war minus the shooting. And even if that were true, war was good. War took care of the bad guys. Manchester United played football. Those were two different things.
But the Duke of Wellington, a graduate of Eton College and commander of the British and allied armies at Waterloo, allegedly had said “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” – because one has to learn to kill one’s enemies somewhere. Or he might have meant something about clever tactics and organized effort and teamwork. Or perhaps Orwell was right.
Orwell was right. Michael Serazio just wrote a book about that – The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture – because Americans get off on hatred, cheer at boastfulness, and seem to admire those who disregard of all rules – they want to win – and do seem to take sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. This is, after all, is what professional football here is all about.
And now Andrew Luck announced he was retiring from the Indianapolis Colts. He was a wonderful quarterback behind a line that couldn’t protect him. It was massive injury followed by rehab and return, again and again, and he decided he’s made enough money. An extra thirty or forty million dollars didn’t matter. There was no point in continuing with this nonsense. It was time to just live his life, and enjoy his life. And when the fans heard that announced, they booed him long and hard. He’s twenty-nine damned years old! He owes them!
He said that hurt, but he shrugged. He’s out. Let others play the game. He wishes them well, but he’s out.
He doesn’t owe them, and Michael Serazio has a few things to say about that:
What really shocked those booing fans and the dumbstruck media was that Luck had violated the cardinal norm of sports culture – playing through the pain – after a career of fidelity to it.
Scholars call it “hegemonic masculinity,” a fancy phrase defining the traditional male ideal as being stoic, tough and aggressive. The body is an instrument of violence in this rationalization – alienating the player from his own feelings of tenderness, or at least neutralizing them via cortisone shots.
But there’s more:
The football helmet, in particular, is not just a form of protection but a means of dehumanization – a mask that prevents players from feeling “feminine” empathy and encourages them to unleash violence on their faceless opponents. And that violence has, historically, been a source of perverse joy for fans and grunts alike.
“It’s intoxicating, it’s a drug, a drug that gives you the most incredible feeling there is,” the former San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland once claimed of the “euphoric high” of his playing collisions. “Outside of sexual intercourse, there’s probably nothing like it.” (Despite this drug, however, he left the league after one season for fear of getting brain damage.)
Football announcers legitimize this macho violence with their regular homilies of adoration for those who can suck it up and work through that pain.
And it’s not just football announcers. It was Donald Trump in 2017:
During a campaign rally in Alabama on Friday (Sept. 22), Donald Trump wanted to talk about football.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,” Trump said during a rally to support Alabama senator Luther Strange. “Some owner will do that. That owner, they don’t know it, they’ll be the most popular person for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Trump also derided new NFL rules designed to avoid head injuries.
“Today if you hit too hard – 15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television – his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit! They want to hit. It is hurting the game.”
This isn’t the first time Trump has gone after the NFL: During the campaign, he said the game had “become too soft” and called concussions “a little ding on the head.”
That’s what Serazio was talking about:
Against this backdrop – with a career’s worth of rib cartilage shorn, a kidney lacerated, a concussion and a lower-leg mystery malady – Luck’s choice somehow shocked the nation. No one can or should question his toughness, but the callousness embedded in sports culture demands that we nonetheless do.
The former quarterback Steve Beuerlein gave the loudest voice to the macho take: “This I cannot defend or justify,” he tweeted. “No scenario where retirement is defensible.” Luck, he declared, “owes it to his team” to keep playing despite his injuries.
Serazio adds this:
Luck is part of a generation of players unlearning those masculine “truths” about hardened self-sacrifice and the nobility of suffering.
He also played his college football at Stanford, where the football players there are supposed to be student-scholars too, and are. They take real classes. They learn things. Luck has probably been thinking about those masculine “truths” about hardened self-sacrifice and the nobility of suffering for years. An actual college education can ruin everything, but perhaps the times are changing:
“I think that death looms over everything,” Greg Bishop, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, told me. “A big hit, definitely – you look at maybe something you would have celebrated before, you don’t celebrate as much now.”
In 2017 – a year after Borland, Calvin Johnson, Jerod Mayo and four times as many NFL twentysomethings had begged out early as in 2011 – sports broadcasting saw its first high-profile resignation when Ed Cunningham of ESPN stepped away from calling college football because of his “growing discomfort” with brain trauma.
But what about hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence? Donald Trump has sensed that’s what America really likes. And that might explain this:
Dismaying immigrants and advocates, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has sent out letters saying the agency will no longer consider most deferrals of deportation for people with serious medical conditions, documents show… Advocates said they received no formal announcement of a change in policy.
In fact, this seemed to be no more than gratuitous sadism, because this was a minor program:
The small program, known as “medical deferred action,” allows people to remain in the U.S. for two-year periods if they can prove extreme medical need. Many of the people affected by the policy change came to the U.S. through a visa or other permitted status and are requesting to stay beyond those terms to receive medical treatment…
This shift in policy has not been announced publicly by the government, and immigration advocates and attorneys question why this new process wasn’t mentioned in the denial letters.
The “new process” is that ICE will handle this stuff, in their spare time, if they get around to it, and the action against all of this was in Boston:
Anthony Marino, director of legal services for the Irish International Immigrant Center, explained that up until now, federal immigration officials would routinely permit eligible sick people to stay in the country under this program. But last week, five of his clients – who he says would have typically qualified – received what appeared to be template denial letters with the exact same language.
“The denials say specifically that the immigration service is just no longer considering deferring action at all in these cases, which would be a first in decades,” he said.
Marino added many of the affected clients at the center are families whose children have cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and epilepsy.
Yeah, well, so what? There’s only this:
According to the apparent form letters, USCIS field offices “no longer consider deferred action requests, except those made according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies for certain military members, enlistees, and their families.”
Ha, ha! You lose! Bye-bye:
The dated letters notified families they must leave the country within 33 days of the government’s writing.
And thus Trump’s base and all Republicans will get a kick out of this:
One of the center’s clients, 16-year-old Jonathan Sanchez, has a pending request with USCIS and fears his request will be denied given the procedural change. Sanchez, who was born in Honduras, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, after his parents sent blood samples to the U.S.
His father, Gary Sanchez, already lost a daughter to the disease 18 years ago.
“Before my son, we had a daughter with cystic fibrosis, but she died in our country, since, in our country, there are no medical specialists or centers specialized in cystic fibrosis,” he said.
And this is as deeply satisfying as a good helmet-to-helmet hit in the NFL where one player ends up a noble and heroic quadriplegic for life:
The Sanchez family entered the U.S. on tourist visas in 2016 and was first able to extend. But the treatment was longer than the six-month extension so the family applied for medical deferred action in November. Now, the teen said he is feeling stressed and scared he might need to leave the U.S.
“If they deny the program, then I need to go back to my country, and I’ll probably die because in my country, there’s no treatment for [cystic fibrosis],” Sanchez said, crying and trying to catch his breath. “Doctors don’t even know what the disease is. The only ones who can help me are here in the United States.”
Fox News can play that clip in an endless loop and mock that kid endlessly and get Trump reelected in a landslide, if the kid does die. If the kid dies, Trump wins.
But there is that other network:
CNN’s Chris Cuomo tonight closed his show by saying the election is “a contest for the soul of our country,” blasting President Donald Trump’s “new harshness” on immigration.
“He’s more than just wrong in the head,” Cuomo said, “he’s really wrong in the heart. America’s always represented respect for law, but not at the cost of our humanity, not by doing what Trump wants to do to the needy.”
Cuomo brought up reporting today from NPR on the Trump administration ending protection for migrants’ medical care and blasted the “heartlessness.”
And then he got personal about all immigrants:
They were people with nowhere else to go. They ran away from poor places, they came here with nothing except everything that was in their head and their heart that was desperate for a chance. And they did all the stupid jobs and they did everything that they could, and they were desperate, and there was hardship… And it is personal to me. If this president had his way, people like me wouldn’t be here. And I know that’s gonna get a good guffaw from a lot of people in his base, but this “us and them” stuff is toxic.
It is? But this will get a good guffaw from a lot of people in Trump’s base. They remember his father, Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, one of those intellectual Catholics educated by Jesuits, who ended the death penalty in New York:
I have concluded the death penalty is wrong because it lowers us all; it is a surrender to the worst that is in us; it uses a power – the official power to kill by execution – that has never elevated a society, never brought back a life, never inspired anything but hate.
He sounded like a theologian but he wasn’t one:
People have a right to demand a civilized level of law and peace. They have a right to expect it, and when at times it appears to them that a murder has been particularly egregious, it is not surprising that the public anger is great and demands some psychic satisfaction.
I understand that. I have felt the anger myself, more than once. Like too many other citizens, I know what it is to be violated and even to have one’s closest family violated through despicable criminal behavior. Even today, I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family. I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge, but I also know this society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments.
He suggested that would be life in prison without parole, but he knew he was alone in this:
Because the death penalty was so popular during the time I served as governor, I was often asked why I spoke out so forcefully against it although the voters very much favored it. I tried to explain that I pushed this issue into the center of public dialogue because I believed the stakes went far beyond the death penalty itself. Capital punishment raises important questions about how, as a society, we view human beings. I believed as governor, and I still believe, that the practice and support for capital punishment is corrosive; that it is bad for a democratic citizenry and that it had to be objected to and so I did then, and I do now and will continue to for as long as it and I exist, because I believe we should be better than what we are in our weakest moments.
And now his son Chris is saying the same thing on CNN – how we as a society view other human beings is everything. His father was mocked by everyone on the right for years saying that. His son, Chris, will be mocked the same way for years for the same reason. His other son, Andrew, is the current Governor of New York.
Trump thinks all three of them are pathetic. And that may be “hegemonic masculinity” at work, defining the traditional male ideal as being stoic, tough and aggressive, if not sadistic. Everyone takes sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence, don’t they? Well, real men do. Winners do. There will be no medical deferred action policy. Those kids will die. Deal with it, snowflake.
As with football, death looms over everything, but sometimes it’s just the small stuff:
Ismail Ajjawi made headlines in Lebanon as a 14-year-old growing up in a ramshackle camp for Palestinian refugees – for being one of the top scorers on the country’s primary school exams. This year he aced the secondary school exam, helping earn him a full scholarship to Harvard University.
He secured a student visa and, with dreams of becoming a surgeon, had already decided on a major – chemical and physical biology.
“There’s room for discoveries in this field,” the 17-year-old said in an interview with Al-Araby TV that aired Friday as he was arriving in the United States.
“Excellence requires work and effort too,” he told the interviewer. “I always had this goal. I managed my time, studied everything, to get this result.”
But his plans were thrown into limbo after he landed at Boston Logan International Airport.
Immigration authorities spent hours combing through social media accounts on his phone and computer before denying him entry to the United States, according to an account Ajjawi provided to the Harvard Crimson.
The reason? His online friends were critical of the United States, he was told.
He protested. He had never said anything critical of the United States. He had always said the opposite. They told him that was just too bad. His career was over before it started. His dreams were over. His dreams were dead. Ha, ha! You lose! Bye-bye.
Expect more glee on Fox News, and from the White House. But the game is afoot, although this may be more like a war:
President Trump is so eager to complete hundreds of miles of border fence ahead of the 2020 presidential election that he has directed aides to fast-track billions of dollars’ worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land and disregard environmental rules, according to current and former officials involved with the project.
He also has told worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing should they have to break laws to get the barriers built quickly, those officials said.
This is what Orwell meant by hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence, although there is reality:
Trump has repeatedly promised to complete 500 miles of fencing by the time voters go to the polls in November 2020, stirring chants of “Finish the Wall!” at his political rallies as he pushes for tighter border controls. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed just about 60 miles of “replacement” barrier during the first 2½ years of Trump’s presidency, all of it in areas that previously had border infrastructure.
Trump doesn’t care:
The president has told senior aides that a failure to deliver on the signature promise of his 2016 campaign would be a letdown to his supporters and an embarrassing defeat. With the election 14 months away and hundreds of miles of fencing plans still in blueprint form, Trump has held regular White House meetings for progress updates and to hasten the pace, according to several people involved in the discussions.
When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable, Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead, aides said. He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying “take the land,” according to officials who attended the meetings.
And paint the thing black:
Trump’s determination to build the barriers as quickly as possible has not diminished his interest in the aesthetic aspects of the project, particularly the requirement that the looming steel barriers be painted black and topped with sharpened tips.
In a meeting at the White House on May 23, Trump ordered the Army Corps and the Department of Homeland Security to paint the structure black, according to internal communications reviewed by The Washington Post.
Administration officials have stopped trying to talk him out of the demands, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to instruct contractors to apply black paint or coating to all new barrier fencing, the communications show.
And that’s what they did:
In June, teams of U.S. soldiers painted a one-mile section of fence in Calexico, Calif., at a cost of $1 million. The coating, known as “matte black” or “flat black,” absorbs heat, making the fence hot to the touch, more slippery and therefore tougher to climb, according to border agents.
At Trump’s behest, the Army Corps also is preparing to instruct contractors to remove from the upper part of the fence the smooth metal plates that are used to thwart climbers. The president considered that design feature unsightly, according to officials familiar with his directives.
Instead, contractors have been asked to cut the tips of the steel bollards to a sharpened point. Trump had told aides this spring he thought the barrier should be spiked to instill a fear of injury.
Donald Trump does take sadistic pleasure in imagining himself witnessing violence, as do the gleeful members of his base:
Trump conceded last year in an immigration meeting with lawmakers that a wall or barrier is not the most effective mechanism to curb illegal immigration, recognizing it would accomplish less than a major expansion of U.S. enforcement powers and deportation authority. But he told lawmakers that his supporters want a wall and that he has to deliver it.
They want pain. This is hegemonic masculinity at work. Andrew Luck has walked away from it, and paid a high price, but paid it gladly. So have many others. More people should walk away from it. It does lower us all. It is surrendering to the worst that is in us, even if it is fun. But one can walk away. Otherwise, as with professional football, it’s brain damage for everyone.