Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #2: The lawyers are coming

Part two in a series.

Yes, the lawyers are coming, and football will be forced to change in ways that undercut its essential appeal. Did someone say “litigation”? From the ESPN story linked above:

The concussion issue has become part of the NFL story of late, with more than 3,000 former players suing the league on allegations that officials withheld information about the dangers of head injuries. Players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia — attribute their condition to repeated head injuries sustained on the field. Concussions and CTE also have been brought up as possible factors in the suicides of former players, including Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.

In fact, right now more than 3,400 former players are suing, with some estimates saying the eventual number could rise above 5,000. Ballpark estimates of the damages? Maybe $10 billion?

Understand – this number is increasing every week. Who knows how many active players will wind up filing suit once they retire?

The league is certainly paying attention (or at least, it’s making a show of pretending to do so – their unconscionable behavior in this year’s referee lockout might cause us to question the depth of their commitment to player safety). There is some controversy over the findings, but the league has sponsored research on equipment safety (although it’s still allowing players to use less safe helmets if they choose). They have also enacted a number of rules changes to promote player safety, including:

  • no hits on defenseless players
  • no leading with the helmet
  • kickoffs moved up to dramatically reduce return opportunities, which result in very high risk of injury
  • and, of course, the gods help you if you hit a quarterback late or low or with your helmet

Rumor now has it that they’re even talking about scaling back on the body armor, abandoning hardshell helmets for leather or perhaps the sorts of padded gear that you find in rugby. The theory is that current helmets often cause injuries because players use them as weapons, leading with their heads in ways they never would otherwise.

This is an especially sticky issue for the sport. First, the fans are concerned. ESPN again:

In the survey, about 94 percent of NFL fans said they feel that concussions are a serious problem in the NFL. For some, it even affects the way they enjoy the game, with about 18 percent saying the concussion debate has made them less likely to follow football or watch it on television.

Second, it’s fair to wonder if you can make football “safe” without “ruining” it. Yes, you can develop better equipment. However, at the same time, players are constantly getting bigger, stronger and faster. It isn’t even remotely clear that it’s possible to evolve equipment that can keep up with the escalating violence inherent in player development.

Finally, let’s understand the appeal of the game. Scoring is fun, we love spectacular catches and breakaway touchdown gallops, but at its core football is about hitting. It’s about violence. It’s about knocking the other guy on his ass, and in some cases the culture promotes the idea of causing injuries.

Think about the squawling we hear each time the league adopts a new safety rule. You know, like last week.

“It’s definitely changing the game,” [Ed] Reed said about the NFL’s policy to protect players, via “It’s become an offensive league. They want more points. They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want like powder-puff to where you can just run around and score points cause that’s going to attract the fans. I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it’s only going to make the game worse.”

Those who run and market football leagues, whether we’re talking about the NFL or one of the lower professional leagues NCAA, really are up against it. On the one hand, they have to make the game safer, which functionally means they have to get some of the violence out of it. On the other hand, taking out the violence makes it inherently less marketable.

And all the while they have to fight off litigation from former players, deal with the public perception that causes the public to tune out and consider the possibility that in a generation or so they’re going to have a substantially smaller talent pool to draw on (and a culture generally that has spent a generation moving football further toward the periphery).

Not a pretty picture. Business is booming right now, but there are extremely dark clouds on the horizon.

Y-12 activists may be barred from bringing up the morality of nukes at their trial

Federal prosecutors seek to remove justification for the existence of nuclear weapons from the trial of the Transform Now Plowshares Three.

Remember the activists who infiltrated the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 12? They’re members of  Transform Now Plowshares, the current version of the original Plowshares Christian pacifist movement. The Plowshares Eight initiated these kinds of actions in 1980 when they snuck into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania.

Like their predecessors, the Transform Now Plowshares Three are as physically courageous as they are morally. A lengthy jail term could see at least one of its members, 82-year-old Sister Megan Rice, die while incarcerated.

At the trial in February they each face 15 years in prison and fines up to $500,000. Worse, as the co-director of a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin called Nukewatch, John LaForge, wrote at the Transform Now Plowshares site, “federal prosecutors have mentioned bringing two heavier charges, including sabotage ‘during wartime,’ which together carry up to 50 years.”

Even worse, the Transform Now Plowshares Three may be left destitute of tools with which to defend themselves. LaForge explains.

If the government gets it way, the trial judge will keep facts about nuclear weapons away from jurors and make sure that questions about the Bomb’s outlaw status are left out of jury instructions. … before starting deliberations.

On Nov. 2, federal prosecutors [urged the judge] to “preclude defendants from introducing evidence in support of certain justification defenses.” The motion asks the court to forbid all evidence — even expert testimony — about “necessity, international law, Nuremberg Principles, First Amendment protections, the alleged immorality of nuclear weapons, good motive, religious moral or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons, and the U.S. government’s policy regarding nuclear weapons.”

The prosecution’s justification? That it is “not relevant.” Even though

The U.S. Attorney’s motion … confesses, “[w]e do not suggest that the deployment of nuclear armament systems does not violate international law, but merely that Congress has power to protect government property.”

The value of the Transform Now Plowshares Three’s efforts was initially depreciated because the only kind of soul searching resulting from their actions was about plant security, not the morality of nuclear weapons. Now, federal prosecutors would move to expunge justification for the existence of nuclear weapons from the trial and reduce it to a simple case of trespass and vandalism at a military installation.

Clearly, the U.S. Attorney’s office fears that admitting discussion of the justice of nuclear weapons to the jurors’ deliberations will only obstruct the progress of the trial. More to the point it probably knows it’s an argument it can’t win.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Telling History vs. Making Art: Communicating “the incommunicable experience of war”

Part seven in a series

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war,” Oliver Wendell Holmes says at the beginning of Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War. Burns could not have picked a more appropriate quote to start his film with, not just because it set a particular tone for the entire eleven-hour documentary but because it would describe the viewing experience of the documentary itself. For a week, some forty million Americans tuned in to public televisions to watch Burns’ film—a shared media experience so profound that one book says, “For a generation of Americans, this documentary is the Civil War.”

Holmes’ words were appropriate, too, because the war remained largely incommunicable.“Ken Burns encountered thousands of ‘facts’ about the war in the form of pictures, letters, statistics, maps, and other kinds of evidence,” points out historian Robert Brent Toplin. “He could easily have turned his eleven-hour documentary into a 100-hour or 200-hour film, and still he would have to leave out much interesting material.”

Critics pounced on Burns for what he left out (information about social history, for instance) and for what he put in (too much traditional focus on battles and leaders). “In The Civil War, despite the abundance of images and resources at the command of the filmmakers, that social upheaval is never played out with the same depth, the same sensitivity, the same emotional and dramatic intensity as the military engagements,” contends historian Leon Litwack. He criticizes what he sees as Burns’ choice to focus on the Reunification tradition. “The nation had been reborn, and it is this rebirth that Ken Burns chooses to celebrate in The Civil War,” he says, calling it the “most appalling and revealing shortcoming” of the film.

Historian Eric Foner agrees. “In choosing to stress the preservation of the American nation state as the war’s most enduring consequence, Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation,” Foner says, vitriolic that Burns ignored the Emancipation tradition. Others accused him of embracing the Lost Cause tradition. Some “saw only capitulation to an ‘old’ narrative pro-southern version of history,” Burns lamented.

Part of it, Burns suggested, might relate back to expectations. “Had they forgotten the difference between literary scholarship and the demands of a popular medium?” he wondered.

The film’s principle writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, admitted that “it was only the special demands of documentary filmmaking that kept us from doing still more” in the film than they did. “Time imposes crippling restraints,” he said, outlining other issues, as well: “Before anything else, film demands something to look at…. And, just as sadly, there is precious little written evidence of the sort we would have needed to fill our script.” He also pointed out that “Television is better at narrative than analysis, better at evoking emotions than expounding complex ideas.”

The ability to evoke emotion easily stands out as The Civil War’s greatest strength: From its opening shot of a canon silhouetted against a fire-orange sky and the use of the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote and the haunting Appalachian violin of Jay Unger’s “Ashoken Farewell,” Burns strives first and foremost to set an emotional tone.

Even historian Leon Litwack, in all his criticism of the film as a piece of history, seemed taken with it as a piece of art:

Skillfully crafted, technically innovative, evocative and emotionally seductive, the television series made effective use of letters, diaries and journals, archival photographs, paintings, broadsides, newsreel footage, eyewitness accounts, and an often mesmerizing musical score.

The best example of his use of such primary-source material is the stirring narration of a letter by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, killed during the Battle of First Manassas. A week before the battle, he wrote home to his wife, and Burns quotes the letter over top historical photos and beautiful modern battlefield landscapes to close out the first episode. It is exquisite art. What most people don’t realize is that Burns trimmed the letter by almost fifty percent—from 868 words down to 451—in order to maximize its poignancy on screen. Burns edited the letter because, as an artist, he needed to control the pace and dramatic impact of his film. Such editing, though, doesn’t mean Burns’ art compromises his history. Historians, too, quote selectively from primary sources when constructing narratives and arguments; Burns is using the same technique to the same end.

Burns’ most common primary source materials are the hundreds of photographs he shows. Here, Toplin lauds Burns’s “extraordinary filmmaking achievement in dealing with unequal source materials.” Photos for the Union side of the story were much more abundant than for the Southern side of the story because, after the first year of the war, “photographic activity in the South dropped dramatically”—yet Burns crafted a balanced story from what he had to work with.

The molasses-smooth authority of narrator David McCullough (who has himself taken flack for being too popular as a historian) shines throughout, punctuated by interview clips from a variety of experts, including historian Barbara Fields, who argued eloquently about the war’s higher purpose of emancipation, and the yarn-spinning Southern gentleman Shelby Foote (whom Burns subsequently called “an American treasure”).

Not that every swing Burns took was a home run. His choice to encumber Ed Bearrs with a suitcoat and tie and confine him to a chair is widely seen among my NPS colleagues as a huge disservice to Ed. As the NPS’s former chief historian, he’s widely regarded throughout the agency as one of the best battlefield interpreters in the business because of his forceful style and animated storytelling. He still leads frequent bus tours, which sell out. The Burns documentary did nothing to capture his charisma.

The film also contains a few factual errors. “The most spectacular must be the fact that we managed to get wrong both the date of Lincoln’s assassination and his age at the time of his death,” admits Ward. “Both errors are mine alone…. And, unbelievably, through repeated screenings for our distinguished advisers and for ourselves, no one involved seems ever to have noticed either error.” For such sins of commission, Ward says they deserved to be chastened.

But for sins of interpretation—especially after the five-year collaborative process the many drafts of the script went through with panels of historians—Burns deserves some slack. Because his film was so public and so successful, criticism creates an impression of controversy when, in fact, any historian could face questions about his/her interpretation.

“[B]ecause of our medium, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses, because of the almost Aristotelian demands of structure and pacing, our film, not theirs, looked this way,” Burns finally said. The result is a sublime intersection of history and art that uses the strengths of both to tell a story so big it is, indeed, incommunicable. “[S]tory,” Burns has said, “is a central part of the word ‘history.’” His Civil War is a true story beautifully told.

Next: Fictions told until they are believed to be true