Brain Bucket: A Series on the American Game of War
An annotated link post
Another season of tackling and blocking is almost over. The autumnal ritual of American football and mass fire warfare produce the same characteristic form of brain injury. This is not really an accident, for the game has always been a cultural celebration of the values and tactics of modern battle — one that has traditionally denied or minimized the harms of concussion.
First: what do we mean by “modern battle”? To understand why American Civil War veterans invented football, one must see their experiences in the context of a global armaments revolution that was taking place in parallel development across five continents.
Instant high-explosive blast is a very different force from the repeated bodily impacts of tackling and blocking, but their profound effect on human brain cells is the same. Ironically, this realization has given us new insight into the supposed mysteries of “shell shock” in the First World War.
Helmet technology has also changed with the new rules. Instead of preventing skull fracture, football helmets are now designed to reduce the angular momentum of impact that causes brain injury. However, the history of helmets on gridiron and battlefield suggests that all attempted technological fixes will create new problems.
Finally, the politics of the possible are set by the trends of the time. Major football programs can be compared to the military-industrial activities of modern states — indeed, they are top line items in many American university budgets, while professional clubs are billion-dollar concerns. What does it say of the “exceptional nation” that this high-tech pastime demands so much?
This has been my first project attempting to show how the strands of sports culture and military revolution are inextricably woven into a single social fabric. Stay tuned for more!