One of the most enjoyable types of "Skeptic's Collection" columns I wrote during the 6 years I was Resident Skeptic was humor columns. Humor, for me, usually took the form of parody or satire. During the Trump years, though, it was surprisingly difficult to write satire because Trump, Pence, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller -- the entire Trump zoo -- did such wickedly acerbic jobs of satirizing themselves. By the time satirists like me came along, all the air had been sucked out of the room. Nothing I could write could compete with reality. As an alternative, I satirized recent events and triends -- like the football player knocking out his fiancee and dragging her inside an elevator, which ended up being the germ of an idea about an entire sport I called "3-dimensional woman-ball" where the object of the sport was to toss and kick women up and down skyscrapers in order to score points. "Bad taste" you say? Is it any better taste for college athletes to risk injuring the brains parents pay mega-dollars of tuition to train? Again, it isn't clear that satire can render the subject of satire any more explicitly absurd. Again, when humor does too good a job of satirizing reality, the result would seem to be -- paradoxically -- reality.
Pit Bulls, “Stand by Your Man,” and the Hunger Games
Years ago, Tammy Wynette admonished women to "stand by your man." But judging by Ray Rice's assault on his (at the time) fiance Janay Palmer, it would seem that Janay was unable to stand at all. In fact, the last time I saw them together on that by-now-iconic video, she was not standing, but lying face-down and being dragged, rag-doll limp and unconscious, across the elevator-door threshold by her now-husband Ray Rice, rather like a human-shaped football being carried triumphantly across the goal line after a heroic third-and-long play. The Baltimore Ravens organization even cheered in a Tweet regarding Mrs. Rice’s alleged “role” in the assault: Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident. It is unclear precisely what that “role” was, beyond perhaps having the temerity to allow her head to get in the way of Ray Rice’s flying cantaloupe-sized fist. It’s also good to know that the Ravens have become so proficient in employing the standard defense in cases of rape and spousal abuse: blame the victim, then stonewall. All that was missing, no doubt because of the 140-character limit, was for the Ravens front office PR flacks to issue a schadenfreude-laden admonition to Janay to perhaps wear longer skirts next time. An “oldie, but goodie,” that!
At one point, it was equally unclear how John Harbaugh, head coach of the Ravens, and his staff could have missed seeing the video, as Harbaugh, in yesterday’s (8 September) news conference, alleges they did, for as long as they did. However, anonymous sources close to the Ravens front office assert that Harbaugh and the senior leadership of the Baltimore Ravens were on a recruiting and scouting mission prospecting for incipient football talent among university undergraduates on the outer moons of Saturn, and at the time the assault occurred, their spacecraft experienced a catastrophic failure of its entire polarization-modulated tachyonic communication system. This explains why, at the time of the one-sided “Battle of the Elevator,” Harbaugh & Co. missed seeing the video, whereas itinerant nomadic yak-herders wandering the wastes of central Siberia could watch it in high-def on their LTE-enabled Apple devices, courtesy of their local ISP YurtNet. Of course, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, leaving no gut unbusted in the process of earning his nearly $200,000 per week 2014 salary, acted with characteristic lapidary clarity, suspending Rice for … well … gee! … OK … two games then … well … gee! … OK … re-thinking the penalty in the wake of the public outcry and suspending Rice for … well … gee! … OK … six games … whereupon the Ravens leadership, independently of the NFL and having returned from their harrowing Saturn excursion, kicked Rice out of the ball club altogether. This is especially encouraging when one considers this affair within the context of the Michael Vick / dog-fighting controversy, in which Vick was suspended indefinitely in 2007. It will be interesting to see if the parallel between Vick and Rice holds to the point that Rice, like Vick, gets a second chance to be involved, in some capacity, with professional football. My money says he will, despite the fact that the NFL apparently has a “zero-tolerance” policy toward the abuse of biological organisms the NFL considers to be domesticated animals … like pit-bulls and wives.
By the time this is published – I’m writing this on 9 September – the “Battle of the Elevator” will be old news, of course, not fit even for an ad-libbed Bill Maher monologue riff. We won’t even remember who Ray and Janay Rice are, much less why they were once newsworthy. (Show of hands: before I brought it up just now, who remembered Michael Vick and what he did?) We have apparently arrived at the point where the half-life of sports-figure-abuse stories is even shorter than that of school-shootings-by-young-sociopath-ammosexuals stories – which is to say somewhat shorter than the half-life of the lithium-10 isotope. But there are some enduring lessons to be drawn, nevertheless, lessons that will persist long after the Ray Rice / Janay Rice / “Battle of the Elevator” story has lost its “legs”.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh
o The ongoing need to address issues of safety in high-school, even junior-high-school, football.
Now, from a rational standpoint which takes into account the vulnerability of adolescent brains and nervous systems to catastrophic traumatic brain injury – to name just one example – and to related cognitive deficits that may manifest in later life as a result of repeated blows to even a helmet-protected head … to someone who adopts such a jejune, bourgeois, drearily “data-centric” attitude of dispassionate analysis, the following question might conceivably occur: If playing football at that age really does involve the possibility of such impairment, perhaps … just maybe … we should consider not playing the game at all, at least for that age group … I mean, isn’t it the functional equivalent of Russian roulette, only with padding, helmets, cheerleaders, and pom-poms? (And as long as we are on the subject of Russian roulette ... All the painstaking research into engineering and materials science that goes into developing shock-and concussion-proof football helmets seems more and more to me like developing more efficient Kevlar body armor to protect people who play Russian roulette. Maybe the solution is much simpler: don't play Russian roulette.) Besides, such a pathologically rational person might continue to reason, At the college level, is there not something contradictory, or at least paradoxical, about spending multiple-dozens-of-thousands of dollars in college tuition and fees to train the intellect of someone, only to bang that finely honed cerebral cortex against others’ similarly honed cerebral cortices – thereby risking the destruction at one end of the college experience of what we are seeking to build at the other? The answer: No, Of Course Not, you … you ... Big Ninny! Why? Because the more we bang heads together and risk injury during the high-school and college years, the greater the likelihood will be that, for those tiny-fraction-of-one-percent students lucky enough to graduate and play in the NFL, their capacity to empathize with NFL players’ wives will be enhanced! (And this is to say nothing of guys they may get into bar fights with and incidents of road rage. And pit-bulls. And little kids.) They will feel others' pain because they will already know what it’s like to be banged around, and that experience will have such an impact on them … so to speak … that the prep-and-college machine will turn out fewer guys like Michael Vick and Ray Rice. Bottom line: bang enough guys around on the gridiron in high school and college, and, in several generations, a thousand flowers may bloom! If not ... well ... that's just the way the old occipital bone crumbles!
In fact, if we really wanted to turbocharge this strategy, we should probably take a page or two from the playbook of The Hunger Games saga and, prior to each high-school and college football game, make the players compete for equipment: helmets, shoulder pads, thigh pads, cleated shoes, teeth protectors, etc., etc. Issue them foam-rubber “Nerf” weapons – we don’t want them injured before the game, after all: people have paid good money for tickets! – and have them engage in faux combat for their equipment just like the “tributes” in the Games engaged in real combat for theirs. Hey, don’t laugh! It worked for Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. At least, I don't recall Peeta right-upper-cutting Katniss and hauling her unconscious out of an elevator! Just sayin' ...
Hay-yull’s Bay-yulls! If you want a label for this methodology, call it homeopathic medicine!
o The role of sports fans, specifically NFL fans, in all the above
On this matter, I can only speak from the standpoint of an interested but personally detached bystander, because I am not a sports fan. (The last time I got really excited about any kind of professional sport was in 1995 when the Mariners were in serious contention to go to the World Series, and I saw Joey Cora weeping when such dreams went for naught.) Aside from the fact that I resemble a basketball more than a basketball player, I am at least as skeptical of professional sports as I am of religion, largely because in most cases there is very little difference between the two. (Try being indifferent to football in Texas, especially rural Texas. Now try being an atheist in John Calvin’s Geneva. Note the similarity.) Both trade on emotion at the expense of rationality and tend to abdicate responsibility at the altar of personality cults. But I can read and do math pretty well, and I also know that both religion and sports run on the fuel of money. If you want to know what your ticket and sports-team merchandise money goes for, try looking – actually, I doubt that you can – at Michael Vick’s legal fees. Ditto Kobe Bryant’s. Ditto Pete Rose’s. Ditto Barry Bonds’. If Janay Rice had filed an abuse complaint against Ray, and Ray had had to mount a legal defense, we could have counted that, also. Only Mrs. Rice’s forbearance prevented that. And, apart from the Rose and Bonds allusions, I have not even ventured into the fraught territory of drug / steroid abuse and medical malpractice. That is what fans’ ticket and merchandise money really buys. And affairs will not change until the Niagara of money dries up and stadium seats cool for want of butts to warm them. The free market that conservatives extol, virtually to the point of believing that it can do no wrong, is profoundly amoral, obeying only George F. Will’s celebrated, and entirely accurate, maxim: You always get more of what you subsidize. You get the kind of culture you pay for, or as Somebody-Or-Other ... I forget just Who ... said long ago “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be, also”. So if you pay money for pro-sports tickets and merchandise, while nevertheless claiming to be repelled by the spectacle of Ray Rice brutalizing his young fiance, you have no room to complain. You paid for it. You got it.
But by way of compensation, you acquire the sublime comfort of knowing that you are a big athletics supporter.