A World of Hurt
Maybe Mike Rice is the Buddha.
Maybe Mike Rice means to teach your children that the world is filled with suffering, and that the only way to move through it on the way to enlightenment is to let go of longing and ignorance. As an educator, he'll teach this lesson by screaming obscenities and throwing basketballs.
When Jason Taylor took the needle and Dan Le Batard later wrote about it, what was the lesson for the rest of us? That a career in the NFL is worth whatever pain you're willing to pay for it? That one man's threshold exceeds another's? That professional football, like sainthood, demands an earnest and systematic mortification of the flesh?
Is pain a means to grace? To clarity? Is it an "instrument for perfecting" ourselves? If so, how? Where's the line between the instructive and the destructive? Between, as Bill Rhoden asks here, abuse or cruelty or absurdity on our way to the toughness we prize so highly in our heroes?
If pain ennobles us, surely it does so by making us more empathetic and sympathetic. By making us more compassionate. Is pain the method by which we teach the lesson? Or is pain the lesson itself?
What are sports meant to teach?
If, as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, sports are an American religion, these questions aren't as crazy as they seem. How we become who we are, and how we "build character," are fundamental to the faith.
MORE FROM DR. HOWARD NIXON
As a result of the culture of risk, pain, and injury in sport and the process of learning to deal with these things as one becomes a more experienced athlete, athletes take for granted that playing the sports they love could hurt them. Pain thresholds increase as a result of this socialization process -- it is not merely a physiological phenomenon, which means that being socialized into sports means putting oneself increasingly at risk by learning to ignore the warning signs of pain. Athletes also may downplay the physical risks precisely because of this love of sport.
It may seem irrational for athletes to ignore or even invite or embrace their pain and injuries. However, reactions to pain and injury and their meanings are shaped in a culture that glorifies these things. Thus, taking risks and playing hurt are what a serious athlete does. It is not really a decision. Status, money, and power can also influence athletes' willingness to take risks and play hurt. Athletes may like the admiration and respect they get for this behavior. They also know that getting the financial rewards from sports requires that they play as intensely and aggressively as possible to please coaches, fans, sponsors, and even parents sometimes (for younger kids). Furthermore, coaches subtly and not-so-subtly let their players know they if they do not want to take the risks and play hurt, they will not get much playing time. For these reasons, athletes also know that if they do not try to return from an injury as quickly as possible, they may drop down the depth chart, see a reduction in salary, or even not see their contract renewed. The lost glory as well as lost playing opportunities and money are all powerful influences on athletes.
Beyond identifying the elements of the culture of risk, pain, and injury in sport (such as "no pain, no gain"), I have been especially interested in the social networks athletes use to deal with their pain and injuries. That is, where can and do hurt or hurting athletes turn for support? This is a very important question because the consequence of enduring and untreated injuries can be short-term or chronic pain and disability. In my study of athletes (at an unnamed mid-major [college]), I found that athletes were often uncomfortable talking to coaches and even teammates about their pain and injuries. They were much more likely to turn to trainers and medical personnel and also to confide in them. This is why these medical professionals need to have some independence from coaches, the athletic department, or the club. Their first priority has to be the needs of the athlete rather than the needs of the team.
I know that athletes often find the joy of competition or participation or the attention they get in their school or community or on their campus reward enough for the injuries and pain they have endured playing sports. In the end, though, they eventually age out of serious sports or must stop playing as a result of their injuries. Very few have a chance to pursue a professional sports career or make much money in sports. Of course, even among those who do, it may be small consolation after retiring at a relatively young age with chronic pain or disability. The worst-case scenario has been the apparent correlation between sports concussions and mental debilitation later in life.
Since sports are physical activities, it is impossible to envision sports without any injuries or pain, especially as athletes become bigger, stronger, faster, and play at increasingly higher levels of intensity. However, the issue is whether the people who run sports are willing to place the athletes' welfare above the interests of coaches, investors, and fans. This might mean sacrificing some of the "excitement" of the game for rule modifications that provide more protection for athletes.
I asked some answers of Howard Nixon, sociologist and professor at Towson University, and the author of some of the defining work in the field of sports sociology. I quote his thoughtful and generous reply here in part. The rest appears as a sidebar to the right of this column.
First and foremost, "serious" sports depend on the acceptance of pain and risk of injury, since all of them push the body and many involve increasingly violent contact and collisions. Athletes learn to accept pain and the risk of injury as part of being an athlete. (See Jay Coakley's work on the "Sport Ethic," which is about the beliefs embedded in the culture of sport that define what it means to be a serious athlete.) Furthermore, coaches, fans, the media, sponsors, and others create pressure on athletes to risk their bodies by glorifying risk takers and those willing to play with pain. The fact is that this kind of behavior serves the interests of those who run sports, invest in sports, and watch them more than it serves those whose bodies are sacrificed. Indeed, bodies are sacrificed so that we can see exciting, highly physical competition. Viewers seem to perceive intense physical contact as especially entertaining or at least this is what sports promoters appear to believe.
"Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens: Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker."
("Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.")
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
"No pain, no gain."
-- Jane Fonda
Even as the NFL frets over CTE (or the CTE lawsuits), no sport makes a cult or culture of pain like boxing. Even in its twilight, prizefighting isn't (only) about how much pain you can inflict, but how much you can bear.
Watching Zab Judah train for a fight this weekend, I was reminded of the body shot he took from Amir Khan in 2011. It was a punch so evil and perfect that my friend Chris Jones wrote a whole column about it.
A punch like that causes all sorts of strange satellite pain, express-delivered by your scrambled, panicking nervous system. You can feel a punch like that in the arches of your feet, in your balls, in your back, in your eyes. A punch like that somehow leaves you gasping for air and feeling as though you're full of air all at once. A punch like that makes you feel, frankly, like you're going to s--- your trunks. But more than anything else, a punch like that puts a terrible picture in your head: You can see this black, spreading stain just under your skin, all of your body's essentials bleeding out and filling spaces where they don't have any business. A punch to the head can make you feel dizzy or woozy or sleepy, but it doesn't hurt, exactly. A punch like that one, like the one Hopkins slipped into De La Hoya, makes you feel as though you're about to die.
And once punched, why would any of us ever seek it out again? Is our memory of pain bright and specific across the mind and the senses? Or is it just a blank, a gap in the timeline when we recall being hurt, but not the specific pain of the injury?
"Mentally and physically I give myself an A-plus," Judah said four days before his next fight.
Is this the blessing of forgetfulness?
The idea that physical and mental toughness are essential to performance isn't limited by sport or by sex, as Abby Wambach reminds us this week.
Pain is the crucible, the forge, the hammer and the anvil. It is the brand strategy and the sales pitch and the slogan on the poster at the foot of the bed.Buttercup: You mock my pain.
Man in Black: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
-- William Goldman
Does it toughen us? Or just make us compliant? Obedient?
From John Wooden to Bobby Knight and back to Phil Jackson, even a real Zen master needs to keep the student's attention.
"I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal."
-- John Berryman
In sports, pain is status. Pain is a vanity. Pain is currency. Except to harden ourselves, why would we ever choose it?
Can a cliché save you? Can the example set by an athlete help you manage your breakup? Your job loss? Your cancer? Yes.
Does the value of our own suffering lie only in understanding how to end suffering in others? Every generation, every individual learns and forgets and relearns the same small part of the human puzzle.
In the meantime, Mike Rice is screaming at your children.
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