One of the things that makes the Hunger Games not just palatable but wildly successful is the just large enough difference between the world of Katniss and the one we inhabit. The government is far worse: Congress might not be able to pass a law, but Barack Obama is no President Snow.
The names are far more ridiculous: someone might have named their baby “Hashtag” a while back, but the vast majority of us have less fantastical, non-textile/spice names. And, the entertainment is far guiltier: we might enjoy the pain inflicted upon the Real Housewives of “Insert Major Affluent City Here” (and our brain cells) by the questionable decisions of themselves and their cast mates, but that’s nothing compared to watching the systematic murder of children, after all.
But are we really such innocent viewers?
During the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, I was struck not just by the Peyton Manning-squashing power of the Legion of Boom, but by the man-squashing power of the game itself. The game didn’t have any horrific injury, no one died in MetLife Stadium, and yet science says they were all dying.
Professional football players receive, on average, 900 to 1,500 blows a season, at impact speeds of 25 mph or more, and, as a result, football players are at a 75 percent chance risk of concussion, according to the Sports Concussion Institute. Research presented at last year’s Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says that concussions can lead short-term to attention problems and long-term to Parkinsons-like symptoms of permanent memory and attention loss consistent with neurodegenerative disease.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy football, it’s that I do. It’s that as I watch Robert Mathis slam himself into quarterback after quarterback and find myself hoping for another helmet-crunching Mathis-to-quarterback hit, I forget that 44-year-old Brett Favre says he can no longer remember his daughter’s soccer games he attended last summer.
It’s that as I admire how Johnny Football executes Texas A&M’s shotgun formation, the fact escapes me that the brains of 43-year-old Junior Seau, 50-year-old Dave Duerson and other NFL retirees like them were found to be neurodegeneratively damaged in the autopsies performed on them after they turned guns on themselves.
It’s that as I cheer fanatically on our classmates and friends and siblings in home football games, I don’t once think of the students and family members across the country who lose their loved ones when an average of 12 high school and college football players die annually from injuries incurred in their sport.
So let’s revisit the exercise in Hunger Games parallel and divergence. The difference in entertainment is in obviousness of harm, not in consequence or culpability. The deaths and devastating injuries or impairments resulting from America’s game are, at present, as sure as those of Panem’s. We as fans are as complicit in said deaths and devastating injuries as the Capitol citizens are in those of the tributes.
It’s just that no one died in MetLife Stadium. The tributes to our entertainment suffer much later, much longer, off the screen, so that every radar-accurate pass and field-length run can dazzle away the nagging knowledge that something isn’t right.
There’s another major difference, a more hopeful, less damning one. We, unlike Katniss and Peeta, live in a capitalist society. The NFL was able to throw its $10 billion clout around for years to conceal the harm caused by concussions, but we are the ultimate source of capital here. Don’t purchase the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package, don’t buy that Richard Sherman jersey, don’t get season tickets should that Los Angeles team ever materialize. The NFL has proven, in its desperation to avoid PR problems at the expense of players’ lives, that it is first and foremost a profit-turning business. Threaten, even slightly, that profit and safety-increasing changes will come — and they’ll trickle down to every level of the sport.
I will not pretend to know what such changes are. I do know, though, that football in its current iteration is unconscionable.
So let’s move to the next one. It’s a progress much easier than the revolution of “Mockingjay,” for the temporary cost of entertainment. May I recommend “Scandal” in the meantime.