“Black Men’s Big Concussion: Gross Capitalism, Sports Entertainment, and Sub-Prime Corruption – Part 1” A Black Masculinist Film Review of ‘Concussion’ by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

An economy based on socialized losses and privatized gains must rely on the distraction of gladiatorial games to keep mass dissent at bay.

**SPOILERS**

CONCUSSION & BLACK MALE HEALTH VS SACRIFICES


I recently watched both Concussion and The Big Short. I can say that I hope Will Smith’s Concussion and Brad Pitt’s The Big Short do well, because the theaters I saw them in were virtually empty (then again, I am in Fresno). In particular, I applaud Smith for his film, as I see some of his films as a critical (if not muted) commentary on Black men. (I couple this with his film After Earth, which was about Black fathers and sons–albeit without saying so explicitly). Similarly, this film deals with the impact (no pun intended) of contact football on players’ physical health.

Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian doctor who discovers and names a condition responsible for certain behavioral symptoms in athletes. Termed CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a debilitative neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated brain trauma due to blast contact in key sports such as “American football, association football, ice hockey, professional wrestling, and stunt performing cheerleading.” Symptoms include “changes in mood (i.e. depression, suicidality, apathy, anxiety), cognition (i.e. memory loss, executive dysfunction), behavior (short fuse, aggression), and in some cases motor disturbance (i.e. difficulty with balance and gait).” Dr. Omalu points out that a concussion can happen at 60 ‘g’s, while each football collision averages 100 ‘g’s. This is particularly important when you factor in that many professional players have been playing football (and boxing) since elementary school. This means that every time they practiced, scrimmaged, or played a game they were likely experiencing multiple collisions of this type.

Although the film has four key Black male figures played by Will Smith, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Richard T. Jones respectfully, the issue of race was not specifically raised in relation to the disease. Its impact on football players and boxers alone point to race, as Black males numerically dominate both sports. More specifically, according to the Clark Science Center, “In 1946 Marion Motley is the first black in “white” professional football,” by “1998 65% of all professional football players were black.””Today, in Division I of the NCAA black males make-up 60% of basketball players and 51% of football players and 27% of track athletes, while black females constitute 35% of basketball players and 31% of track athletes (NCAA, 1998). Blacks have dominated the world heavy weight boxing title since 1937 when Joe Louis became champion, interrupted only by Rocky Marciano (1952-55), Igemar Johannson (1959-60) and Jerry Cooney (1983-84).” “African-American males are vastly over-represented in collegiate basketball, football, and track. Additionally, they are over-represented in professional basketball, football, track, boxing, and to a lesser degree, baseball.* “Indeed, while blacks make up 77% of the NBA, 64% of the WNBA, and 65% of the NFL, they are only 4.2% of our physicians, 2.7% of our lawyers, and 2.2% of our civil engineers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1997).”*<Clark Science Center –http://www.science.smith.edu/exer_sci/ESS200/Raceh/Raceh.htm> So, as Dr. Omalu has identified which sports best produce the most cases of CTE brain trauma, they also happen to be sports that African Americans (and especially Black men) populate in over-represented numbers.

Furthermore, the sports they play tend to be gladiatorial in nature. They represent the tradition of both ‘Mandingo’ fighting (or horse racing). For Mandingo fighting, Black men and boys were purchased by and for wealthy White men’s entertainment, often ending in serious injury or death. Much like that (or horse-racing), wealthy fighter/horse “owners” bought the most athletically developed and bet on their performances. Sitting in on a session where football or basketball coaches discuss potentially drafting a player, one might lose track of which century they’re in.

Black players tend to play sports based on class backgrounds. In other words, African American males often play sports because there are few jobs and limited school opportunities in urban centers. They also engage in acts that can be practiced in a poor environment. Football, for example, only requires running space and a ball (and sometimes not even that–shout out to all my driveway ballers!). Basketball requires at least a hoop and a ball. Boxing? A couple of fists… 😉 (Interestingly enough, this is also partially why so many are drawn to rap, as it requires lyrical skill, but nothing that cost a lot financially). For many, sports and entertainment is their only option for supporting their families. Mychal Denzel Smith writes about this in an article in The Nation entitled, For Black Boys, the NFL—and Traumatic Brain Injury—Can Be Lottery Tickets” when he states,

“As much as players, particularly the black ones, are chastised in the media for their lavish lifestyles, an NFL contract is the economic hope of many poor black youths and their families. There may only be little more than 1,700 African-American men with deals, but that is still 1,700 six-, seven- and eight-figure deals that families and friends of the players are relying on for their economic security. For all the expensive cars and frivolous clubbing, these guys are also propping up immediate and extended family on their salaries. As the checks get bigger, it’s not surprising the number of kids playing at earlier and earlier ages increases. For too many, this is their answer to debilitating poverty.”

Dr. Juwanza Kunjufu characterizes the feasibility of this tactic best in an old but still relevant video clip:

Millions of young men vying for a handful of jobs is already a problem, but many of these males not only place their health and lives on the line for their families, some of these families gamble on their children’s potential success. Some men’s rights activists such as Dr. Warren Ferrell have gone so far as to regard this as child abuse in and of itself… Whether this is the case is up for debate, but it is clear that the sacrifices of these young men is often disregarded, and with the discovery of CTE and the complicity of the NFL and professional boxing leagues, such sacrifices are that much more important and deserving of acknowledgement, particularly against stereotypical assessments of hypermasculinity as the basis for Black male behavior.

Despite the film’s lack of focus on race, Smith’s portrayal Dr. Omalu is brilliant, and portrays Omalu as both brilliant, principled, and a bit paranoid. He is also, apparently, one who will refer to science versus popular consensus to reach his conclusions–even controversial ones. In the first court scene with Dr. Omalu, he actually deduced that a White male accused of rape and murder was innocent because he had a form of hemophilia. To do so in today’s gender politics dynamics was telling (for Smith and Omalu) that they would show a scene where he helped exonerate a man accused of the rape and murder of a woman. In today’s society, an accusation alone is enough for men to be considered guilty in the court of popular opinion when it comes to the rape and abuse of women, so for Omalu to demonstrate his adherence to science over political-correctedness set the stage for his later challenge against the NFL. Here, the NFL not only stands for the status quo, but also as the recipients of the resources that the city put into the local coliseum. So the more Dr. Omalu exposed the NFL, the more he and his family had to be concerned about their welfare. He was constantly under critique. However, accusing Omalu of damaging “football” and the city’s livelihood rather than questioning the economic investments a city made in regard to divest from helping people, providing jobs, or improving education. Pure idiocy. Wait. No. It’s not idiocy. It is how we’ve been conditioned to view capitalism. Environmentally exploitative industry is not a problem to us. Institutionally-sanctioned greed is not a problem to us. Large-scale profit at the expense of poor and working people for the abject wealthy isn’t even a problem to us. Instead, the biggest problem seems to be the whistle-blowers who point out such injustices…

GENDERED EMPATHY & BLACK MASCULINITY


The lives of the football players displaying symptoms of CTE in the film were shocking. Some drank large amounts of anti-freeze, ripped the teeth out of their mouths, and abused their families while others used tasers just to go to sleep at night. As stated in the film, brain damage from collisions is like pouring wet concrete into a water pipe and then having it harden. For CTE sufferers, it’s difficult to think clearly, but more so, behavior and aggression are that much more difficult to control, and even though CTE caused some players to want to kill their kids and wives, too many anti-Black misandrist scholars and activists will be all too happy to dismiss such cases as simple hypermasculinity and hetero-patriarchy, but such lazy analyses belie the realities some men face. Luckily, men are starting to raise these issues themselves. In 2011, 5,000 players joined the NFL lawsuit regarding CTE and the league’s complicity in hiding what it knew from players.

What also captured my attention was a statement by a wife of a player who died from CTE in the film. She said had she known that her husband was sick she would’ve done more for him. This is compelling in itself, because it implies that she simply dismissed her husband’s behavior for some reason. It never dawned on her that it may be that he was the victim of something he couldn’t control. For the most part, it never dawned on most people that he might be suffering from something other than patriarchal hypermasculine-mania. More so, if perceptions of men were more humane and nuanced, their lives could have more relevance to society. it’s speculated that 28% of players in the NFL suffer from CTE (they can’t test for it until after death), and 95% of dead players were confirmed to have CTE. In 2006, Philadephia Eagles’ Andre Waters, 44, committed suicide. If you haven’t seen Will Smith’s Concussion, you’ll likely not appreciate the possibilities of what can happen with professional football players.

When cases of child/spousal abuse occur with athletes, we assume they’re just hypermasculine-adrenaline junkies who enjoy beating up their wives and kids, especially because we’re told that Black men (especially) are misogynists by nature. Without looking at statistical data and people’s material realities, our tendency to resort to racially-sexist assumptions is inhumane. It should also be noted, CTE (brain trauma) is not just about the trauma itself, but also about the sociological reasons why many working-class and poor Black males play football to provide for their families, often at the expense of their health. This might be why it took a man from Nigeria to discover CTE because in the West, because men of color are supposed to be privileged, they’re not supposed to experience victimization or oppression.

The lack of empathy, or favor, is an important yet often overlooked quotient when discussing the everyday life of Black males. Even now I’m sitting at a dealership with a female friend as she negotiates to buy a car, and I notice the role empathy plays in daily interactions. The male-addressing of female needs is often under-theorized, as we generally only hear about how car dealerships (and banks) overcharge women and people of color, but don’t address how the individuals serving at these institutions have been conditioned to perceive gendered social engagement, particularly in regard to males’ socially-ingrained training to defer to women (i.e. chivalry).

From the difference in the number of police pull-overs and traffic tickets she and I both get to the ways in which utility/service industry companies respond to her tears when she’s not able to pay a bill…(see the following clip).

The clip above is from the late comedian Patrice O’Neal–once referred to as “a half-domesticated feminist ­super-misogynist.” He describes this phenomenon in a comical but misogynist manner, yet behind his racist-sexism is an acknowledgement (of sorts) of the difference in treatment in the service industry between Black men and women. Although he highlights the stereotype of the angry Black woman, he also subtly also argues that she can get her needs met more readily…that her concerns will be taken more seriously. I contend, however, that this may not be as much about fear as it might be a chivalrous impulse socially-ingrained in men to varying degrees across race.

My reflections on Black men’s and women’s bifurcated treatment continues however, from how my female friend can purchase cars or rent apartments without even having her credit run (because people said they felt she deserved support as a single-mother) to the ways in which she can be consistently offered drinks, meals, gifts, and discounts at random…or from the ways cashiers ask me for ID when using credit cards while she can use cards that aren’t hers without question…or how if my car breaks down at the side of the road no one offers any help while people readily offer her support.

In the following clip, a young woman on the show Undercover Boss has been an employee at Modell’s Sporting Goods for two years but lives in a homeless shelter with her three kids. After unknowingly training her company’s C.E.O. in lower level customer service, the C.E.O. was so moved by her story that he gave her a promotion and a check for $250,000!

Not being an avid watcher of this show, I’m sure there are likely men offered gifts from their “undercover bosses” too, but I believe gendered-empathy played a role in: 1) his desire to help her (chivalry) and 2) how he choose to help her. Consider the contrast in gifting two Black males the same C.E.O. extends (scroll to 46 seconds and 1:03 respectively).

Experienced as a series of micro-occurrences, empathy can mean less money spent, less stress internalized, or in some situations life over death. For Black men, not being offered a basic level of human kindness can mean spending more money than one has, or finding themselves killed while simply asking for help like the late Jonathan Ferrell, killed knocking on a White woman’s door after his car broke down.

ferrell

Empathy isn’t just gendered but also raced, colored, classed, and aesthetic. Predictably, Whites are treated in such ways when in need of opportunities. At the very least, the treatment itself is empathetic in that Whites are NOT considered a threat in the first place. In an intra-Black communal context, empathy can be afforded because of skin color. Light-skinned privilege (favors given because one’s light-skin is perceived as better because its ‘whiter’) or dark-skinned privilege (favor granted to darker-skinned Black folk–usually by other darker-skinned Blacks–for being more “authentically” Black). Similarly, class works in such ways. Elites provide each other with inside information, access, and opportunity on the basis of class comradery. Lastly, aesthetics can alter empathy-based treatment. In other words, a conventionally handsome person might have more support offered than one not considered so, regardless of gender (for women, beauty-treatment is rampant, but many might underestimate how women will treat handsome men with a similar bias. Remember how handsome Ted Bundy was? How did this effect his ability to get close to the women he killed?).

bundy

Put short, empathy afforded can have a huge impact on one’s life. Such empathy can mean thousands of dollars in material resources over the course of a year…and whether male or female, operators and salespeople will often either hyper-focus on women’s needs in contrast to the rebuffing of Black males or the opposite, give a woman a basic level of support while exhibiting either fear or hostility toward Black male customers/clients.

Here, even when a woman is an excellent negotiator, empathy can still be useful. Below is a hilarious clip from the film True Grit (2010) where both good negotiation and empathy toward a female can be quite impactful.

Even in the film Boiler Room (2000) about corrupt investment brokers, men will exploit other men (and avoid exploiting women) by challenging their masculinity in sales matters. Refusing to “pitch the bitch” as they called it, these corrupt brokers wouldn’t sell investments to women because they complained and stressed too much about their investment status while selling to men based on the notion of them being providers. Here, women are an annoyance (or are deemed too smart), so their punishment is to not be robbed at all.

The video below is a snippet from the Hidden Colors series. Within the first two minutes, it contrasts the perception of White gang members in the 19th century versus Black males in American history. White gangs in New York around the Civil War-era were regarded as being comprised of wayward young men that needed redemption, but Black men were treated as inherently criminalistic, despite sociological data to the contrary. Most particularly data that suggests that crime increases in impoverished areas, and because ghettos are concentrated areas of poverty, so too does crime increase in Black urban contexts. Yet if Black men were afforded an education that supported the acquisition of sufficiently-paid labor and supported by empathetic policy, we would see crime rates decrease dramatically.

The sacrifices of men are an important but under-regarded, but aren’t reserved for highly paid athletes by any means. Poorer men can also be disregarded in many ways. Ironically enough, after having watched both films, as I was walking through the theater I met a Mexican janitor who began to speak to me and share his life story. He talked about owning a landscaping company, being married, and owning a Benz. He commented on his wife not supporting him and spending all of his money while not working or preparing meals while he worked 12-14 hour days. He said after a trip home to Mexico, he lost his business and his money–and eventually his wife left him. He said he now lived in a small domicile (and sometimes his car) alone and rides his bike ten miles each way to work in the theater. Strangely enough, his story only drove home the point that males are often dismissed, taken for granted, and seen as both disposable and a means to an end…and even more intriguing is that capitalism is the thread between both films, the janitor I spoke with, investment banking, and football.

 

NOTES


*According to the Clark Science Center, “[i]n 1950 Chuck Cooper was the first black signed by an NBA team,” by “1998, 77% of all professional basketball players were black.” “In 1947 Jackie Robinson was the first black to sign with a “white” team,” by “1998 15% of all professional baseball players were black.” “African-American males are vastly over-represented in collegiate basketball, football, and track. Additionally, they are over-represented in professional basketball, football, track, boxing, and to a lesser degree, baseball.* “Indeed, while blacks make up 77% of the NBA, 64% of the WNBA, and 65% of the NFL, they are only 4.2% of our physicians, 2.7% of our lawyers, and 2.2% of our civil engineers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1997).”<Clark Science Center http://www.science.smith.edu/exer_sci/ESS200/Raceh/Raceh.htm>

**Furthermore, African-American females are disproportionally represented in relation to their population size in collegiate basketball and track. The WNBA also has a disproporianally large representation of African-American females.” (Siegel, 1994)

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