Still Dancing

“As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” These words were spoken by Citigroup CEO Charles Prince in July 2007, shortly before the start of the financial crisis. He was talking about Citi continuing to lend and lend (especially for the sake of financing leveraged buyouts) in spite of fears that reduced liquidity (coming, for example, from much lower valuations of subprime securities and other securities on Citi’s balance sheet) would leave the bank significantly exposed.

Prince would eventually be derided both for his stewardship of Citi and for his commentary on dancing, which became a summation of the financial sector’s attitudes and behavior leading up to the crisis. But as an observation of social myopia, his words seem pretty spot-on. When we start to see a future crisis looming, we usually realize, on some level, that we’ll need to adjust our day-to-day behavior to prepare for the storm, or to head it off — to trade short term gratification (making money, having fun, whatever) for long-term sustainability. The question is when. When we’re by ourselves, making decisions independently, we usually do a decent job of timing the shift. If you find out that your roof is starting to leak, you’ll probably fix it before water floods your house. But when we’re in large groups, we’re guided by the behavior of others. And if we don’t see anyone else preparing for the crisis, most of us are reluctant to be the first ones to act.

If I were a better person, I would keep Prince in mind every time I hear (almost daily, now) about irreversible climate change, the most obvious and important example of a looming crisis that we’re collectively ignoring. But apparently I am still too myopic for that. Instead, his words occurred to me yesterday as I thought about the Super Bowl. At this point, we’re all aware that football, as currently played, sometimes results in repeated concussions, brain injury, and shortened lifespans — that, when we watch a game, we might literally be watching some of the players, perhaps even the very best ones, killing themselves out there. Already, many parents are discouraging or forbidding their kids from playing. You might think that, with the game heading for what feels like a long-term crisis, perhaps starting to lose its moral acceptability, there might be less business as usual — that some of us would look to the future and stop watching.

But — the Super Bowl feels like an important shared experience. And sometimes it’s really fun. For now the music is still playing, and we’re still dancing.

Everybody Knows

Has football left us mute? The facts are right in front of your nose; here are a few:

Junior Seau, All-Pro linebacker, Chargers/Dolphins/Patriots. 1969-2012.
Dave Duerson, All-Pro safety, Bears/Giants/Cardinals. 1960-2011.
Mike Webster, All-Pro center, Steelers/Chiefs. 1952-2002.

They are just some of the most famous ones. There are others, and there will be more. The evidence piles up, more long articles appear, here, there, the New York Times, ESPN. We watch, we see the hits, we know what they mean, and yet most of us are unable to speak. Watch the game video below, all the way through. Listen to the announcers; what’s not said is terrifying.

“Everybody Knows” is a song by Leonard Cohen, in which the singer manages to speak plainly about our inability to speak plainly. Cohen was not writing about football, but he may as well have been:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded,
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over,
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed,
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich,
That’s how it goes, everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking,
Everybody knows the captain lied.
Everybody’s got this broken feeling,
Like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets,
Everybody wants a box of chocolates,
And a long-stemmed rose. Everybody knows.

Everybody knows it’s now or never,
Everybody knows it’s me or you.
Everybody knows you live forever,
When you’ve done a line or two.
Everybody knows the deal is rotten,
Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton
For your ribbons and bows. And everybody knows.

Let’s speak plainly. And let’s stop watching snuff films football.