Reel Life

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Choose Your Poison

The most dangerous sport may be football.

The grown-up generation has the responsibility for setting examples as well as explanations for the next batch of youngsters coming along. The older guys (men and women) must determine which of life's pleasures are fairly safe and must be regulated, and which are dangerous and must be forbidden.

Recently, a judge, whom we assume has never been shot, decreed that it must be legal to carry loaded guns to church, and now he says we must welcome concealed assault rifles and hidden hand guns into bars. Short of suicide bombers or drunks with guns, humankind must be the most dangerous of critters on the planet.

When Thanksgiving comes around, our thoughts turn to, of all things, football. Whatever its mortality or morbidity, football has all the gravitas of a religion. It feels like a matter of life or death. As we are gradually coming to realize: IT IS.

While kids tackle one another in the front yard, the old guys who played the game in their youth, prop themselves up on cushions in front of their big flat screens, medicate themselves with beer, and lose themselves in the glory of today's team. They don't even have to rely on miracles, on voodoo, hexes, demons or luck. They know what is likely and what is unlikely, what is a fool's quest and what is a pipe dream.

It is crucial for parents and other adults to make sure kids know the straight skinny about what is safe, and how safe, and what is dangerous and how dangerous. Mythology competes with statistics. We learn most of our store of information at home, along with piles of misinformation. An example: for centuries, the world believed that tomatoes were toxic. Apparently, no one had ever eaten one. We've learned that tomatoes are not only safe to eat but useful for killing the flavor of everything else on your plate. Pot may be far from safe and harmless: especially when compared to football.

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Recently, a vigorous campaign was conducted in California to have marijuana declared legal. Pot, which could get you locked up for a year or so, is now being considered for legalization. With regular use and in large enough doses, it is touted as a medication for patients with chronic pain. At best, pot makes users giggle and withdraw. As a medication, it helps users overlook their pain. In high enough doses, users are unconcerned with their own behavior and their effect on other people. Marijuana is of course a disaster for adolescents who are already having enough trouble connecting with their fellow human beings. They can become insensitive to a fault.

There are people out there who get stoned on a daily basis. They assure one and all that pot is not addictive, and that it brings out the best in them by making them so mellow and calm and peaceful. There are many arguments on the subject. Some argue that pot should be illegal for those who have not yet reached their full maturity, and instead reserved for folks who don't have enough to do all day other than sit, rock and watch TV. Others seriously question the tradeoffs, i.e., pot smokers lose an estimated twenty I.Q. points, but who cares? Life is not that exciting for people seeking oblivion anyway.

About the worst accusation that can be made about pot is this: it seems harmless, it's not. It may be better and safer and healthier to go through life stoned than it is to go through life drunk. But those are not the only two choices. Driving drunk may be even worse than driving stoned, but neither is what you want driving in the next lane. About the best legitimate claim that can be made for pot is that it is something new to tax.

Pot renders its users somewhat less intelligent, with an estimated 20 IQ point loss for heavy, regular users. Grades plummet, but users don't notice that after a while. Regular pot use makes users so insensitive they don't notice the effect it is having. It does not often drive users crazy, or turn peaceful people into vacuous assassins. But in 50 years of psychiatric practice, I have seen busloads of susceptible people who have decompensated after pot use. Some have never completely recovered. It is not a totally safe drug, and should be discouraged.

We sometimes don't know the difference between those foods which are toxic and those which are healthy. Scurvy debilitated the crews of British war ships. It was finally realized that they were not infested with bugs, nor beat down by unseemly thoughts about God. Instead it was a shortage of Vitamin C in their diet. So in 1795 the British Navy began supplying limes to their crews. They accidentally chose the only citrus fruit that was devoid of Vitamin C. Other items saved the day, but the British sailors are still called "limeys."

Competitive, violent, brutal, and dangerous activities like playing football, shark wrestling, leaping from high places, eating fatty foods likely to produce heart attacks and strokes, car racing, and bungee jumping (I've never shark wrestled), may have some degree of danger, maybe more, maybe less than meets the eye. Actually, the most dangerous sport short of driving drunk or driving stoned may be football. A brain is far too valuable to use as disposable padding.

I realized during my days as a high school sportswriter, football is not a game so much as a rite of passage with human sacrifice. Unlike baseball, it is not graceful and elegant and paced for spectators. Boys are pressured by their peers and maybe their parents to play football, at least a little. When I was 11, in rural Alabama, I played two games. I learned quickly to hate the game. I strongly suspected and still believe that the other team was out to kill me. But for a day or two, I was a football player. I had been a member of a team. I could now focus my pursuit of masculinity in less death-defying ways.

My observations of the game read quite a bit like Andy Griffith's description in his famous skit: "What It Was, Was Football". Griffith explained the brutally violent contest over the lopsided "pumpkin", overseen by "convicts" in striped clothes blowing whistles. I learned a few things: I learned never to actually play the game, never drink before, during or after it, and don't let yourself get stepped on by 340 pound behemoths whose brains have been deadened by continued use as a battering ram. But you can run from them even if you can't stop them.

This was supposed to be the soul of sportsmanship (in rural Alabama in my youth where Bear Bryant was god), but the contest has no known health benefits. Those who have played football are likely to be crippled in the knees for life. We know the knees of young football players are turned to gravel. One popular way to emerge intact is to put on so much blubber, no one from the other team would dare topple you upon himself. The activity has all the grace and beauty of a demolition derby. Few in the stands manage to get through all four quarters stone-cold sober.

Football has redeeming virtues. It can inflate the self image. It can create a camaraderie akin to that of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground. As Roman gladiators chanted "We who are about to die salute you." Football is a killer for the human body and maybe for the human soul as well. Yet the players who have covered their bodies with enough scars talk nostalgically of loving the head-banging, the roughness of it all. My father played football at Georgia Tech, but I didn't have to watch it. Instead I got to watch my grandson Frank V play it until his knees collapsed. I felt as if I was going to have a heart attack. I wanted to drag him out of there while lecturing him about what this is going to do to his brain.

The current research, as alarming news bulletins are warning us, is the long range impact of the head banging. The brain is largely replaced by lumps. I had visions of Frank flying over the line of scrimmage landing on his head, sending what was once intelligence up in smoke. What price glory? Thankfully, he switched to cross country and track, and is a 13 year old nationally ranked triathlete with a healthy brain.

Football is akin to a patriarchal worship of masculinity on the hoof. It throws observers or users into a state akin to ecstasy, which can not be interrupted by something so mundane as reality. Andy Griffith found the humorous underbelly of football back in the fifties. I wonder when some judge would approve football fans going to the games stoned and with loaded guns---to equalize the teams and to make the game even more intense.

The marijuana scare of the 30's was set off by a film, REEFER MADNESS (1936), which warned us in ridiculously overblown hysteria, of the horrifying dangers of pot. Pot was supposed to drive users mad, suicidal, homicidal much like the kiss of the vampire. The film was so absurd, it gave no indication of why and how pot was a danger and a bad idea.

The best thing that can be said of pot is it does not make you drunk. Instead it makes you relatively less intelligent by about 2O I.Q. points. The drop is even greater for youngsters with Attention Deficit Disorder, who seem particularly attracted to the weed. The illegality of pot makes it more appealing to those with a rebellious bent. Sending pot users to jail for a year or more makes us realize the possible consequences of pot, but is of little benefit to the pot users. For the past half century or two, the punishment and consequences of pot smoking are so devastating, that they overwhelm any concern about the real dangers of pot.

California voted down legalization of pot. Like it or not, pot will eventually be legalized. Our world changes no matter how hard we try to stop it. After decades of trying to fight against pot, we're on the verge of capitulating.

We are just beginning to notice how much damage is done to brains and bodies of fearless young athletes, especially football players.

What will happen in the gun toting churches and bars? There isn't much logic to the decisions about what will be approved and what will be punished. It's a crazy world.

 

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a psychiatrist/family therapist in Atlanta., author, international lecturer and film critic.

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