Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

4 Comments »

  1. I seriously doubt whether the NFL will exist in 15 years. My son is in 5th grade, the kids play soccer, basketball and a little baseball, few play football. He plays all three, but not football, neither myself nor my wife will permit it. I’m hearing that there’s already a substantial decline in people trying out for high school football. By the time my son reaches high school, it will be even greater.

    I also have a friend in his early 60s who played football in high school. His son played it in the 1990s. A few years ago, he dismissed CTE, or thought something could be done about, now he says that there’s no way he would allow his grandchildren to play.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 9, 2017 @ 12:50 am

  2. I’d like to think that the move to soccer, an international sport and to my mind a brainier one, is all to the good. But around the world it now has worries about head injuries too.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 9, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

  3. Peter: yes, my hope is to transition my son to baseball and basketball because of the concern about headers. At his age, he’s not allowed to do them. If CTE is really worsened by “brain slosh” instead of traumatic collisions, then the problem could be really serious. Because of the increased use of crosses into the box, headers are more common than in the past. And we don’t really know much about it, because Europe, unlike the US, hasn’t conducted much research into it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 9, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

  4. Richard: There’s an interesting piece on the subject–Alan Shearer: Making my documentary Dementia, Football–at http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/41902953‎

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 10, 2017 @ 5:53 pm


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