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Football and a nation of wusses

The trend in American society in recent years towards risk-aversion and excessive safety-first concerns are undermining an American institution known for toughness: football.

I was nearly knocked over by last week's news that, for the first time in its history, the National Football League called off a game because of weather. A game in Philadelphia between the local Eagles and Minnesota Vikings was postponed due to an anticipated snow storm. It is part of football lore that the game is played in all kind of weather, and there have been some famous games played in heavy snow (1982 "Snowplow Game" between Patriots and Dolphins) and below-freezing temperatures (1967 "Ice Bowl" championship between the Packers and Cowboys, in minus-48 degrees wind chill in Green Bay). For some fans, it reminds us of playing football in the snow as kids.

The rationale given by the NFL was that calling off the game was necessary in order to protect fans from having to drive in the snow. But there have been plenty of heavy snowfalls in the past – why weren’t those games cancelled? Not because the officials were mindless or irresponsible. It was because there was an assumption in society generally that fans could make up their own minds about whether or not it was safe to travel to the game. Indeed, many of these famous snow bowls of the past had smaller numbers of fans in the stands, but plenty of viewers around the TV set.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell came out against the NFL’s decision, and became the talk of the nation for a few days:

To call off this game because of snow is further evidence of the "wussification" of America. We seem to have lost our boldness, our courage, our sense of adventure and that frontier spirit that made this country the greatest nation in the world. A little snow, a potential traffic tie-up, a long trip home caused us to cancel a football game? Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, said that if football were played in China, 60,000 Chinese would have walked through the snow to the stadium doing advanced calculus as they did so. He's probably right, and it's no secret why the Chinese are dominating on the world stage.

Rendell’s talk of national decline – “wussification” – is overstated. And the reference to the Chinese doing calculus got lots of laughs, but is silly. Yet beneath all of Rendell’s bluster, he does raise a serious issue. We have become overly-cautious about safety, and authorities have become over-protective. Philadelphia-based pundit Dennis Prager cites other examples in Real Clear Politics:

Sadly, this risk-averse/avoid-pain mindset is overtaking America. Anything that entails risk is to be avoided and, when possible, banned. The breast cancer drug Avastin has just been banned by the FDA because of side effect risk to some patients. Yet terminally ill breast cancer patients who understand the risks have begged to be allowed to take the drug (even Europe allows it). Peanuts and peanut butter, particularly good sources of protein for kids (because kids actually like and therefore eat peanuts and peanut butter), are banned in more and more schools because of the risk (which is far less than being killed by lightning) that peanut-allergic students may die in schools that do not ban peanuts. Desperately needed nuclear power plants are shelved because of the infinitesimally small risk of nuclear waste radiation leakage. And now an NFL game is canceled because of the risk that some fans might get into auto accidents in a snowstorm.

Furthermore, as the NFL cancellation shows, this stress on our supposed vulnerability and weakness is used by the authorities to undermine the notion that we can assess risks ourselves. Football fans could have decided themselves to drive, or to take the train instead, or stay home – they didn’t need a nanny (in this case, not the state but a private sports league) making this decision for them.

Cancel a football game? I still don’t believe it.

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