Thursday, December 24, 2009

TR and American Football

The more I learn about Teddy Roosevelt, the more I like him. I have been watching Ken Burns' National Parks. This film has elevated TR to hero status for me. Much of the stuff about him I already knew, but it is great to see it all in one place and so well arrange. One thing that I didn't know about him (that I learned by listening to NPR) is that he saved American football.

In 1905, there were close to 20 deaths on college football field. The death were related to brawls, gang tackles and to all around unsportsmanlike behavior. TR threatened to outlaw the sport not because he wasn't a fan but because he was. The sport fits right in with his manly shtick. Ten of his fellow Rough Riders were footballers. Football was still a fringe sport, at the time, being played by Ivy League College students. It didn't become popular until major newspaper actually printed a sports pages later in the century.

In 1906, upon TR's urging, the American Football Rules Committee met and changed the rules of the game to make it more safe. The forward pass was created which is really amazing. It was just a running game. The distance to get a first down was changed from five to ten. I am not sure how this made it safer. Perhaps, ten yards made passing more viable, certainly it made it a more interesting game. The biggest safety improvement was the banning of the gang tackle.

The biggest danger to modern day footballers is probably brain damage so much so that many pros are donating their brains to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Some of the brains of 40 year old football players show deterioration that one would expect of an 80 year old Alzheimer's patient. It makes me wonder what kind of rule changes are coming to the game to compensate for this.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy that the US's FCC (Federal Communications Commission) applied to radio stations that discussed politics. It was an attempt to force these discussions to be balanced, honest and equitable. This basically shut down discourse on the airwaves. It was introduced in 1949, made into actual policy in 1967 and eventually repealed completely in 1987. This explains the explosion of talk radio in my lifetime. Rush Limbaugh was the first talk radio personality to take advantage of it. I can't imagine having the country at war in Vietnam and not being able to talk about the issues on a call-in show. I don't particular care for the state of talk radio now in America but I do agree (even if I disagree with most of it) that they have a right to their opinions and to the airwaves.

The first problem with this doctrine is that it is very hard thing to enforce not only for the FCC but for the radio stations. What exactly does balanced and equitable mean? For example if you have a scientist on your show to talk about Evolution ... do you really have to have a Creationist on? Since Evolution is basically accepted as fact by most (if not all scientists) ... do you really have to have a non-scientist on and then give them equal time? If you were talking about the link between autism and immunization ... would you really have to show both sides of this issue even though there is no science to show that there is a link at all? Enforcing honesty has a similar problem because when someone has an opinion and you don't agree with it, this doesn't make them dishonest. There is no such thing as a dishonest opinion. Too much gray area prevents a small town radio station from policing themselves.

Enforcing such a policy made this very expensive (particularly with a call in show). Most small time radio stations avoided political discussions altogether. For every topic you had to have two people on and they had to have equal time. This was cost prohibitive and very unfair considering that their competition, print media, did not have to do so. That's right ... the Fairness Doctrine was unfair ... not the first government policy that was inappropriately named.

Some people want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine because of the current state of talk radio which is a lot more like hate radio than it is talk radio these days. I am not one of them but I understand their concerns. Whenever I hear someone like Rush or Michael Savage on the radio or some of the Fox personalities like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity on television, I think of Radio Rwanda. The media's role in spreading speech in the Rwandan Genocide is well known. In 1994 two radio stations and some newspapers started spreading hate speech and promoting violence against Tutsi by Hutu. The Tutsi were referred to as "cockroaches" for several years on these radio stations. Everyone ignored it until the violence started. One million dead bodies later ... we think maybe they should have been stopped.

As a liberal, I fear not only for my country and future, but for my own personal safety. I am only annoyed when they spread moronic lies, like Sarah Palin's Death Panels, but I am scared when I am being painted as unpatriotic or as an internal threat because I have a different opinion. People should be able to gather at a church or any other public place without fear of being gunned down (see Knoxville Shooting). Fear is their broadest tool and hate is what they create. The Fairness Doctrine seems like it was a bad thing but perhaps we need something that is a bit more fair in its place ... like a small dose of sanity and respect for one's neighbor.