The ideal issue

This week marked an odd intersection of two stories that seem completely unrelated but actually reflect a lot of light on each other. I’m referring to the New York Times’ admirable series on NFL players’ post-career physical trainwrecks, and the global warming issue.

The players get a lot of money to amuse us with collisions between 300-lb armored projectiles. Half a second off the blocks, a sprinter is going about 9 mph; football players probably have a similar power-to-weight ratio, but aren’t geared for a jackrabbit start, so let’s say 7, or 10 ft/sec. So two of these guys colliding have about 1000 ft-lb of energy to dissipate in the collision; if you weigh 150 lb, it’s what you hit the ground with falling off a six-foot ladder. If either of them is taking it on the helmet, enough of it is being absorbed by the brain hitting the inside of his skull to cause concussions. There’s more: diabetes, sleep apnea, Alzheimer’s, coronary disease and cancer. (Fortunately, none of these guys takes any kind of steroid to bulk up, so that’s not an issue in football.)

The great thing about this problem from the perspective of the NFL, the players union, the bookies, the networks, the colleges, and everyone else at the trough is that the damage all comes after the player’s career! The stumbling wreck in the bar and the amphetamine-soaked loser in a cheap motel room are not football players! “As [the players’ union boss] once told The Charlotte Observer: ‘They can complain about me all day long. But the active players have the vote. That’s who pays my salary.’ ” It’s strictly business, as Hyman Roth tartly observed.

Furthermore, it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault, with a little deft juggling, and what sucker steps up if anyone else could be blamed for something? The players made their deals, and they’re college-educated adults with agents who, um, represent their interests. The owners are just providing what the public wants. We heard from the union. And while some players are 44-year old suicides and basket cases, some of them aren’t, so there… Anyway. when a player actually gets hurt on the field, everyone gets very sober and sentimental and noble and regretful, it makes time for a couple of commercials, and they we’re back to business.

It’s a caring community that values its heroes, and that’s a fact.

Global warming has the same delicious schedule, only even slower. There is no way anything anyone does will make a noticeable difference in anyone’s term of office! But anything we actually do now will nettle somebody, and we have Kit Bond of Missouri straightarming any such doing until we know exactly which people in which states maybe will bear an unfair burden; this must be good for at least three Congresses of studying. We have a pretty good idea which states will drown in a rising sea, and it isn’t Missouri, of course. Bond’s clear implication is that If anyone gets hit with the slightest bit more dues than anyone else, we shouldn’t do anything at all.

Not to mention how unthinkable it would be for the richest country in the world to be anything but last and least stepping up for a something as softheaded as saving the planet; if the Indians and the Chinese are so damn concerned about their grandchildren, let them deal with the carbon and we can come along later and maybe grow a little more corn. In the meantime, we have lots of movies of polar bears, even a few in the zoo, and business to attend to. Do you know anyone who lost money from the passenger pigeon? Neither do I.

And nobody I know is popping pills with football brain damage either. The Times needs to get with the program and stop waving this bloody shirt around: I’ve got a widescreen, a bunch of brats for the grill, a fridge full of cold ones, and the right to enjoy them tomorrow. That’s business.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.