The NFL: Our own Hunger Games?

Disclaimer 1: No one’s paying me to write about The Hunger Games

Disclaimer 2: I make some claims in this post.  You might disagree.  That’s cool.  My goal is just to draw some parallels, to examine one relatively small aspect of our culture through the lens of The Hunger Games.  That’s it.  It’s primarily a literary exercise that I decided to post on the blog because I’m a huge nerd.  I’m not out to incriminate football or even our own society, it’s just and interesting comparison to me.

Disclaimer 3:  I have no idea what Suzanne Collins feelings are about football or if she had professional sports in her mind when she wrote The Hunger Games… I’m guessing that wasn’t her main aim, but I don’t know.  Point is, I’m not trying to assign her authorial intent, and that’s what’s great about being a reader, I can make my own claims and back it up on my own without worrying about whether she really cared about that or not.

enough disclaimers
hunger-games

When I read The Hunger Games in early 2012, I was hooked and could not stop reading.  While we can debate the themes of the book, the violence, and the quality of writing, you can’t deny that Suzanne Collins knows how to hook you and force you to continue turning the page.  But one thing always bothered me about the premise of The Hunger Games: it seems impossible and utterly implausible.

Which is fine if it were just a fantasy, but setting it in a future dystopian society that recognizes itself as “formerly North America” makes me think that Collins wants us to conjecture that our society could turn into this, but I just don’t see how for 75 years a society would just be like “sure take 24 of our kids every year and make them kill each other, we’ll watch, it’ll be great.”  I, perhaps naively, believe that we (we being the human race) wouldn’t let that happen no matter the oppression, or at least that a rebellion would happen sooner.

And then I get to thinking… maybe we already do this.

Let’s back up a second.

For those who are a little rusty on their Hunger Games history, here’s how it goes: There are 12 poor districts surrounding a wealthy Capitol in a nation known as Panem, and each year 2 children from each district, one girl and one boy, between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen at random to participate in the Games, which are broadcast live and are practically required viewing for all Panem citizens.  They will fight the other districts tributes to the death until one remains standing.  The victor of the games wins fame and fortune, bringing wealth to his family and glory to his district, and they are pretty much set for life even though they may have been struggling or starving before their time in the games.

So there is a huge risk, but there is also a huge reward, not just for the victor but for his family and community. 

But here’s where it gets interesting to me.  Every year, each child between 12 and 18 gets their name put in to the drawing for tributes.  So by the time you’re 18 your name is in at least 7 times.  But, if you want more food supplies from the Capitol, if you’re family is struggling, then you can put your name in an additional time for each member of your family each year, and you’ll receive extra food rations.  So a child of a family of 4 who is 18 could have his name in the drawing up to 35 times.  Again, the risk to be called as a tribute is greater, but the reward is keeping your family alive.

While there are some terrible things going on in this world, I don’t believe we have an equivalent government sanctioned program like the Hunger Games.  But we do have a few things in American society that have some Hunger Games parallels, and while I’m not looking to indict or demonize these parts of our culture, I do find it interesting to draw the similarities.

Let’s look at professional football.  Nope, they’re not fighting to the death, but it is a high contact sport with lots of risks of various types of injury.  Injuries that could ruin their football careers, which for some of them may be the only viable career option, or potentially various aspects of their health, particularly their mental health (not buying it?  Well, the NFL recently doled out lots of money as compensation for that potential in former players, though they won’t accept liability, not that I’m saying they should…).

The more interesting parallels have to do with football as a part of our culture.  Like the Hunger Games, it is ingrained into our society, practically required viewing, we can’t escape it.  Anything football related is a potential national news story.  We have a multi-million dollar industry devoted to a fantasy version of it, giving us just one more way to feel connected to these games.

But an even more compelling parallel is the economics of football. How many stories have we heard about NFL stars who came from nothing?  Who were good on the football field and that’s how they got into college (it may have been the only way, with an athletic scholarship), and a professional career was their ticket out of a low-income background, a rough family life, poverty?

I realize that there are plenty of pro football players that don’t come from that stereotype, that even come from rich families and that’s how they got so good at football- they’re at rich high schools with nationally renowned football programs, their families can afford agents and trainers and they can spend all their time practicing instead of having to work.  But the Hunger Games has a parallel to that too… they’re called Careers.  Tributes who volunteer because they’ve been (illegally) training since they were kids because they do want the glory and they’re in richer districts where they don’t have to worry about surviving, so training to kill is a viable option.

So a kid from a poor or struggling background decides to take the physical risks of playing football, they put their body through the ultimate test, the ultimate beat down, and use it as a way to succeed, to get into a college, and finally they have a multi-million dollar career, and they’ve now provided for their family and brought glory to their community. 

Now Panem doesn’t seem that far away.

And a lot of people reading this will say we shouldn’t feel sorry for professional sports players (and truth be told, I’m not inclined to feel sorry for them), they’re paid well, they’re famous, what more could they want?  Yes, there is a great risk but there is also a great reward.  But the more former players who come forward to talk about concussions, mental health, and memory loss, the more I wonder if that should be the final word.  We paid you a lot, you’re famous, get over it?

There’s a lot of talk about whether the neurological injuries happening are that bad, or if it’s just these former players getting old.  To me, it doesn’t matter either way, what’s more important is the perception.  Go with me for a minute… Imagine that our perception of football develops into this idea that yes, there is a GREAT risk of brain injury at all levels.  So parents from wealthier backgrounds stop putting their kids into football, they won’t let them play out of fear of injury.  But high schools and colleges still depend on football programs for funds and notoriety, so they keep recruiting players, but the only people who are willing to take the risk do so for the reward, they want a chance at a better life.  And their risk is they may injure their brain and develop depression or other illnesses.  And of course we already know their reward.

I can’t help but see the similarities in those Panem children who put their names in a few more times to help their family survive.  To the optimistic view of the games which is “well, if you win, you’ll have everything you ever wanted, you’ll bring pride to your district and your family.”

It’s not a perfect allegory, there are holes, but I must admit that, being a fan of Collins’ trilogy, I feel a little bit sick when I cheer at an intense tackle or holler when a quarterback gets sacked. 

There’s some Capitol in all of us.

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