Assigning responsibility: Where and how does it end?

Jim Redwine

The season of our discontent is set to begin Feb. 8, 2021. Soon we will be forced to talk to our spouses again and eat an actual meal instead of gobbling chicken wings during commercials or at halftimes. I can feel the ennui closing in. ♫ It is a long, long time from February to September ♫ when football season returns.

It is not that I have no interest in other sports, but other than the Olympic downhill ski race and the baseball World Series, I just do not want to watch them on television. On the other hand, I will gladly spend four hours watching Goadie Bowl Tech and Reyfert Hogart Junior College drop passes and fumble kickoffs. Such pursuits as yardwork and household chores quickly fade in the afterglow of a football game. Ah well, perhaps it will give me an opportunity to ask Peg what she has been doing since September 2020. Also, I might give some thought to such things as our battle with ’Ole 19 and our political malaise.

Perhaps I can combine my concerns about the end of the football season, the novel coronavirus and such political madness as the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on our nation's Capitol, including its impending impeachment imbroglio. After all, President Gerald Ford was the hero or villain, choose one, of the President Richard Nixon impeachment controversy and President Lyndon Johnson often alleged Ford’s decisions were affected by Ford’s having played too much football without a helmet.

Gerald Ford played center on the University of Michigan football team. Ford graduated from college in 1935, an era when leather helmets were in vogue. For safety reasons leather has been gradually replaced with the rock-hard plastic we now use. Hello, spearing or targeting penalties and TBIs (traumatic brain injuries). However, from an aesthetic viewpoint, the hard plastic provides a better surface for team logos and sticker awards for hard hits.

Football and politics do have some similarities, and when it comes to dealing with misdeeds in either, the legal concept of attenuation is relevant. With football a hard hit with his helmet by one player against the head of another player can be analyzed by re-tracing backwards from the hit. While not even the player himself, or now perhaps herself too, may know for sure if he/she intended permanent harm, the referees and the replay booth can carefully review and discuss the event. This may disclose guilt or innocence of the player, but is he/she the only one to blame?

The fanatics who cheer on teams often call for the players to “fight’ or even “kill ’em.” One’s teammates may urge super aggression. Coaches spend months in conditioning drills and two-a-day preseason practices explaining how starters push the limits, while bench-sitters are more timid. And what about the player’s parents? Who is responsible for engendering mayhem instead of mercy?

The same type of analysis is an element of our criminal justice system. When there is a lynching, how far back the causal chain should punishment go? Is it just the one person who slips the noose over the victim’s neck? What about the onlookers, the news media that fanned the flames, the leaders who gave rousing speeches, the sworn law officers who did not intervene and the rest of the community who acquiesced in silence either during or after the lynching? Perhaps an entire country might be responsible, or even a silently accepting world. How do we decide whether we are applying appropriate punishment or simply burning a few witches to shoulder the blame for everyone?

Then, of course, we also need to look at the dynamics of the attenuation itself. Who is making the choices about whom to burn? Are the decisions just, or are they just decisions because the ones who execute them have the power to do so? And most importantly, are we a better society because of the choices, or are we simply fomenting more targeting? Finally, where and how does it end?