Are Sports Worth the Risks?

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

Earlier this week, the NFL player Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped on the field after a violent collision with another player; a mountain climber died after an avalanche on Britain’s highest mountain; and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles launched a new program to treat kids with sports injuries. Although the three events are technically unrelated, they each serve as a timely reminder of the potential hazards of athletic pursuits.

What do you think about the health and safety risks that are inherent (to different degrees) in sports and the ethical questions they raise? Feel free to discuss professional athletes, college athletes, “extreme” athletes in especially risky sports, youth sports, or sports that you’ve played and how you thought about risks and the rewards.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com.


Conversations of Note

The strongest opinion I have about sports and related risks concerns college athletics. Consider a quotation from a website designed for young athletes who are being recruited. It begins with the question, “Can an athletic scholarship be taken away?” Here is part of the answer:

If you are injured, depending on the school you attend and whether it happened outside of games or practice, your scholarship can be pulled.

In my estimation, if an athlete on a college athletic scholarship is injured in a way that renders them physically unable to play their sport, the institution should still cover their tuition.

Back in 2013, Meghan Walsh wrote about this subject in The Atlantic:

Upon joining a Division I team, every participant must have insurance and undergo a medical examination before playing. But when it comes to protecting players, who generate billions of dollars every year, from having to pay unanticipated medical bills or ensuring they receive superior, impartial health care, there are no official NCAA provisions in place. Thus, when a player is injured, nothing prevents the athletic director from refusing to pay related medical bills—which sometimes keep coming for years. Even for those with private insurance, some policies don’t cover varsity sports injuries, have high deductibles, or refuse to pay the entire amount due. In such situations, the remaining costs fall to the athlete (many schools, though, do pay those bills).

The NCAA has a catastrophic-injury fund that kicks in when personal deductibles exceed $90,000 … According to Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association, schools are more likely to help cover costs if the player is high-profile and the injury is severe or public, such as the one Louisville’s Kevin Ware suffered when he broke his leg during a 2013 March Madness game. Or when the running back Marcus Lattimore twisted his knee almost 180 degrees during a televised game last year.

There is also no provision in the Division I Manual to prohibit a coach from revoking a scholarship the year after a recruit gets hurt. For those from poor families and without coverage through a parent, this means that a young man or young woman can be enlisted on the promise of an education, get injured on the field, and lose his or her only source of medical insurance precisely when he or she needs it most. “There is no doubt there are horror stories out there about schools terminating scholarships,” says Warren Zola, the assistant dean for graduate programs in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and a sports-business expert. “It comes down to the ethos of particular schools.”

On Martian Life

In the course of opining against putting a human on Mars––because robots explore the planet much better than humans can––Maciej Cegłowski argues on his blog, Idle Words, that the most important new information we’ve recently gotten about the possibility of life on Mars was obtained on Earth:

Microbiologists had long suspected that the 12,000 or so known species of microbes were just a fraction of the total, with perhaps another hundred thousand “unculturable” species left to discover. But when new sequencing technology became available at the turn of the century, it showed the number of species might be as high as one trillion. In the genomic gold rush that followed, researchers discovered not just dozens of unsuspected microbial phyla, but two entire new branches of life.

These new techniques confirmed that earth’s crust is inhabited to a depth of kilometers by a ‘deep biosphere’ of slow-living microbes nourished by geochemical processes and radioactive decay. One group of microbes was discovered still living their best lives 100 million years after being sealed in sedimentary rock. Another was found enjoying a rewarding, long-term relationship with fungal partners deep beneath the seafloor. This underground ecology, which we have barely started to explore, might account for a third of the biomass on earth.

At this point, it is hard to not find life on Earth. Microbes have been discovered living in cloud tops, inside nuclear reactor cores, and in aerosols high in the stratosphere. Bacteria not only stay viable for years on the space station hull, but sometimes do better out there than inside the spacecraft. Environments long thought to be sterile, like anoxic brines at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, are in fact as rich in microbial life as a gas station hot dog. Even microbes trapped for millions of years in salt crystals or Antarctic ice have shown they can wake up and get back to metabolizing without so much as a cup of coffee.

The fact that we failed to notice 99.999% of life on Earth until a few years ago is unsettling and has implications for Mars. The existence of a deep biosphere in particular narrows the habitability gap between our planets to the point where it probably doesn’t exist—there is likely at least one corner of Mars that an Earth organism could call home. It also adds support to the theory that life may have started as an interplanetary infection, a literal Venereal disease that spread across the early solar system by meteorite. If that is the case, and if our distant relatives are still alive in some deep Martian cave, then just about the worst way to go looking for them would be to land in a septic spacecraft.

The New Normal

In a column about changes that have endured even as most people stopped paying attention to COVID-19, The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle argues that pre-pandemic urban life probably isn’t ever coming back:

Weekday foot traffic in downtowns remains about one-third below 2019 levels, and public transit ridership averages about two-thirds of what it was. This suggests a permanent shift in the way cities are organized, with daily economic activity moving toward the peripheries, including exurbs at distances that would be intolerably far from downtown for a daily commute but manageable for going to the office once or twice a week. Cities will need to redesign large swathes of their urban centers around residential and leisure activities rather than 9-to-5 workdays, and adjust their tax codes and spending accordingly.

The Near Future of the Republican Party

The journalist Josh Barro believes that abortion was an issue that hurt Republicans in the recent midterm elections, and that it is likely to hurt their prospects again when the 2024 election cycle comes around.

In his Very Serious newsletter, he writes:

Polls tend to show clear majorities of voters who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Abortion bans with no exceptions are extremely unpopular, but that doesn’t mean creating exceptions that apply only to a small number of the most alarming situations is sufficient to stem the political damage. One Republican who ran very well in 2022 was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and one political advantage he had is that Florida has (so far) charted a moderate path on abortion compared to many other Republican-controlled states. Abortion in Florida remains legal through 15 weeks of pregnancy … But Florida’s 15-week ban predated the Dobbs decision. The state’s legislature wasn’t in session when Dobbs was handed down, and the Republicans who hold majorities in both houses are under significant pressure to further restrict abortion when they get back to work this month. DeSantis’s political strategy so far has been to fudge the issue — asked last month about a proposal to prohibit abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, he dodged, saying “I’m willing to sign great life legislation. That’s what I’ve always said I would do.”

… Fudging isn’t likely to work forever. Laws that broadly permit first-trimester abortions are politically sustainable because they satisfy public opinion by making abortions generally permitted in the circumstances when most women seek them. But pro-life activists actually want abortion broadly prohibited. We have not yet seen what a Republican presidential primary looks like post-Dobbs. I expect the candidates will be asked over and over what they’ll do on abortion, in much the same way that Democratic presidential candidates are constantly pressed to outbid each other on health care policy. If all DeSantis has to offer is a ban at 15 weeks (or 12 weeks), he’ll be outbid …

The Near Future of the Democratic Party

At its company newsletter, the political-consulting firm ClearPath Strategies looks back on the 2022 midterms and argues that the success Democrats experienced was not sustainable, because it relied too heavily on having an unusually strong field of candidates.

The analysis:

The Democratic Party also holds a negative favorability rating (44%-53%). More than half (51%) of voters think the party is too extreme. And by a 2:1 margin, voters prefer Republicans over Democrats on handling arguably the biggest issue of the election (inflation). So it would appear the Democrats defied history despite the party and President, not because of them.

But how?

Extraordinarily. Strong. Candidates.

Raphael Warnock, Mark Kelly, John Fetterman, Maggie Hassan, Catherine Cortez Masto. As we’ve said, Democrats require great candidates to win elections. Democrats outperformed expectations because their candidates built brands independent of the deeply unpopular Party and President. They did not echo the President’s final plea to voters to defend democracy. Instead, they were laser focused on the issues that mattered in their races, inflation and abortion rights.

Democratic party strategists are patting themselves on the back for defending democracy, but they lost the House and arguably left a few Senate seats on the table. Instead of asking how they prevented a Red Wave, they should ask why they failed to achieve a historic Blue Wave. Dems had extremely high quality candidates. Trump’s insertion into the election provided the gift of hand-picked, cringe-worthy candidates in key races. And in a moment when people still crave stability, Trump’s brand of aggressive chaos served as a reminder of the risks of the modern GOP, over which he still maintains a strong grip.

“Really strong candidates” is not a good strategy. We must ask ourselves: how much stronger of a night would Dems have had if they could leverage a strong party brand or strong party leadership?

They go on to articulate their view of why some successful Democratic Party candidates are ill-suited to be party leaders:

Mark Kelly cannot be both the independent, Arizona-focused advocate and also a leader of the Democratic Party. Raphael Warnock cannot be the Georgia Reverend, fighting for people regardless of party, and also a leader of the Democratic Party. If Democrats continue to require strong, independent candidates to win elections, those same would-be leaders cannot lead the party. To lead is to lose. They must remain independent. Investing in long-term party building is as much about building a strong bench as it is building a strong brand by advancing a strategy to serve people.

Critiques of Independent Sinema

In my most recent Atlantic article, I argued that whatever one thinks of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s character or positions, there is one reason to celebrate her recent change in party affiliation from Democrat to independent: It makes Congress more representative.

After all, “independent” is––per years of Gallup data––typically the country’s most popular party affiliation, with more Americans identifying that way than as Democrats or Republicans. Recent polls suggest that, if the Senate reflected the American electorate’s party affiliations, the chamber would include 35 to 50 independent members. Yet until Sinema’s announcement, the Senate had just two independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. The 117th House of Representatives had no independents, and neither will the 118th when it takes office tomorrow.

… The dearth of independents is contributing to a loss of faith in Congress as a representative democratic institution. An alarming 70 to 80 percent of Americans disapprove of the job the national legislature is doing, Gallup polls in recent months suggest. The branch’s approval rating among Democrats and Republicans has long fluctuated based on which party is in charge, but independents are consistently cool to Congress. This is hardly surprising; one would expect the one-third to one-half of Americans who decline to affiliate with Democrats or Republicans to dislike a system dominated by them.

Numerous readers emailed responses to the article.

Bob is an independent who is frustrated with the status quo:

Thank you for your excellent article about independent voters. Too often, pundits seem to assume we are either uninterested in politics or are partisans in disguise, i.e., “lean Democrat” or “lean Republican.” No doubt that is true for some, perhaps many, people; however, you are “not alone in disliking how Democrats have used their control of the White House and Congress but also wishing I had somewhere to turn other than the Republican Party.” I have been an active independent voter for nearly six decades and have typically leaned away from one party or the other. Right now, I am leaning away from the Republicans.

Stephen suggested an alternative to independents:

I agree with your overall premise (our two party system is bad and broken and leads to people feeling underrepresented) but disagree with your solution (more Independents). Instead, I’d like to see more parties which necessitate the building of coalitions to accomplish things, which I believe will lead to both more nuanced positions and to a greater ability to compromise … Party structures are useful precisely because they “get help with funding, campaign infrastructure, voter outreach, or ballot access,” which is why I’m suggesting that we should have more of them. However, our electoral system is prohibitive of third parties.

John Oliver has a good video on third parties, as does CGP Grey. GGP Grey’s series on different voting systems in particular has influenced my thoughts here). Both of them argue that third parties mostly play Spoiler and, as a result, have a difficult time getting rolling.

Dave argued that Sinema is different from the Senate’s other two independents in an important respect:

Senators Angus King and Bernie Sanders ran as independents; they didn’t switch parties. And while a large swath of the country waited from 2016-2020 for honorable men to appear and become independents while the ex-president wrecked the office of the presidency and America’s good standing, somehow there were no such honorable men. Senator Sinema may be beholden to her constituency first, but she appears to be more beholden to corporate interests and becoming rich via her office. Opportunists should not be put in the same category as senators Sanders and King.

In contrast, John doesn’t care whether Sinema changed her affiliation opportunistically or not:

I am registered as a Republican, but I was registered as a Democrat last year and an independent before that. I was a Republican until the rise of the Tea Party. That turned me into an independent. Donald Trump turned me into a Democrat. I switched back to Republican because I wanted to vote in the Republican Primary in the closed primary system in Florida. I see myself as an independent, but I intend to switch back and forth between being registered as a Democrat or Republican based on the primary I want to vote it.

I have a lot of policy conversations with my friends—some Republican and some Democrat. When we get beyond the popular narratives, we have a lot of common ground. The roughly third, third, third make up of the country could be about right depending on how you frame the question. If you got deep into detailed policy, it would be quarter, half, quarter. The country is nowhere near as divided as people think. It is the extremists who push that narrative. It is their interest to frame the division as nearly evenly split since that puts them in a more powerful position. The reality is that the extremists are a vocal minority.

I don’t know whether we give Sinema credit for being principled or driven by the politics of a purple state. But we need more people who are willing to buck the party line. Moderate Democrat, moderate Republican, independent, whatever you call it, we need reasonable people who can find middle ground we can all tolerate. We are a diverse country. Nobody is going to get everything they want. The only sustainable solutions are in the middle.

“’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky”

In The Atlantic, Bianca Bosker describes and ponders “supertalls,” skyscrapers that are “often defined as buildings more than 300 meters in height, but better known as the cloud-puncturing sci-fi towers that look like digital renderings, even when you’re staring at them from the sidewalk.”

She writes:

First supertalls were impossible, then a rarity. Now they’re all over the place. In 2019 alone, developers added more supertalls than had existed prior to the year 2000; there are now a couple hundred worldwide … Some supertalls have an even more futuristic designation: superslim. These buildings are alternately described as “needle towers” or “toothpick skyscrapers” … Building engineers, like judgy modeling agents, have varying definitions of superslim, but they usually agree that such buildings must have a height-to-width ratio of at least 10 to 1. To put that in perspective, the Empire State Building (one of the world’s first supertalls, completed in 1931) is about three times taller than it is wide—“pudgy,” as one engineer described it to me. Steinway Tower is 24 times taller than it is wide—nearly as slim as a No. 2 pencil, and the skinniest supertall in the world. These superslim buildings—and supertalls generally—have relied on engineering breakthroughs to combat the perilous physics that go with height…

Like many cutting-edge innovations, supertalls can behave unpredictably. In strong winds, occupants have reported water sloshing in toilet bowls, chandeliers swaying, and panes of glass fluttering. The architect Adrian Smith, who has designed numerous supertalls, contends that you’re in supertall territory not just when you hit 300 meters, but when you build so high that you get into “potentially unknown issues.” And, he acknowledges, there are “still mistakes being made.”

Supertalls aren’t necessarily good neighbors. Their shadows can reach half a mile, and they can magnify the winds at street level, churning the air into high-speed gusts as far as three blocks away. Many New Yorkers consider the city’s proliferating supertalls at best an eyesore—“Awful Waffle” is one nickname for 432 Park Avenue, a luxury condominium that looks like a strip of graph paper stuck on the Manhattan skyline. At worst, they’re considered nonsensical constructions that exacerbate the city’s affordable-housing crisis, contribute to climate change, and stand as totems to inequality … Today many of New York’s supertalls are designed to serve as homes for the superrich—“the modern-day castle, if you will,” says Stephen DeSimone, a structural engineer who’s worked on supertalls in the city. “You’re living amongst the sky, like the rest of the world isn’t good enough.” Supertalls have made even fans of tall buildings wonder whether we’ve built too high, for too few—and finally gone too far. Staring up at them from the dark, blustery sidewalk, it’s hard not to wonder: Is there anything to love?


Provocation of the Week

In the newsletter Hold That Thought, Sarah Haider reads up on the success women are having relative to men in earning bachelor’s degrees, and investigates scholarships to determine if there are disparities in who qualifies. Her thought-provoking conclusions:

As far as I can tell, “Male” is the only noticeably underrepresented demographic in college that is also highly underrepresented in the scholarship world. In fact, it is the only demographic where the majority receives many more exclusive scholarship opportunities than the minority. According to a study by the SAVE Title IX Equity Project analyzing scholarships exclusive to one sex in 115 universities, “among 1,161 sex-specific scholarships, 91.6% were reserved for female students, with only 8.4% designated for male students.”

Not surprising, exactly. Perhaps a bit more surprising: Despite a lot of crowing about how few men go into female dominated fields, as far as I could find, there is little money offered to encourage them. Women who wish to “break barriers” in STEM can look forward to diving into a mountain of money, but men who wish to do the same in a profession like Speech-Language Pathology (90%+ female) can look forward to nothing of the sort.

That’s all for this week—see you on Monday.

The Atlantic