Malcolm Gladwell Says HDTV Has Made the NFL Psychologically Painful

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Malcolm Gladwell. Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Fusion Fest

You already know that the news on the NFL and brain damage is damning. There have been more than 200 diagnosed concussions a season since 2012. After many years of struggle, the league finally acknowledged that the game’s brutal play drives Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a crippling degenerative brain disease that comes from repeated head trauma. At least one former player has reportedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, rather than the head, so that his brain could be studied.

Still, knowing this stuff conceptually isn’t the same as seeing the bone-breaking hits in high resolution. This is a point that Malcolm Gladwell argues to Bill Simmons in a wide-ranging conversation about the future of the NFL over at the Ringer: high-definition television, he says, has been a double-edged sword for the league, since the drama of the game is so much more real. But so is toll the game takes on players — to a psychologically significant extent.

I’ll quote Gladwell in full:

[HD TV] means that when [Carolina Panthers linebacker] Luke Kuechly is writhing in pain on the ground, we can see every emotion on his face. That’s not a trivial matter. There’s a particular emotional expression that the psychologist Paul Ekman has labeled “Action Unit 1,” [example] which is when your inner eyebrows rise up suddenly, like a drawbridge. It’s almost impossible to do that deliberately. (Try it sometime.)

But virtually all human beings do Action Unit 1 involuntarily in the presence of emotional distress. Watch babies cry: Their inner eyebrows shoot up like they are on hydraulics. And when you see that expression appear on someone else’s face, that’s what triggers your own empathy.

The violence of football used to be obscured by the blurriness of standard-definition TV, but now it’s immediate in all its gore and glory. This, he properly observes, is “intimate information about other people’s emotions,” and it’s right there, getting piped into your living room or neighborhood sports bar.

Social psychologists and neuroscientists alike have found that, as a 2015 Scientific Reports study finds, “pain is not only an intrapersonal experience, as generally thought, but also an interpersonal phenomenon that can affect observers.”

Seeing someone hurt activates brain regions involved in the direct experience of pain, and some study subjects have been found to have a “shared physical pain experience” from so intensely getting the physical and emotional components of other’s hurt. And when you see a player rolling on the ground grimacing, “facial mimicry” suggests that, if you’re the empathic type, you’ll be grimacing yourself. Gladwell relates such an experience: After buying a shiny new big-screen, he saw Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker go down after a big hit in a playoff game — and had to turn the game off.

Thanks to technology, football players are less abstracted, superhuman characters, and more vulnerable and relatable. And with that, parents — LeBron James included — are keeping their kids out of the game.

Gladwell: HDTV Has Made the NFL Psychologically Painful