… every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine
—John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
The “natural selection pressures that drive evolution can flip-flop faster than previously thought,” reported the Kansas City Star, six years ago, on a study of Bahamanian lizards. The details are, as always, not nearly as interesting as the newspaper writers make them appear: they involve percentages of as little as two and three percent. But the scientists found them significant, and the larger point remains: Darwin “thought that evolution must occur slowly and gradually,” but actual observed nature doesn’t demonstrate that. Which is to say that change, when it comes, can come suddenly and unexpectedly—something that may hold as equally well for sports, say, as lizards. Like golf, perhaps.
If I were to tell you, for instance, that while seven percent of all white people earning less than $50,000 dollars a year participated in a particular something in 2009, nineteen percent of all white people earning more than $125,000 a year did, one plausible suspect for the role of the particular something might be the Republican Party. After all, Mitt Romney’s strategy to win the presidency this November involved capturing 61 percent of the white vote, according to an unnamed source quoted in the National Journal this past August. But that guess would be wrong: the “particular something” is a round of golf.
Surely it takes no great seer to tell us that if one partner in this twosome is in trouble, the other ought to be looking for a lawyer. Golf has found its numbers to be relatively static: back in 2008, the New York Times ran a story on the “disappearance of golfers.” One expert quoted in the story said that while the “man on the street will tell you that golf is booming because he sees Tiger Woods on TV … the reality is, while we haven’t exactly tanked, the numbers have been disappointing for some time.” Golfers are overwhelmingly whiter and wealthier than their fellow Americans just as Republican voters are, which is to say that, like the Republican party, golf needs to ask whether being whiter and wealthier (and, though I haven’t mentioned it, older) are necessary—or contingent—parts of their identities.
The answer to that question will likely determine the survival of each. “If demographics is destiny, the Republican party has a rendezvous with irrelevance” coming, as one journalist has put the point—and golf, one assumes, faces much the same issue. Still, it seems likely that golf has at least, if not a better, chance of survival than the Republican party: it was already long in existence when the Republican party was born.
I’m actually being facetious there—obviously, anything so important as golf will outlive a mere political party, the transient accumulations of various interests. The question thusly isn’t so much the end, but rather the means: the path whereby golf might succeed. And there, it may be, lies a tale.
The roots of that tale might lie with the work of a doctor named Ann McKee. She works at the Veteran’s Hospital in Bedford, Massachussetts, and it has become part of her job over the past decade to examine the brains of dead football players and other people who may have been exposed to repeated concussions over the course of their lives. She’s become expert in diagnosing—after death, which is the only time it can be diagnosed—a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. What’s she’s found, however, is that there are more dangerous things than concussions.
What Dr. McKee’s work has shown, that is, is that while concussions are horrible injuries it’s really the repeated, low-level jarrings that an activity like football can cause the brain that seems to cause C.T.E., a disease that mimics Alzheimer’s in many ways, including a final descent into dementia. And what it’s meant, at least for the doctor, is that she’s found an answer to this question: if her son “had a chance to join the NFL,” Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker asked her, “what would she advise him?” And here is what the doctor said: “‘Don’t. Not if you want to have a life after football.’”
“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” wrote John Donne four centuries ago: “It tolls for thee.” Dr. McKee’s reply to Gladwell’s question may be just such a church bell tolling in the night: at the least, it is the link between the NFL and those lizards sunning themselves in the Bahamas. For when the mothers of America begin to hear it, and what it might mean for their sons (and possibly their daughters), it may provoke something of a sea change among the behavior of Americans. Like the change in the lizards, it may come suddenly, and not gradually. One day, there just won’t be anybody at the stadium any more.
If that does happen, it seems absurd to think that Americans will abandon sport entirely. Baseball, one expects, would see a huge surge in popularity that would overtake even that wave during the steriod era. Basketball, obviously, would become even more popular than it already is. And, perhaps, just a bit of interest would run over golf’s way. Golf, in other words, unlike the Republican Party, may be on the cusp of a new boom. What seems improbable, in short, can quickly come to seem inevitable.
And so, since it may be that entire societies can, at times, be swept by vast tides that completely overcome that which came before, so too can obscure blog posts in the wilderness called the Internet be swung suddenly from what might appear to be their ostensible subjects. Which might be of some comfort to those who observe the completely evitable tragedies like the one last week in Connecticut, and wonder if, or ever, the United States will decide to do something about its ridiculous gun laws.