America’s football players and boxers – the embodiments of aggressively virile masculinity – are the eunuchs of our time.
Before you go all testosterone on me, travel back to pre-revolutionary China. There, one quick, cruel cut gave the sons of impoverished villagers a chance to advance their own and their family’s fortunes by serving as eunuchs inside the Imperial Palace. The practice of severing the testicles and penis, which all now agree is barbaric, survived into the 20th century, with the last Chinese eunuch dying in 1996. His maiming at the hands of his father allowed the boy hope of trading a mud hut for golden rooms, of exchanging rural poverty and grinding work for a life of luxury. If his talents proved exceptional, he might wield great power and influence.
“It seemed a little thing to give up one pleasure for so many,” one eunuch told British Sinologist John Blofeld, who lived in Beijing in the 1930s. “My parents were poor, yet suffering that small change, I could be sure of an easy life in surroundings of great beauty and magnificence, I could aspire to intimate companionship with lovely women unmarred by their fear or distrust of me. I could even hope for power and wealth of my own.”
Now meet America’s eunuchs: the hypermasculine athletes who sacrifice body parts for a chance to enter our own golden rooms of wealth and fame. As fans roar, great numbers of football players and boxers suffer debilitating injury to body and brain, and often end up crippled by pain, depression and mental disability … or dead.
Most of China’s eunuchs were encouraged or forced by family members seeking the only way they knew to achieve social mobility. And given the scarcity of paths to the kind of success our society idealizes, a parallel pressure is at work on our economically and racially disadvantaged youth.
The favored few who reach the pinnacles of violent sports are lauded like heroes and paid like princes. But bound across cultures and centuries, the eunuch and the boxer/football player – typically confined by class and, in America, race – gamble all for a glittering and barbaric escape.
And make no mistake, boxing and football are barbaric. Physical and mental injuries are routine side effects of games whose object includes disabling the opponent, and for boxing, rendering him unable to stand. The resulting injuries can neatly parallel the eunuch’s castration. Blows to the head can damage the pituitary gland and cause impotence; steroids can shrivel testicles. Of course, performance enhancing drugs are common in many sports, but unlike the violent impacts that are part and parcel of boxing and football, chemical castrators are not intrinsic to the game.
Permanent joint damage is a far more common risk factor than impotence, as are repeated concussions that cause brain damage and greatly increase incidence of depression, dementia, Parkinson’s, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other neurological disorders. American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports that 90 percent of boxers sustain a brain injury. An autopsy on NFL star Andre Waters, who died homeless and cognitively impaired at 44, revealed a brain so damaged by football injuries that it resembled that of an 85-year-old with Alzheimer’s, a forensic pathologist told The New York Times.
The eunuch analogy should not be pushed too far. Our titans of violent sport are willing gamblers rather than certain victims. Their odds of eluding disability are far better than for the sons of old China, whose castration was a sure and irreversible price. Still, most of our athletes begin as teens or younger, before brain maturation gives them the physiological ability to assess risk and anticipate consequences. Like most young and all foolish people, they still believe the worst cannot happen to them.
My friends who gather by the TV on winter Sundays tell me I don’t appreciate the sophistication, art and passion of the violent sports. The same is said of those who condemn dog fighting. The NFL and the four major boxing associations have led the way in downplaying the dire consequences of the sports that make them rich. But fans, too, are complicit as they hysterically cheer the spectacle of crippling blows.
As these sports stars enter a retirement of degraded brains and chronic pain, how many will agree with the Beijing eunuch that it was “a little thing to give up one pleasure for so many”?