Monday, January 28, 2013

Toward an Intellectual History of Ta-Nehisi Coates on Brain Injury

"I hear Ray Lewis is retiring. And all I can do is worry about his brain." --Ta-Nehisi Coates

When Ta-Nehisi Coates double downs on a topic, he really doubles down. He's been writing extensively about the Civil War, Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin, being the son of a black man and the father of a black boy, and brain trauma in football. He's written about these issues simultaneously rather than in conventional lines of succession. 

What's particularly noticeable about Coates's work on the problems of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or brain injury among NFL players is that he initially wrote so much about his love for the game of football on his blog. Witnessing his move from writing about the love of the game to offering extensive treatments about how the violence of the game causes serious bodily harm has been  really remarkable.

[Let me say that one of the joys and challenges researching and writing about contemporary prolific writers like Coates, Kevin Young, and Colson Whitehead has been that they keep writing and writing, giving you more and more to consider.]

Thank goodness Coates isn't a politician, so he's not restrained by that troubled elected official code of going through all kinds of twists and turns to avoid seeming to ever shift opinions on a topic. Coates evolves, and his readers evolve with them; or, his readers evolve, and he evolves with them. Coates's shift from Dallas Cowboys fan to critic of the unchecked violence in the league has been a demonstration of the processes of a prominent African American writer thinking through a subject in public, not simply the musings of a black intellectual. Many of us, I suspect, have been more inclined to take Coates's commentary on the NFL and CTE seriously because we knew Coates was initially so into the game.

On a few different occasions, Coates has referenced Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 article on football and brain injury, and like Gladwell, Coates has addressed the ethics of watching a sport that nurtures such violence. In a recent interview with The New Republic, Barack Obama made comments about the need to reduce violence in football, so I suspect that the subject will receive more discussion in coming months as years.     
In the meantime, CTE and the NFL will remain one of the topics that Coates doubles down on and in the process expands how some of us view black intellectual history.

A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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