Chris Conte and Achilles

In comments to WBBM Newsradio in Chicago, Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte said that “I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life.”

This sparked an interesting discussion on ESPN’s Mike and Mike morning show about the choice of professional and elite athletes to engage in their sport. Many sports, not just football, pose health risks to players. Football, though, is most salient because of its popularity, the physical and violent nature of the game, and the greater attention on concussions. Football players are likely more aware of the dangers they face in playing their game than other athletes and so they are in a better position to make the explicit trade off that Conte is talking about. And Conte is not alone in choosing the glorious short life over the quiet long life. The Mike and Mike show highlighted several football players who seemed to concur with Conte’s view.

What was particularly interesting, though, was that both Greenberg and Golic looked at this choice from the perspective of being in their late 40s and early 50s. Golic, a former professional football player, said something to the effect that when he was in his 20s he thought like Conte, but now as father at 52 he wouldn’t want to give up the longer life. In particular, he wasn’t willing now to forsake the values achievable in his more mature years: such as seeing his children grow up, get married, and have kids of their own. The Mikes took care not to invalidate the choice made by Conte and others, but expressed a warning that they might not think the same way when they got older. The trade-off might be obvious in one direction when you are 22 years old, but it might be just as obvious the other way when you are 50.

The discussion of this trade-off and which choice is better choice is not new.

In Book 9 of the Illiad, Achilles tells us of his fate:

“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” (http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.9.ix.html)

Achilles obviously travels the path of staying at Troy and fighting. And we know that he dies after the close of the Illiad. And, of course, his name has not died. He is one of history’s greatest warriors and heroes.

In the Odyssey, Homer shows us Odysseus meeting up with Achilles in the underworld. Odysseus asks Achilles, essentially, if death is so bad. Achilles was great in life, remembered by all, and he holds an honored place even in the world of the dead, so surely death can’t be that bad for him. Achilles response is fascinating.

“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.” (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0012.tlg002.perseus-eng1:11.486-11.537)

Another translation that hammers this point home:

“I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” (http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.11.xi.html)

So Achilles, with the perspective of hindsight, seems like he would have chosen a different fate. If he knew back on the fields of Troy what death was truly like, maybe he would not have entered the fight. Maybe he would have gone home to Phthia and lived out a quiet life of obscurity.

Homer seems to be giving us the same warning that Greenberg and Golic are. Be careful how you make this choice. Try to imagine what it will look like on other end of the choice.

This is central to how we live; and so central to ethics. We all make this trade-off in some way, every day. We choose paths in life balancing the long and short term interests, benefits, costs, and harms. We forgo tasty treats out of a concern for our longer term health. Or one chooses to continue to smoke cigarettes because they derive an irreplaceable joy from them, despite knowing the long-term health risks. A young woman chooses to forgo time and money in the here and now to invest years (decades even) of her life in medical education and residency so that she can be a great surgeon. We choose to drive cars knowing the risks because of the benefits we can get. Examples are everywhere: every time we choose something for the short-term benefits at the sake of longer-term interests, we choose like Achilles and Conte. This trade-off might be worth it. Short-term goods and benefits are after all goods; we have to live in the now and there may be many good reasons to risk tomorrow for the now (see my post on violence and football). But someday far-off tomorrow will be now and that has to be considered as well.

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Filed under ESPN, Football, violence

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