CRF Blog

The Collision Sport on Trial

by Bill Hayes

In The Collision Sport on Trial for the New York Review of Books, David Maraniss reviews Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond; The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football by Gregg Easterbrook; Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football by Gilbert M. Gaul; League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru; Concussion, a film directed by Peter Landesman; and Requiem for a Running Back, a documentary film directed by Rebecca Carpenter.

In the debate about football and brain trauma, Mike Webster’s dead brain started it all, in a sense, and Chris Borland’s living brain intensified the discussion. Separated by forty years, their stories weave together through the writings and films I examined on the subject.

“Iron Mike” Webster was a Hall of Fame center who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, won four Super Bowl rings, and died in 2002 at age fifty. By then he was a broken man who lived in a pickup truck, estranged from his family, shocking himself with a Taser and attaching his teeth with superglue. It was his brain tissue that Dr. Bennet Omalu — the main character in Concussion — examined at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, leading to the discovery of CTE. Flashbacks depicting Webster’s tormented last days, as portrayed by actor David Morse, are among the movie’s most telling scenes.

As Concussion unfolds, the NFL responds to Dr. Omalu’s findings about Webster’s brain by calling him a quack and claiming that the CTE discovery is bad science. The campaign against him continues even after he documents strikingly similar damage in the brain tissue of other troubled former players who died too young. This reaction became part of a pattern. When Alan Schwarz of The New York Times started writing about traumatic brain injuries and football, Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner, said dismissively that this “is one of those pack journalism issues, frankly.” The NFL formed its own study committee, stacked with doctors affiliated with the league. As League of Denial documents, the goal was to obfuscate the problem. Theirs was the junk science, not Omalu’s. One scientific paper declared: “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.” Webster endured more than 70,000 blows during his long career.

Chris Borland was an inside linebacker who played one brilliant season for the San Francisco 49ers, then retired in March 2015 at age twenty-four after studying the potential long-term effects the game might have on his brain. [more]

American Limbo

by Bill Hayes

In American Limbo for the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin looks how the failure to enact immigration reform is affecting immigrant families.

Olga Flores, the seventh of eleven siblings, was born in a small town in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo thirty-nine years ago. “There was no work,” she told me recently. “The only thing for a woman to do was to get married, have children, and cook for her whole life.” A job in a nearby city would have required a high-school certificate, but her education ended in middle school. So in January of 1998, when she was twenty-one, Flores arranged to come to the United States illegally. She took her first trip on an airplane, to northern Mexico, and made her way to Sonoyta, a town on the Arizona border.

One of her brothers had immigrated to Columbus, Ohio, a few years earlier, and he helped her make arrangements to cross into the U.S. “There were about a dozen of us,” she recalled. “It was a small truck, with the seats taken out. They told us to lie down in the back, head to feet, feet to head, so there would be room for everyone.” They drove for about three hours, stopped at a mobile home in the desert, then continued on to Phoenix. A friend had set up another ride, which would take them across the country, to Ohio. “It was so cold, and I didn’t have a jacket,” Flores said. “We slept in the car and ate at McDonald’s. It was the first burger I ever had. It was very tasty.” When she reached Columbus, she paid her brother a thousand dollars, which he turned over to the guides, or coyotes, who had made the trip possible.

Eventually, Flores got a job as a cashier at a Wendy’s. “It was really hard for me, because I couldn’t tell what the Americans wanted,” she said. “When I learned more English, I started taking orders.” She soon met David Flores, who was also in the United States illegally. They got married and had twin boys, David and Luis, in 2000, and a third son, Iker, four years ago. “David has always been a really good person and a really good father,” Flores said. “In Mexico, we are used to men not washing dishes and not doing anything around the house, and he is the opposite.” Today, David operates a taco truck, which he stations in a parking lot near the small duplex apartment where the family lives, just outside Columbus. David is in the truck from 11 A.M. to 9 P.M. on weekdays, and on Sundays he works at McDonald’s. When Olga is not caring for the children, she is in her kitchen, preparing the rice, intestines, and tongue for the truck.

Like many people who have arrived illegally from Mexico, Flores has built a productive life here. She is a longtime resident, has no criminal record, and is the parent of American citizens. Through much of Barack Obama’s Presidency, there was a political near-consensus regarding the need to address the status of immigrants like Flores. Under the immigration-reform law passed by the Senate in 2013, she would have had a path to become a citizen; under the executive actions announced by President Obama in 2014, she could have obtained work papers and a driver’s license. But the House failed to vote on the Senate’s immigration bill, and a federal court in Texas has placed Obama’s initiative on hold.

The result is a comprehensive breakdown in public policy. [more]

Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?

by Bill Hayes

In Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?, National Geographic looks at how damming the river offers clean electricity but dampens fish and rice production.

The Mekong begins on the Tibetan Plateau and runs for more than 2,600 miles through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. It’s the longest river in Southeast Asia, the seventh longest in Asia, and — most important for the people who live along it — the world’s most productive inland fishery. Cambodians and Laotians catch more freshwater fish per capita than anyone else on the planet; in many places along the river, fish is a synonym for food. Grilled, fried, or boiled; wrapped in palm leaves; garnished with ant eggs; or simply mixed with rice in a wooden bowl, the more than 500 known species of Mekong fish have sustained millions of people through droughts, deluges, and even the genocidal Cambodian regime of Pol Pot.

Yet the Mekong’s narrow gorges and roaring waterfalls, which frustrated 19th-century European explorers in search of a trade route from the South China Sea to western China, have long tempted dambuilders. In the 1960s the United States advocated the construction of a series of hydropower dams on the lower Mekong, hoping to develop the region’s economy and head off the rise of communism in Vietnam. The plans languished, the region descended into war, and in the 1990s China, not Southeast Asia, became the first to dam the main stem of the river.

Today Southeast Asia is relatively peaceful, and for the most part, its economies are humming. But only about a third of Cambodians and just over two-thirds of Laotians have access to electricity, and that power is often painfully expensive. Economic and population growth will further strain electricity supplies: A 2013 analysis by the International Energy Agency predicts that the region’s demand for power will increase by 80 percent in the next 20 years. Clearly the region needs more energy — and if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided, the world needs that energy to produce as little carbon as possible. The hydropower potential of the Mekong is more tempting than ever.

Dam construction on the lower Mekong is overseen, nominally, by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Funded by international development agencies and by its four member nations — Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos — the commission is held together not by a legally binding treaty but by a shared interest in the river and in regional peace. [more]


Augustine’s World

by Bill Hayes

In Augustine’s World for Foreign Policy magazine, Robert D. Kaplan discusses “what late Antiquity says about the 21st century and the Syrian crisis.”

Syria is the Levant, the geographical core of Late Antiquity. And its disintegration, like the crumbling of Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, along with the chronic unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, signifies not the birth of freedom but the collapse of central authority. Rome could not save North Africa, and the United States will not save the Near East — for as the opinion polls demonstrate, Americans have had enough of foreign military entanglements. Anarchy, perhaps followed by new forms of hegemony, will be the result.

IF THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL ENCAPSULATES Late Antiquity, it is that of St. Augustine, a Berber born in 354 in Thagaste, modern-day Souk Ahras, just over the border from Tunisia inside Algeria. In drifting from pagan philosophy to Manichaeism and finally to Christianity, which he subjected to the logic of Plato and Cicero, St. Augustine straddled the worlds of classical Rome and the Middle Ages. His favorite poem was Virgil’s Aeneid, which celebrates the founding of Rome’s universal civilization. He railed against the radical Donatists (Berber schismatics), whose heresy was undermining the stability of the Maghreb, even as he saw the benefits in traditional bonds like tribalism. And he died at age 76 in 430, in the midst of the assault of Genseric’s Vandals on Africa Proconsularis, Rome’s first African colony. His great work, The City of God, writes scholar Garry Wills, sought to console Christians who were disoriented by the loss of Rome as the organizing principle of the known world. Rome, St. Augustine wrote, could never satisfy human hearts: Only the City of God could do that. Thus, as Rome weakened, religiosity intensified. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on Augustine, “St. Augustine and the Role of Religion in the State,” go to our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. The lesson is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

The Secret History of the Underground Railroad

by Bill Hayes

In The Secret History of the Underground Railroad, the Atlantic reviews Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner.

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad tells a story that will surprise most readers. Among its biggest surprises is that, despite the book’s subtitle, the Underground Railroad often was not hidden at all. Abolitionist groups made little secret of assisting runaways — in fact, they trumpeted it in pamphlets, periodicals, and annual reports. In 1850, the year of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, the New York State Vigilance Committee publicly proclaimed its mission to “receive, with open arms, the panting fugitive.” A former slave in Syracuse, Jermain W. Loguen, announced himself in the local press as the city’s “agent and keeper of the Underground Railroad Depot” and held “donation parties” to raise money, while newspapers published statistics on the number of fugitives he helped.

Underground Railroad bake sales, as improbable as these may sound, became common fund-raisers in Northern towns and cities, and bazaars with the slogan “Buy for the sake of the slave” offered donated luxury goods and handmade knickknacks before the winter holidays. “Indeed,” Foner writes, “abolitionists helped to establish the practice of a Christmas ‘shopping season’ when people exchanged presents bought at commercial venues.” For thousands of women, such events also turned ordinary, “feminine” chores like baking, shopping, and sewing into thrilling acts of moral commitment and political defiance. [more]

For a free related classroom lesson titled “Harriet Tubman and the End of Slavery,” go to our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. The lesson is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.


Does Government Help the Middle Class?

by Bill Hayes

In Most Americans Say Government Doesn’t Do Enough to Help Middle Class, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans fault both political parties.

At a time when the middle class in the United States is losing ground, most Americans say the federal government provides too little help to this segment of society. And as voters begin casting the first ballots in the 2016 presidential election, neither political party is widely viewed as supportive of the middle class in this country.

A national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Dec. 8–13, 2015, among 1,500 adults, finds that 62% say the federal government does not do enough for middle-class people, compared with just 29% who say it does the right amount and 6% who say it does too much. These views have changed little since 2011. [more]

Pew Mid Class

Interview of the Day: George Kelling

by Bill Hayes

In Crime Fighter, Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison interviews George Kelling, one of the developers of the “broken windows” theory of policing.

Do people confuse and conflate broken windows with “zero-tolerance policing” or “stop, question and frisk” practices?

Yes. The other day I read that a Delaware police chief said his department was going to do broken windows with steroids. I find that pretty scary because that smacks of zealotry.

Broken windows is a tactic, an essential part of community policing that works with the community to identify problems and set priorities. It doesn’t matter what problems police are up against, they need partners to resolve them, whether it’s squeegee men or homeless in the subway. Broken windows is a tactic within community policing strategy. [more]

The Untold Story of Silk Road

by Bill Hayes

In The Untold Story of Silk Road, Wired magazine tells how an idealistic young man built an online black market for selling drugs and developed into a “murderous kingpin.”

Ross [Ulbricht] had grown up in Austin, Texas, and had always been smart and charming. He’d been the kind of kid who was an Eagle Scout — and let his friends give him a mohawk on a whim. He was raised in a tight family. They’d spend summers in Costa Rica; Ross’ parents had built a series of rustic, solar-powered bamboo houses there, near an isolated point break where Ross learned to surf. In high school, “Rossman,” as friends called him, drove an old Volvo, smoked plenty of pot, and still got a 1460 on his SATs. To friends, Ross was carefree but also caring.

Ross earned a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas and majored in physics. From there he landed a graduate scholarship at Penn State, where he excelled as usual. But he wasn’t happy with the drudgery of lab research. Since college he’d been exploring psychedelics and reading Eastern philosophy. At Penn State, Ross talked openly about switching fields. He posted online about his disenchantment with science — and his new interest in economics.

He’d come to see taxation and government as a form of coercion, enforced by the state’s monopoly on violence. His thinking was heavily influenced by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, a totem of the modern American libertarian orthodoxy. According to von Mises, a citizen must have economic freedom to be politically or morally free. And Ross wanted to be free.

When he finished his master’s in 2009, he moved back to Austin and bought Julia a plane ticket to join him. She left school, and they got a cheap apartment together. It was cramped, but they were young and dreamy. Both imagined they might get married.

Ross tried day trading, but it didn’t go well. He started a videogame company. That failed too. The setbacks were devastating. He didn’t want to be trying; he wanted to be doing. During this time, his downstairs neighbor, Donny Palmertree, invited Ross to work with him on Good Wagon Books, a business that collected used books and sold them in digital storefronts like Amazon and Books-A-Million. Ross built Good Wagon’s website, learned inventory management, and wrote a custom script that determined a book’s price based on its Amazon ranking.

In his spare time Ross read, hiked, improved his yoga, and, as Julia fondly recalls, had “lots and lots of great sex.” But they also argued, about politics (she was a Democrat), money (what he called “frugal,” she called “cheap”), and their social life (she partied more than he did). Their relationship turned stormy, with frequent breakups. In the summer of 2010, they split up yet again. He was heartbroken, later telling a woman he met on OkCupid how he’d recently been in love and was trying to get over it.

Ross was adrift. “I went through a lot over the year in my personal relationships,” he wrote in a journal on his computer, a kind of self-assessment of life goals. “I had left my promising career as a scientist to be an investment adviser and entrepreneur and came up empty-handed.” Ross felt ashamed, but not long afterward Palmertree got a job in Dallas, leaving Good Wagon to Ross. For years, all he’d wanted was to be in charge of something. Now he was.

In the Good Wagon warehouse, Ross oversaw five part-time college students sorting, logging, and organizing the 50,000 books on shelves he built himself. That December was Good Wagon’s best month, clearing 10 grand.

But by the end of 2010, the new CEO of Good Wagon was looking beyond the book business. During his forays into trading, Ross had discovered bitcoin, the digital cryptocurrency. The value of bitcoin — based only on market factors, unattached to any central bank — aligned with his advancing libertarian philosophy. On his LinkedIn page, Ross wrote that he wanted to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind.”

To that end Ross had a flash of insight. “The idea,” he wrote in his journal, “was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them.” He wrote that he’d “been studying the technology for a while but needed a business model and strategy.”

Like most libertarians, Ross believed that drug use was a personal choice. And like all people paying attention, he observed that the war on drugs was a complete failure. The natural merchandise for his new enterprise would be drugs. “I was calling it Underground Brokers,” Ross wrote, “but eventually settled on Silk Road.” [more]

Part II of the story continues in The Untold Story of Silk Road, Part 2: The Fall.

Yale Law School Course on Capital Punishment

by Bill Hayes

Yale Law School is offering a free 13-part online course on Capital Punishment.

The Brain Series: Aggression and Violence

by Bill Hayes

As part of his brain series, Charlie Rose interviews brain scientists on aggression and violence.

Smog-busting roof tiles could clean tons of pollution

by Bill Hayes

The Los Angeles Times reports on a UC Riverside study showing that Smog-busting roof tiles could clean tons of pollution.

In a laboratory experiment, engineering students found that ordinary clay roof tiles sprayed with titanium dioxide removed 88% to 97% of nitrogen oxide pollution from the air. [more]

Cotton, a global history

by David De La Torre

In Spinning tales, The Economist reviews Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.

GOOD economic history tells dramatic stories of ingenuity and aspiration, greed and national self-interest. Sven Beckert writes good economic history. But why cotton? Mr Beckert’s answer is that for 900 years, until 1900, it was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. Cotton is relevant now because the story explains how and why an industry goes global. It is a story of wildly fluctuating fortunes, from stunning wealth to dire social disasters. [more]

Man vs. Machine

by Bill Hayes

In Man vs. Machine, a Bloomberg Businessweek feature story looks at an ex-cop’s battle against the polygraph, or lie detector.

The quest to defeat lying is as old as humanity. In Bronze Age China and India, suspects had to chew uncooked rice and spit it out to reveal if their mouths were dry. Medieval Europe had trial by fire or water. In the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA experimented with LSD as a truth serum. Then there’s torture, formalized in ancient Greece as a method to compel honesty and recast for the 21st century as “enhanced interrogation.”

The polygraph, invented in 1921, is today’s most widely trusted lie-detection device. It’s used to determine who gets hired by the CIA, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and police departments all over the country. It helps decide who gets security clearances. Police detectives use it as an investigative tool, intelligence officers use it to assess the credibility of sources, and exams are commonly required as a condition of parole and probation for sex offenders.

This reliance continues despite the lack of scientific agreement about how well — or even whether — the polygraph works. Defenders point to studies that show a 90 percent accuracy rate. The National Academy of Sciences, however, in a 2002 report, found a “lack of understanding of the processes that underlie polygraph responses” and concluded that the quality of polygraph research “falls far short of what is desirable.” These criticisms, according to many psychologists, remain true. Some of the nation’s most notorious spies, including Aldrich Ames and Ana Montes, passed polygraphs. In a 1998 Supreme Court decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable,” and most judges have agreed.

For three and a half decades the polygraph has had no critic more dedicated or more obstreperous than [Doug] Williams. He’s been a White House aide, a private investigator, a construction worker, and a member of the clergy. In the 1980s he was a barnstorming activist living out of a truck, giving talks and training sessions, going on talk radio and TV, testifying in courtrooms and before Congress. He eventually settled down and began charging for his instructional materials and tutoring. Over the past few years he’s learned, painfully, what can happen when an obsession becomes a business — especially when that business is spreading detailed information about a law enforcement technology that works best when its subjects know only what they’re told. [more]

Why did crime plummet in the US?

by Bill Hayes

In 18 short cards, Vox explains Why did crime plummet in the US? Here is the first card:

There’s about half as much violent crime in the US as there was 25 years ago.

Violent crime in the US has dropped a stunning amount — nearly half — since the early 1990s. Why?

Some theories (like mass incarceration) seemed pretty solid in the ’90s, but have been called into question as more data has come in. Meanwhile, some new theories — like lead getting taken out of gasoline — have gotten popular. But everyone agrees there’s no one answer.

In February 2015, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report that attempted to quantify how much various factors had contributed to the drop in crime. Vox took that analysis and built on it — adding other experts’ perspectives, other evidence, and other theories it hadn’t addressed. [more]

The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia

by Bill Hayes

In The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia, Smithsonian magazine looks at the World War I hero and how he is viewed today.

Today, T.E. Lawrence remains one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century. His life has been the subject of at least three movies — including one considered a masterpiece — over 70 biographies, several plays and innumerable articles, monographs and dissertations. His wartime memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, translated into more than a dozen languages, remains in print nearly a full century after its first publication. As Gen. Edmund Allenby, chief British commander in the Middle East during World War I, noted, Lawrence was first among equals: “There is no other man I know,” he asserted, “who could have achieved what Lawrence did.”

Part of the enduring fascination has to do with the sheer improbability of Lawrence’s tale, of an unassuming young Briton who found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, thrust into events that changed the course of history. Added to this is the poignancy of his journey, so masterfully rendered in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, of a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to.


For the past several years, Sheik al-Atoun has assisted archaeologists from Bristol University in England who are conducting an extensive survey of the war in Jordan, the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP). One of the Bristol researchers, John Winterburn, recently discovered a forgotten British Army camp in the desert 18 miles from Mudowarra; untouched for nearly a century — Winterburn even collected old gin bottles — the find was touted in the British press as the discovery of “Lawrence’s Lost Camp.”

“We do know that Lawrence was at that camp,” Winterburn says, sitting at a Bristol University café. “But, as best we can tell, he probably stayed only a day or two. But all the men who were there much longer, none of them were Lawrence, so it becomes ‘Lawrence’s camp.’”

For most travelers, Highway 15, Jordan’s main north-south thoroughfare, offers a dull drive through a largely featureless desert connecting Amman to more interesting places: the ruins at Petra, the Red Sea beaches of Aqaba.

To GARP co-director Nicholas Saunders, however, Highway 15 is a treasure trove. “Most people have no idea that they’re traveling through one of the best-preserved battlefields in the world,” he explains, “that all around them are reminders of the pivotal role this region played in World War I.”

Saunders is at his desk in his cluttered office at Bristol, where scattered amid the stacks of papers and books are relics from his own explorations along Highway 15: bullet casings, cast-iron tent rings. Since 2006, Saunders has headed up some 20 GARP digs in southern Jordan, excavating everything from Turkish Army encampments and trenchworks, to Arab rebel campsites and old British Royal Flying Corps airstrips. What unites these disparate sites — indeed what led to their creation — is the single-track railway that runs alongside Highway 15 for some 250 miles: the old Hejaz Railway.

As first articulated by T.E. Lawrence, the goal wasn’t to permanently sever the Turks’ southern lifeline, but rather to keep it barely functioning. The Turks would have to constantly devote resources to its repair, while their garrisons, receiving just enough supplies to survive, would be stranded. Indications of this strategy are everywhere evident along Highway 15; while many of the original small bridges and culverts that the Ottomans constructed to navigate the region’s seasonal waterways are still in place — instantly recognizable by their ornate stonework arches — many more are of modern, steel-beam construction, denoting where the originals were blown up during the war. [more]