David Remnick: Louisa Thomas covers sports for The New Yorker, everything from the World Cup and the Olympics to the NFL and tennis and the Brittney Griner saga, even the World Chess Championship. We got together last week to talk about the year ahead in sports, but just the night before we spoke, Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills suffered cardiac arrest after a tackle, and football fans all over America watched in horror. Louisa, you have an unusually intimate view of pro football, far more than most sports writers. Your husband was an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, John Urschel, he's also a mathematician, and he left the game some years back. He decided he'd had enough.
What do you make of what happened to Damar Hamlin to say nothing of the countless head injuries that we've seen and pro football's seeming inability to guard itself and its players against the innate violence of the game?
Louisa Thomas: You said it yourself, it is innate in the game. It's intrinsic. Violence is part of football. It's part of why it's so exciting, to be honest. It's part of why people are so drawn to it because there are real stakes in those violent clashes. When someone that you love when a family member is on the field, yes, a football can feel different. You end a game and you take note of the score, but you also take note of whether anyone was seriously injured.
David Remnick: You once told me that to play a football game is to be in a car accident every single time.
Louisa Thomas: Yes. I do remember one day when John came back from a game and we were talking, and suddenly he remembered his shoulder hurt and he'd separated a joint. It was an afterthought because players are just in pain after games and they're also just so high in adrenaline but the point is they're injured all the time and they deal with pain that we can't even imagine, and they deal with risks that we can barely imagine.
David Remnick: Is it a fantasy on the part of high-minded fans in the league to think that somehow you're going to make this game a hell of a lot safer than it is?
Louisa Thomas: The game, as we know it, is a response to the incredible brutality of football. At the turn of the 20th century, players died all the time. Teddy Roosevelt summoned the various members of the Harvard and Yale and everyone to discuss what could be done about football because players were literally dying on the field and that led to, for one, the invention of the Ford Pass. It's not true to say that we can't do anything, something has been done before, but it's hard to imagine that radical change would take place because--
David Remnick: The pass was a way to avoid injury and now you see people coming across the middle to get a pass taking their life in their own hands.
Louisa Thomas: Yes. The thing that we always come back to is that what makes the game so exciting, the reason that football games are the most watched events in America year after year after year, is that they are live, they are dangerous, they're exciting, they're thrilling, and they are violent. We do ourselves a disservice to ignore that fact because that's what they are and it's the reality that that's what people are drawn to and players know what they're risking. I don't think we shouldn't penalize them to say, "Oh, they don't really know what they're doing." They know but it's scary. I'm a little bit unnerved by this experience just like everyone else.
David Remnick: Damar Hamlin's injury was a terrifying start to the year in sports, but I also want to know what else you're anticipating in 2023. We did just experience an astonishing World Cup and soccer seemed maybe briefly to steal the show even in this country. Do you see soccer, the other football having a real impact on American life and maybe even cutting in on the NFL's popularity at some point?
Louisa Thomas: We're talking about relative degrees here. I think soccer is absolutely going to become much bigger in the United States. I really do think that. I also think that football, and particularly the NFL is so big that we're talking magnitudes greater interest. There is so much attention that the NFL can lose a lot of fans. A lot of people can turn off their TV and it will still be the biggest thing in the United States.
David Remnick: The US women's national soccer team had a very public fight for equal pay. We also saw players speaking out about Black Lives Matter. Do you see that trend continuing with the newer players that are coming up in women's soccer?
Louisa Thomas: Yes, I think they grow up with the expectation that this is part of the job, honestly, and they are not afraid. I think that the challenge will be whether or not they take it a bit for granted, they have achieved what they set out to do. The remarkable thing is that they have equal pay. Does that mean that their job is "done?" I think that the ones who are inclined-- Players like [unintelligible 00:05:25], I think are natural leaders in social justice issues, and they will continue to use their platform to speak out on issues that they care about.
David Remnick: Finally, the most important issue for 2023 is LeBron James headed back to Cleveland yet again.
Louisa Thomas: [laughs] You know what, the amazing thing about the NBA is that I don't think about LeBron James that much anymore. Don't tell him. The league doesn't quite revolve around him.
David Remnick: Doesn't revolve around him anymore.
Louisa Thomas: Yes. Good on him, he's 38 years old and still one of the best players in the NBA/history, even at his current level.
David Remnick: I got to say there's a player, Luka Doncic, and this guy, you look at him and the way he's playing, he's like a slightly out-of-shape uncle figure. He looks like he's playing basketball in flip-flops and the other night he had a game where he scored 60 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists, and the statistics didn't even seem to tell the story. He was so dominant.
Louisa Thomas: He actually forced overtime by intentionally missing a free throw and he scored this improbable shot. Then he did this like little shimmy, shimmy, shake dance. It was too much. It was amazing. That guy is just fun to watch. He reminds me of a puppy dog. He just makes you smile.
David Remnick: The player that excites me most to go see-- I was lucky enough to go see the Knicks play the Memphis Grizzlies.
Louisa Thomas: I hope you were-- I knew you were going to say him because he is the player who excites me the most too.
David Remnick: Oh, Ja Morant, the guy is insanely good, insanely good and it makes me feel like I wish I were pulling in every Memphis Grizzly game.
Louisa Thomas: He's fearless. I think that a compilation of his misses might be more exciting of a compilation of his made dunks. This guy just wants to jump over 7 feet men. It's just his thing and he is not afraid. He's tiny. Not by human standards, but by NBA basketball standards. He is really small and he can just pogo over centers like it's nothing.
David Remnick: Sadly, sadly, sadly, the dominant team, and it kills me to say it, is the Boston Celtics.
Louisa Thomas: [laughs] That was not-- People didn't really know what to expect. They had a very rocky off-season. They came out of the NBA finals looking young and fresh but people really didn't know what to expect. They just burst out of the blocks with the best offense in the NBA and they're settling down but on any given night in Jayson Tatum, they have the guy who's probably the best player on the floor and they seem to be very well coached and they're an incredibly exciting team.
David Remnick: Louisa Thomas, thanks so much.
Louisa Thomas: Thank you.
David Remnick: You can read Louisa Thomas on sports @newyorker.com.
[00:08:49] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.