If you haven’t seen the new TV advert for Jacamo clothing I highly recommend doing so. It’s an exhilarating thing. First up we see the Jacamo models: stern, powerful men dressed in comfortable nylon leisurewear. These pictures are cut with a reel of stirring images. Rutting stags. A priapic wind tower. A spurting volcano. A craning lighthouse drenched in surf. Stallion power! Jackets! Massiveness! Rain, wind and fire!
This kind of imagery should not be taken lightly. The Jacamo advert is so exciting that just catching a glimpse of it – perhaps during a break in the Sri Lankan Premier League highlights – can induce an urge to rub yourself down with gravel, paint your face with woad and run out into the street roaring with untamed Zeus-energy, actions that might seem inappropriate under the current lockdown tiers.
But it felt significant, in an oblique way, that this ode to the joys of Extreme Human Power was on constant rotation this week around two sporting stories that seem to be shouting in at the modern world from an increasingly difficult place.
Last weekend I watched Daniel Dubois spend 10 painful rounds having his head snapped back by Joe Joyce’s jab. This was followed by sustained analysis during which a majority of experts concluded Dubois had basically sinned against his sport by refusing to allow an 18-stone heavyweight to keep pounding away at his broken left eye socket. As a boxing fan, I was quietly appalled. How dare he quit?
Then on Sunday I watched David Luiz clash heads with Raúl Jiménez, before playing on for half an hour after a short medical check. This was followed by widespread disquiet, and concern that an on-field Q&A – basically: are you concussed, David Luiz? – is no way to deal with a head injury. As a football fan, I was quietly appalled. How dare he not quit?
There are some obvious problems here. Firstly, I’m clearly an idiot on some basic level, too consumed by the spectacle, too buzzed up on Big Jacamo Energy to have a logically consistent opinion on the damage done to human brains in the name of sport.
Secondly, it is clear now that Dubois was entirely right to stop, as was David Luiz to carry on. Both men were to a degree betrayed by their corners, asked to self-diagnose through a fog of pain and adrenaline.
There is a wider point here. Professional sport is increasingly crashing up against the modern world, in a way that makes some parts of it look unsustainable. Much can be done in the way of mitigation. But look at it closely enough and sport basically falls apart.
Collisions, aggression, Big Jacamo Energy! This is a species-wide fascination. History tells us all types of human – men, women, children, confrontational people on the internet – want on some level to be gushing volcanos, to butt footballs, to dish out the chin music, to feel and induce extremes of pain and pleasure.
It is a relatively recent idea that we also need to be careful of one another while we’re doing this, that we are not, it turns out, replaceable machine parts. Most sports were codified in the 19th century, at a time when medical science was very different, when the masses were essentially fodder and when violent collisions were key to the spectacle.
There have been huge textural changes and an entire universe of welfare and medical care. But what we’re left with was still conceived by people with entirely different priorities, and quite a lot of this stuff looks ridiculous now in isolation.
Rugby, for example, is a non-starter. This is a sport that will literally change the appearance of your face over time, such is its accumulated force. Safety measures and the endless care taken at junior levels are all essential. But the fact remains full contact rugby wouldn’t get past its opening pitch these days.
The same goes for heading a football. Let’s be honest, we pretty much know what it does. So why do it at all? The idea you don’t head the ball in training, just in matches, is absurd. As is the suggestion from Sean Dyche that this is just about heading “properly” using your massive invincible forehead (Big Dyche Energy).
As for cricket, well, why is the ball rock hard and made out of wood? Most kids who play are terrified of it. Ditch the bloody thing. Bring us something plastic and soft so everyone can have a go.
And let’s not even get started on boxing. This is a sport where the best people in the world at punching you in the head are encouraged to punch you in the head until you black out. Yes, it’s a consensual activity with full awareness of the risks. But so is taking heroin or joining an evangelical death cult.
These are alarming things to think about. But they do need to be flushed out into the open. Because the other side of this argument also needs to be heard; the fact that, for all its absurdities and anachronisms, sport is also magnificent, uplifting, and irresistible on a level that doesn’t really deal in this kind of hard logic.
There is an unresolved conflict of reason and emotion here. The sentient brain can think, well, none of this really works. Inflicting harm in the name of entertainment is absurd. At the same time the untamed heart wants to be a breaking wave and a spurting volcano, to head footballs, to dodge bouncers, to be thrilled by the extremes of high-level boxing.
Many parts of sport will require revision to meet the standards we hold elsewhere. It seems likely profound change is coming over the next decade. But perhaps this last element – intangible, illogical beauty; a value in the extreme things people do – can have a place in that discussion too.