On deflated footballs and public attention

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in action. (credit: Keith Allison/flickr)


The two biggest stories in New England right now are Boston’s bid to host the 2024 summer Olympics and a bunch of under-inflated footballs used by the Patriots. The cover story for the Portland Press Herald on Thursday was about deflategate and its effect on the children of Maine. The below the fold is also an OpEd piece calling for the suspension of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belicheck. For the most read paper in Maine, the debate over whether a football team cheated is a leading story.

When I told someone recently what I did, he replied by saying, “Poor people are boring.” He was right. They are boring. Men and women panhandle in the freezing cold along the street corners of major intersections in Portland, but it is the Patriots that garner the front page. Ebola is killing people every day, but a guy who gets paid to devise football plays is the main concern. Yemen is experiencing what very well may be a coup, but under-inflated footballs are the topic du jour.


Listen to the radio, overhear a conversation or check into Facebook while living in New England and the supposed controversy over that amount of air in a dozen footballs is an all-consuming topic. Poor people are boring. The pounds per square inch of air in a football is captivating.

A few weeks ago, a small group of terrorists launched an attack on a French satirical magazine. News spread quickly soon after the attacks occurred, reaching the United States. It became a leading news item for days as people debated Islam and radical Muslims. Political leaders and television pundits used the attacks as an opportunity to set forward their ideas of topics from press freedom to counter terrorism.

That same weekend, a campaign in Baga, Nigeria by Islamist extremist group Boko Haram caused as many as 2,000 deaths and tens of thousands to flee for their lives. Internationally minded columnists compared the terror attacks in Paris and Nigeria to show how little people pay attention to something when it happens in Africa. They were right, the news coverage was far less significant when more people were killed in Nigeria as compared to an attack on a magazine in Paris.

MA_BHThe columns tried varying tactics from shame to disappointment to show how attention to tragedy differs based on where it happens. In the fourth season of the television show West Wing, a genocide breaks out in the fictional African country of Equatorial Kundu. It is meant to mirror the early onset of the Rwandan genocide when the Clinton administration was in the White House. President Bartlet is bothered by the violence, but is unsure whether to take action. It is not until consultant Will Bailey brashly says that the president does not value the lives of the people of Equatorial Kundu as much as Americans, that he changes his mind to intervene.

It is a nice flourish from writer Aaron Sorkin. The fictional president makes the choice for protecting lives regardless of citizenship. If only that were the way things really worked. But the fact remains, poor people are boring.

As long as an American life matters more, we will mourn its loss with greater reverence. As long as people living in places like Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan and Sierra Leone are valued less, we will ignore some of the world’s greatest atrocities. As long as stories like how much a bunch of footballs were inflated take the front page of news papers, we will miss the things that directly impact people’s lives. As long as we see the lives of the world’s poor as boring and the tactics of an American football team interesting, we remain blind to the basic human condition.

What commentators about the Paris-Nigeria attacks miss is the very fact that both are not treated equally from the start. France is a European country that is seen as on the same level as the United States. Nigeria is the place where young Westerners go on mission trips, among other African countries. And it is the country with a recognizable name because you may know about the major oil spills in the Niger Delta or be a fan of Nigerian soccer player John Obi Mikel.

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It should not come as a surprise that a tragic terror attack in Nigeria garnered less attention than a significantly less deadly one in Paris. All lives are not treated equally, and poor people are boring. The detonation of two bombs in Boston during the marathon in 2014 were stunning and captivating. Similar attacks in Somalia at the same time were almost entirely ignored.

#Blacklives matter, but racism in America is boring. #Itgetsbetter matters, but LGBTQ discrimination is boring. #IamMalala matters, but girls’ education is boring. #Icebucketchallenge matters, but universal healthcare is boring. #Changetheratio matters, but gender equity is boring. #Baga matters, but poor people are boring. #Deflategate doesn’t matter, but it is the front page.

President Josiah Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?
Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.