Helmet to Helmet (Part 1)

Watching the NFL these days feels a little bit like going target shooting after a murder.

I’m a football fan. I can’t help it; I was raised in suburban Baltimore, where a love for the Orioles and the departed Colts was bred into me. The arrival of the Ravens in 1996 felt like the return of a long-lost lover – hair dyed and unfamiliarly bejeweled and still hauling the baggage of a previous relationship, but all the more welcome for that.

The evening of the Ravens’ 2012 loss in the Championship game, feeling hollowed-out and fire-eaten, like a scoured pipe bowl, I called my mother. “How’s Dad?” I asked.

“He’s not eating.”

Nor was I. Food was a vaguely repellent abstraction, like excessive taxation or the sex lives of slimy things. My emotional universe had been whittled down to the aftermath of an ellipsoid tumbling end over end past a yellow post, my physical world reduced to the well-trodden path between porch and sofa. My mind was a violent froth of disbelief and recrimination.

My elation after the Ravens won the Super Bowl this Sunday was more tempered – I still have not quite processed the victory – but its ability to interfere with my normal existence has been no less severe. Knowing I have a blog post due and papers to grade, I sit hunched over my laptop reading postgame analyses and watching highlights.

If all of this makes me seem ridiculous to anyone else or myself, I don’t care at all. The question is whether my commitment to the sport makes me complicit in something other than mere frivolity.

Criticisms of football usually fall into one of two categories. There are the people, among them some of my friends, who think the whole business is stupid, and then there are the people who just think it ought to be changed in one way or another. The former camp recently attracted my attention when PZ Myers, whom I usually agree with, commented that the NFL is “just floating corporations whose purpose for existence is to scoop up specially fast meaty people, give them a brief period of pampering and unwarranted glory, and in return, grinds them up and gives them brain damage for the entertainment of the people.”

The first part of this comment is really just a maladroit dismissal of sports in general, and I will address that view next week.  Although I do not see much use (or much insight) in being contemptuous of professional athletics, the attitude is not an entirely uncommon one, especially among people who pride themselves on rationality, and it is worth rebutting.

It is the second part of Myers’ comment that hits on the issue I want to look at first: that football is truly dangerous. The nature of that danger is receiving far more attention now than it did in the past, even in the era of leather helmets and minimal padding. There have always been injuries that attract widespread notice, like Joe Theismann’s gruesome compound fracture in 1985, but those mishaps have largely been viewed as flukes or exceptions – injuries, after all, can occur in any sport. And often (although Theismann never fully did) players recover from such frightening incidents.

In the past decade, however, another issue has come to prominence. More so than participants in any other American sport, football players run a high risk of being concussed. Concussions were once dismissed, at least in the popular mind, as relatively minor injuries with a short recovery period – and for most of us, they are, if we happen to get one and then avoid more. But if you are exposed to frequent concussions over the course of years, the damage can be monstrous.

In a sense, a concussion is like a momentary power surge in the brain: certain kinds of hard impact or sudden movement trigger excessive activity among neurotransmitters and a subsequent frantic release of neurons, while cerebral blood flow decreases. The immediate consequences are cognitive impairment ranging from blurred vision to complete unconsciousness. The brain eventually recovers, but victims who have been concussed once are more easily concussed again. Unlike a knitted bone, a once-concussed brain is never stronger than it was before.

In 2007, the NFL revamped the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, a body it first established in 1994, and which had been accused of misleading players and the public about the severity of concussions. Two years later Congress held hearings on the issue, publicly criticizing the League for not taking the problem seriously enough. The month after the hearings two top NFL doctors, who had repeatedly denied a link between concussions and brain damage, resigned. Pressure was increasing for responsible parties at all levels of the sport to reconsider their attitude towards its safety.

Then Junior Seau killed himself. Seau was a famed former San Diego linebacker who had never been sidelined due to a concussion in his career: that is not to say he never had one, but only that he had never been diagnosed and benched because of it. On May 2, 2012, Seau committed suicide. A study requested by his family found that Seau had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head injury.

Seau’s death drew even more publicity than that of Dave Duerson, a former NFL safety who shot himself in 2011 after requesting that his brain be examined for signs of CTE. Duerson was posthumously diagnosed with the disease, as have been, according the New York Times, more than twenty other deceased players. The families of some are among the nearly 200 plaintiffs suing the NFL in federal court.

The narrative now goes something like this: NFL players run a high risk of concussion, even with head protection and rules barring many once-legal brutal hits. Repeated concussions over the course of a career can induce CTE, which can cause dementia and depression and eventually contribute to death. In other words, football can kill you long after you’re done with it.

Last week, President Obama drew mixed reactions for saying that he was unsure if he would let a hypothetical son play football. He suggested that the NFL should consider rule changes that might make the sport “less exciting,” and noted that the NCAA faces similar challenges. For his measured response, Obama was called a “girl” by Glenn Beck – a typical Beck response, but indicative of many football fans’ (and players’) belief that the willingness to accept risk is an inherent part of the game. Almost alone among NFL players, Baltimore safety Ed Reed sided with Obama: “All I can say is, ‘Son, I played it, so you don’t have to,'” Reed told reporters, sounding not a little like a veteran of something far more serious than football.

Much like I find arguments that all gun owners are complicit in firearm-related deaths to be logically suspect, I remain unpersuaded by the idea that fans who love the game can somehow be held accountable for the ignorance and deception of its leaders. But when any activity becomes directly linked to death, the conversation must immediately shift to whether that death was preventable. In the case of the NFL, there is little doubt that an array of measures – from requiring better helmets to drastically revising traditional contact rules – can prevent the circumstances that led more than one player to take his own life. And once that possibility of prevention has been publicly established, we as fans  assume a level of accountability by offering or witholding our support.

The game may be worth more than its critics recognize, but it is not worth preserving for its own sake in the face of such mortal consequences.

Part 2 next week.








About Brendan McKinney

Brendan McKinney teaches high school in New Mexico. He graduated from St. John's College and Bond University and is a former Peace Corps volunteer and record-store manager, among other things. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate number of incessantly prowling quadrupeds in Santa Fe.
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9 Responses to Helmet to Helmet (Part 1)

  1. Wordwizard says:

    Football has ALWAYS been known to be dangerous. The phenomenon known as “punch-drunk” has never been a secret. Those who pay for football, whether by buying tickets, or by subjecting themselves to the commercials, are complicit in the injuries they pay for. I find the “but we really didn’t KNOW it was SO dangerous” excuse completely lame. You knew it was dangerous. That is what you paid for. Safer = less exciting. Safer ≠ safe.

  2. Brendan McKinney says:

    Yes, football has always been known to be dangerous – to a point, and as are all sports. “Punch-drunk” is actually a term that originated with boxing, where it has been a well-known potential consequence of the sport for decades. It has not been so commonly associated with football, in popular media, until recently – which is precisely my point.
    Your argument is disingenuous and simplistic. One might as well claim that anyone who drives a car is complicit in the all auto accidents (cars have always been known to be dangerous), or that anyone who drinks is complicit in all alcoholism (alcohol has long been known to be dangerous), or even that anyone who smokes is complicit in all lung cancer (a proposition more people would readily assent to, but which is not nearly as concrete as it seems). Those things might be true in some sense, but it is a sense that so dilutes the concept of moral responsibility as to render it useless. Do you own a computer? You are complicit in whatever exploitative labor went into its manufacture. Have you ever read a book? You are complicit in the destruction of the forest that went to make the paper. You see what I mean. It’s a slippery slope of the kind that tells us precisely nothing useful when we are trying to make ethical decisions. You need to be more nuanced, or else you will make hasty decisions that will do little to help whatever situation concerns you. Morality is not a simple matter. There is a place for absolutism, but it must come only after as many sides as possible have been weighed.

    • Wordwizard says:

      “Your argument is disingenuous and simplistic. One might as well claim that anyone who drives a car is complicit in the all auto accidents (cars have always been known to be dangerous), or that anyone who drinks is complicit in all alcoholism (alcohol has long been known to be dangerous), or even that anyone who smokes is complicit in all lung cancer ”

      You may think my argument simplistic if you like, but disingenuous it is NOT. I am sincere. Also, for your information, I decided long ago not to drive, but instead bike, because that way, I could be sure that any accidents I got into because of lack of sleep, or misjudgement, would only place myself in danger, but no one else. I’m a teetotaler, too. I once stepped in when one co-worker of mine was pressuring another, to have “just one beer” to celebrate her birthday––and nearly succeeded. She, and everyone else in the place, had apparently forgotten that the birthday girl was an alcoholic! How many people get pressured this way who have NOT acknowledged to themselves, or confessed to the world, their problem? Anyone who smokes is complicit in the narrowing of my ability to live a normal life free from asthma and avoid their smoke. Now that smoking is no longer allowed in bars, smokers must go outside to indulge––directly below my window. However, as long as smokers are smoking outdoors, they think it’s OK, regardless of how impossible it is to dodge their trails with shifting winds, to say nothing of hogging bus shelters in the rain. So perhaps I’m simplistic, according to you, but I AM consistent.

      • Brendan McKinney says:

        Disingenuous was perhaps a poor word choice. I accept your sincerity. Nonetheless, even if you don’t drink or smoke or ever ride in a car, my point is that there are a litany of daily things that you do that do place you in what you might think of as a moral supply chain – I notice, for instance, that you do not deny owning a computer or buying books, and I presume you wear clothes, and sometimes watch movies or TV, and so forth. I am not saying that those things are the same as being a football fan, but that simply saying “anyone who does X” is “complicit in moral wrong Y” is not a persuasive argument. You need to go deeper and look harder.

        • Brendan McKinney says:

          And sometimes, to be clear, it is true that doing X makes us complicit in Y – I just mean, it takes careful steps to get to that conclusion.

        • Wordwizard says:

          I don’t deny owning a computer. I do deny having heard anything objectionable about that before getting it. I seldom buy new books made of paper, although I have gotten many second-hand, usually for free. Reuse is recycling. After I was given a Kindle, I have preferred to get my books electronically. I also make heavy use of the library! I try to live fairly modestly. I generally hold that if I can reduce my footprint on the earth by, say, one or two degrees of magnitude, I needn’t worry about the impossibility of reducing it to zero. I make a good-faith effort.

  3. Stephen Propatier says:

    I must agree with word wizard on this one. Medically this issue is far more complicated than it first appears. Concussion results in permanent injury=brain damage. Although reasonable conclusion it does not follow the totality of data. There is a much larger number of players who have suffered repetitive concussive syndrome and have no lasting effects. Many many factors are involved and it is hard to specifically identify 1 common source. There are variables some that players would commonly provide and some they would hide. Alcohol consumption, drug use steroid use and injuries outside of the NFL. There are other compelling medical issues in NFL players that are related to the abuse they put there bodies through. Knee OA, Hip OA.
    “Then Junior Seau killed himself. Seau was a famed former San Diego linebacker who had never been sidelined due to a concussion in his career: that is not to say he never had one, but only that he had never been diagnosed and benched because of it. On May 2, 2012, Seau committed suicide. A study requested by his family found that Seau had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head injury.”
    CTE in the medical community at large is considered a controversial diagnosis since it is post mortem and voluntary. The diagnostic parameters are wide. Although there is a tentative diagnosis association with depression. It is a correlational association since there is a lack of comparative post mortem eval it is considered presumptive. Meaning few players, that have multiple concussive events without symptoms, have agreed to post mortem evals or are still alive.
    In my opinion it is a high risk high reward profession, you could be paralyzed, have permanent loss of a limb. None of these risks are in doubt or suppressed. Police, sailors, soldiers all take voluntary high risk professional positions. It is well known by outsiders that players were forced to play through injuries. I would assume that players entering the NFL were likely well indoctrinated in college to this. There is a level of reasonable expectation of safety based on the job. I do not think that NFL player was advertised as a low risk for permanent injury profession. NFL player’s high risk, yet given the chance I would have taken it. You would not find me on the north sea crab fishing.It is not worth it to me with the risks. NFL has deep pockets it makes it an attractive litigation/ social target. Making me very skeptical.

    • Brendan McKinney says:

      Thanks for the medical clarification, Stephen. I don’t quite follow your latter points – do you mean that NFL players should have a right to accept a high-risk/high-reward job, or that something is wrong somewhere?

  4. Stephen Propatier says:

    Sorry about the rambling. I think both applies in this case. If the NFL had information or equipment that clearly showed/prevented danger then they were at fault. Like factories not providing air filtration systems for textile industry before 1980. Clear problem simple solution. In the NFL’s case the disease may not be their responsibility. Safety equipment was not up to the job. IE; it is ok to say I drove cars for my job in 1958 without seatbelts.
    If there was unproven suspicion and they took a wait and see attitude about I am not going to hold them responsible. It is a dangerous profession and when you are playing you are assuming risk of permanent injury and even death. TO then have such a consequence and then say “well you kept me playing even though you knew I might be hurt”, is not negligence it is implied in the job. There is a risk of significant injury on every down.
    Many factors matter in negligence on the NFL’s part. Does it matter if you had a concussion 2 weeks apart or 2 years? You would expect that serial is more dangerous. What time frame makes it safer, or less injurious. Helmets are of limited effectiveness, it is not the force of the blow, it is the acceleration/deceleration. Will the rule changes make a difference? No one knows this even now. Retroactive blaming is not fair.
    Also it is being prosecuted in the media and public eye driven by lawsuits. Never a good environment for the facts to come out. Lawyers know if you push an opinion into the public consciousness, true or not, it places the accused in the position of having to prove a negative. Most corporations will submit and write off the cost. Lawyers make money, victims get some, but often a fraction of what the lawyers make. There are many examples of non-scientific theories that invade the public consciousness “proven” but now we know they are false. Silicone Breast implants come to mind. There are others, cancer in high power lines for one. Truth be told if the science is not settled and the lawyers and victims are playing the public trial, anti-corporation rant. I am always concerned.
    I think it is good that the NFL is trying to apply some solutions. In reality there may not be any good solutions for this problem. Like professional boxing.

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