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.