The Collision Sport

Football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport. – Duffy Daugherty.

I like to think I live in a nation where people can look at data and make intelligent decisions, especially where the health and safety of its citizens are concerned.

Of course I also like to think I look like a younger Dustin Hoffman.

I’m seeing the increasing amount of information coming in about the maiming of athletes in NFL_Injury_Broken_AnkleAmerican Football and interested in how those who regulate and support it choose to respond. As Jacques Barzun once famously noted, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game.” But baseball has lost its place in the center of our sporting pantheon and it is now (American) Football that occupies the place of honor. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert comments by first quoting the “late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory: “Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become.” In other words, baseball was king when we were a smarter and purer nation. Football, on the other hand, now represents our louder, dumber and less subtle society.”

But if, as Seifert posits, we are becoming “louder, dumber and less subtle” (that may be a redundant phrase which proves his point) are we also guilty of ignorance and unwillingness to change when we see that our #1 sport may be fatally flawed?

This month’s Esquire, the magazine of choice for America’s intelligent man, features an article by Tom Junod on the “Injury Issue” in the NFL. In it, a pro says “People always ask me, ‘Are you feeling good?’ No. You never feel good. Once the season starts, you never feel good. But it becomes your way of life. It becomes the norm. It’s different from a guy going to work at a bank. If he felt like I did, he wouldn’t get out of bed. He’d call in.”

The article continues explaining the astronomical rate of injuries and is illustrated with esq-08-where-does-it-hurt-011613-deseveral graphic X-rays of football injuries. They are too gruesome for me to reproduce here. It is not for the faint of heart. Suffice to say this: “According to a study conducted by the National Football League, the approximately two thousand players active on the thirty-two NFL teams suffered about forty-five hundred injuries in 2011, for an injury rate of 225 percent.”

But that’s not the whole story. No, like the Ginsu knife infomercial, I want to tell you, “Wait! There’s more!” We are not just talking about wrecked ankles and knees devoid of ligaments and cartilage. A lifetime of limping, pain and crutches is a tough legacy. But the scariest part of the football injury story is brain damage. Irreversible, painful, and completely disabling brain damage. By now I think everyone is aware that a number of NFL stars have committed suicide and their autopsies have reviewed the neurological destruction that crippled their mental processes; in fact a number of these men have shot themselves in the chest with the intention of leaving their skulls intact for research. That is how certain they are of their situations. And now scientists are beginning to find signs of the trauma in living ex-players.

An ESPN article: “Dozens of former players — including 34 who played in the NFL — have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to dementia, memory loss and depression. The disease, which researchers say is triggered by repeated head trauma, can currently be confirmed only by examining the brain after death. CTE was discovered earlier this month in the brain of former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May by shooting himself in the chest.”

“The UCLA researchers used a patented brain-imaging tool to examine Fred McNeill, a 59-year-old former Vikings linebacker; Wayne Clark, a 64-year-old former back-up quarterback; and three other unidentified players: a 73-year-old former guard; a 50-year-old former defensive lineman; and a 45-year-old former center. Each had sustained at least one concussion; the center sustained ten.”

“CTE is caused by a buildup of tau, an abnormal protein that strangles brain cells. The scan lit up for tau in all five former players, according to the study. The protein was concentrated in areas that control memory, emotions and other functions — a pattern consistent with the distribution of tau in CTE brains that have been studied following autopsy, according to the researchers.”

“The findings are preliminary — we only had five players — but if they hold up in future studies, this may be an opportunity to identify CTE before players have symptoms so we can develop preventative treatment,” said Dr. Gary W. Small, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.”

The NFL once attacked this  research and denied the link between football and CTE. The league later reversed its position and acknowledged a scientific connection between football and long-term brain damage.

CTE in Brain
PET scans done as part of a UCLA study showed tau in the brains of five living former NFL players.

So that’s where we are today. The NFL first denied, but now accepts that football can cause CTE. And CTE can result in permanent disability, pain, brain damage and suicide. The noted Newsweek reporter Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a piece, The Impending Death Of Pro Football , where he examines the recent findings in living NFL players and says, “I don’t know if this will change anything, right now. But telling a player “You have CTE” is a lot different than “You stand some chance of developing it.”

He goes on: “This is when you start thinking about football and an existential crisis. I don’t know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow. (How common are college boxing teams these days?)

After that, I don’t know how pro football can stand for long.”

I wanted to post this with seven days to go before the Super Bowl, the most-watched television event in the nation. With commercial time at an all-time record high, advertisers know they will capture millions of viewers for their messages. Over 100 million Americans will watch the game next Sunday, and roughly 70% of all televisions in use at the time will be tuned to the game. The question becomes this: if we know that the sport is causing this much damage in its participants, for how long can we continue to make the Super Bowl the most popular televised event of the year?

Announcers are paid to make the game entertaining. A professional can make the most boring thing sound cataclysmic in importance.

And, more frightening, they can make significant events — like major injuries — seem trivial. Listen for the times the announcers make a humorous comment or underplay an injured player. “He got his bell rung” “Wow, a crunching tackle there” and “there’s a player shaken up on the play” can all be codes for broken bones, ACL injuries and concussions. If we cut to commercial, show two car ads, a beer spot with talking animals and a GoDaddy website bit with girls in bikinis, is that injured player made well? If we “come back from commercial” and he is no longer lying immobile on the ground, did the injury not happen? How drunk, how severe of a food coma do we have to be in for our minds to work that way?

It is an endless relief to me that our sitting president has a brain in his head. He has just come out today and said, “if he had a son, he says he’d ‘have to think long and hard’ before letting him play because of the physical toll the game takes.”


Junior Seau Ray Easterling Dave Duerson. All dead from suicide. All NFL players with CTE.

He went on: “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.  In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

I applaud him on this. And since so many NFL players are African-American, this is a racial issues. I’m not surprised sites like report on these developments. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ““The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice.” Let’s hope that the long arc of sport science and research similarly bends towards making NFL-style football a sport where players can play with chances of emerging with a decent life, where fans can watch with a clean conscience and where parents can allow our children to participate without fear of maiming them for life.

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