Football’s physical, mental tollCan anything fix football? That depends largely on whether we’re willing to admit that it’s broken.
By: John Crisp, The Dickinson Press
Can anything fix football? That depends largely on whether we’re willing to admit that it’s broken.
Of course, some of the evidence against football is anecdotal, but the anecdotes are stunning.
The latest is the case of Junior Seau, 43, who killed himself on May 2 with a gunshot to the chest. After an All-American career at USC, Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL. When he retired in 2010, he seemed to have everything — money, family, respect in his hometown, and the satisfaction of having risen to the top of one of our culture’s most envied careers.
Why did he kill himself? We may never know. His family is uncertain about whether to allow Seau’s brain to be examined for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that results from repeated concussions. Sometimes CTE is called dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome, a vivid description of the mental state that develops in many boxers who, by the nature of their sport, experience repeated blows to the head during their careers.
If Seau’s brain is examined, there’s a good chance that CTE will show up. Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has been examining the brains of deceased football players since 2008. Dr. Ann McKee says that “nearly all of them” display physical evidence of CTE.
And a stunning list of former football players have exhibited the outward signs of CTE, which include memory loss, depression, slurred speech, moodiness, insomnia, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. If you’re a football fan, you’ll recognize some of these names: Andre Waters (suicide at 44), Mike Webster (dead at 50), Terry Long (suicide at 45), Chris Henry (dead at 26), Ray Easterling (suicide at 62), Dave Duerson (suicide at 50). And so on.
None of this should surprise us. The human brain, encased in hard bone, is durable and resilient, but it’s not invincible. During their careers, football players sustain many thousands of hard blows to the head. They experience headaches, disorientation, unconsciousness and concussion. Evidence suggests that CTE begins to accumulate as early as high school. In short, if you are playing football, very likely your brain is paying a price.
So, can football be fixed? It’s not likely.
The NFL has begun to understand that it has a problem. Protective equipment has been improved. Rules have been modified in the effort to make the game safer. Concussion-awareness has been raised. The League has come down hard on flagrant violators.
More radical reformers have suggested the elimination of the kickoff, the dangerous play that results in many injuries. Others have suggested less protective equipment — even the elimination of the helmet — so that ballplayers’ natural instinct for self-preservation will be more likely to kick in.
But all of this feels like window dressing. The NFL (and the college game, for that matter) understands that violence is essential to the success of its product, and it’s unlikely to do much to restrain the vicious hits that fans love. In fact, the public is unlikely to maintain its current level of enthusiasm for a less violent game.
The game has a powerful momentum of its own that will prevent it from changing in any significant way. Therefore boys and men will continue to sustain chronic injuries, occasional paralysis, and the slow death of CTE.
In fact, the only thing that’s likely to fix football is the realization by athletic men and boys (and their parents) that their protection from the inevitable injuries associated with the sport depends on their refusal of the cultural and monetary pressure to play.
Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, says that the Center isn’t telling people to “run away from the field screaming.” But the death of Junior Seau is just one more story that says that running away from the field might be precisely the right thing to do.
Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.