“It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem.” – Dr. Ann McKee
Perhaps nothing in my life has given me more silly pleasure than American football. I like the pro game. I adore the college game. I have never known a fall without it. Labor Day weekend is one of my favorite leisure times because football starts for real. I never miss any of the postseason games. And I love that Alabama so effectively sticks it to the rest of the country. Please, hate us. Your tears are delicious.
Yet, barring significant changes to the game, I’m giving it up. I have already dropped the NFL, and this is my last year to follow college. I’ll have my memories on a shelf, like mental memorabilia, and that will be it.
It’s not anything about flags, or protests, or people acting ugly. I’m just barely aware of all of that noise. No, it’s about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—the debilitating, fatal disease to which we are sentencing a substantial number of football players by design.
CTE is degenerative. Repeated blows to the head are believed to be the primary cause of it. It causes confusion, memory loss, depression, dementia, and other severe mental symptoms. Symptoms can first occur many years after the repeated blows stop. Dr. Ann McKee just published a study in which she examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. Of the 111 NFL players’ brains, she examined, 110 of them had CTE.
“Oh, Bo. Come on. Sports can be dangerous. Aren’t you into auto racing?”
The big difference between the scourge of CTE and the risk of injury in other professional sports is that for some significant number of football players, this is a certainty. The players are too big. The equipment is too effective. The forces are too great. Football kills a large percentage of its participants by design. If played absolutely correctly, the game results in substantial fatalities.
That is not sport. That is gladiatorial.
However marginally (he said, laughing nervously), are we still a civilized society, or not?
The whole point has been entertainment, yes? It’s big, stupid fun. Well, how can it be fun now? Can I pour myself wholeheartedly into the NFL playoffs, knowing this guy on the screen will never know his grandchildren, or that guy won’t speak for the last four years of his shortened life? Can I scream “Roll Tide!” knowing that some substantial percentage of the kids I’m watching aspire to the NFL? No, I can’t. I won’t be party to it.
So what would gridiron football have to become for me to follow again? Well, I don’t know. I’ve imagined a game much like today’s, perhaps augmented with electronics that measure touch duration, with a continuous touch of a certain duration being a tackle? Certainly there would be a much larger emphasis on speed rather than size.
Whether the NFL would ever work on the problem at that level is another question entirely. The NFL response to the report is tepid in some ways, and perhaps somewhat constructive in others. But there’s still a bit too much tobacco company in their supposed wonder into the frequency of CTE in football players vs. the general population. Golly gee, we just don’t know.
What we do know is that football is a gigantic money machine, and if that is genuinely threatened, the NFL will move to protect it. Whether it will do so ethically and morally bears close scrutiny. There’s a bumpy start to the 2017 season, but all of the sociopolitical churn makes it hard to tell whether that represents a genuine decline. We ought to be smarter about that in a month or two.
Or, what if parents just stop letting their kids play? Then the sport doesn’t backfill with new talent, or does so insufficiently to preserve the quality of the game. I wonder whether that would ever be a strong enough force to effect change, but it might. There are significant changes already in how our very youngest children play the game. George Will speculates that “football participation will skew to the uninformed and economically desperate.”
I would love for this to get fixed. I’ll be watching the issue closely for progress. Ideally, we’ll have a dramatic medical breakthrough that enables us to protect the players without changing the game too much. Barring that, yes, we’d need to switch things up pretty dramatically. We’d have to learn to get excited about watching a significantly altered game.
Until that day, I must say goodbye.