It’s Super Bowl season and I’m reminded of one of my old columns from six years ago in which I discussed concerns about concussions and the impact of the sport on players. Unfortunately, I probably understated the problem.
NFL ratings are down this year and at least some of the reason seems to be that many have a moral problem with watching young men destroy themselves for sport. While football, like many sports, can teach valuable life lessons, they come at an enormous cost.
The longstanding discussion is about concussions. The league now has a concussion protocol that each team is supposed to follow when there is even the slightest suspicion of concussion. This of course collides with the team’s desire to win games. It would seem that the rules are ignored if they player is important enough to the team.
This came up during this year’s playoffs as Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers appeared dazed during a drive in a loss to the New Orleans Saints. The team later claimed he had an eye injury, not a concussion.
Newton has been a big part of the discussion around injuries as he takes a lot of big hits. Many of his supporters claim he is treated differently by officials, but his freewheeling style of play, which won him an MVP in 2015, is a part of the issue.
That year, the MVP wasn’t enough to get Newton a Super Bowl win. My favorite team, the Denver Broncos, won that year, largely with a defense that battered Newton throughout the game.
But it was a rematch in September of 2016 that made more news. The Broncos again battered Newton and won and several hits were called into question. But only a couple of them actually violated the rules.
This is part of the problem. Rules changes can’t fix this. Supporters of football will often suggest that proper tackling technique will prevent these injuries, but they won’t. Proper tackling may prevent some concussions, but this isn’t just about concussions.
Bennett Omalu, the subject of the 2015 film Concussion starring Will Smith, helped bring this issue greater attention. He studied the brains of several NFL players and determined that many suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). His research suggests that it isn’t just concussions, but the thousands of small, subconcussive hits players take, both in games and in practice, that lead to CTE.
Even if better equipment, perfect tackling, and rules changes could reduce the biggest hits, which is a dubious proposition in the first place, the small hits have their impact and could even be the bigger problem. If we want to protect young brains, tackle football itself will have to change, and dramatically.
A study last year of 111 former NFL players found that 110 had CTE. Now, as a data person, I know that this doesn’t mean that 99 percent of players will get the disease; this was a heavily biased sample. But it does provide some evidence of the scale of the problem. If even a tenth of players will develop debilitating injuries, we should care and make changes.
There is now evidence that these injuries have an impact off the field as well. In 2012, Jovan Belcher, playing with Kansas City, killed his girlfriend, then killed himself in front of team officials. Aaron Hernandez was convicted of a 2013 murder, then later acquitted of two additional murders. But days after his acquittal, he killed himself in his prison cell.
Both Belcher and Hernandez were found to have CTE.
Current and former players are taking the lead on this issue. A number have retired early, citing the long-term medical risk as the reason. Many former players, including hall of famers like Terry Bradshaw, Mike Ditka, Harry Carson and two-sport phenom Bo Jackson, have addressed it, often saying that they would not play again if they were given the choice or that they would not allow their young sons to play.
This leads to serious questions about the future of the sport. We’re still talking about a multi-billion dollar industry, one based on a culture of violence and war-like imagery. Change will be difficult, if it comes at all. Would the public watch if it were say, flag football, with minimal contact?
Will parents continue to let their kids play? Many aren’t and football could well go the way of boxing, a sport in which middle and upper class kids are rarely seen, but parents of poor kids allow it, hoping for a way out of their situation.
For we fans, the real question is whether we are culpable by continuing to watch and support our teams. The evidence suggests we are.
A version of this column appeared in the Porterville Recorder on January 31st, 2018.
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