The Beginning of the End of Football

This post is from 2016 and was copied from The Way Back Machine internet archive.  I destroyed my database and thought all the old posts were lost.  Since this was written 99% of NFL player’s brains examined have CTE.

A few years ago, football crazed friends living on a boat, started appearing at our home just before kick off time with beer and snacks.  This is Seahawks country, so it was a fun year to watch.  We won the Super Bowl, hooray.

I hadn’t followed football since I stopped playing, in 1987.  Sucked into the drama, the savagery, the last-minute heroics of Russel “God talks to me during games” Wilson, I got the fever.

I began listening to sports talk radio on my way to work, something I had chided friends about in the past.  I always wondered how anyone, even hardcore sports fans, could listen to the endless, cliche’ ridden yammering.  I discovered that filling 24 hours of airtime with clever sports banter is a mildly interesting art form in which a hyper focused, bordering on hysterical passion for all things sports, can infect. The combination of uninvited guests choosing for me how I would spend my Sundays, and a dramatic, entertaining team full of characters, pulled me into the vortex.  After a few weeks, I was a willing participant, wondering when our guests were going to arrive, fussing over beer inventory, getting ready.

Soon, I was in the dummy bubble, wondering how the pass Wilson threw in the fourth quarter, the one that would have turned the tide, was ruled an incompletion!  Before long, I became a daily sports talk radio listener-a fan, a grown man swept up in meaningless drama, and having fun with it.

On they droned, day after day.  Does Russel Wilson get the respect he deserves?  Is there really an East Coast sports media bias against our Hawks? Where does coach Pete Carroll rank among active coaches?  Who are the leaders in that locker room?  What happened to our offensive line last week? When are these guys going to wake up and realize they need each other? Slowly, the game soaked into my consciousness, until it seemed normal to foam and blather about nick knack details upon details upon conjecture, wrapped in testosterone soaked lust for victory at all costs.  Go Hawks!

The last second blunder (an ill-advised play call that resulted in a turnover a few yards away from the winning score) that cost Seattle the Super Bowl last season, caused an amount of suffering for fans akin to a mass casualty incident involving children.  Callers wept, the sports talk guys, lost in shock, careened between subdued resignation and howling rage at the call, the coach who made the call, the head coach who could have stopped the call, the players who failed to execute…on and on.

A year later, they are still talking about The Play.  Having recovered from my Fever, I now listen from a dispassionate perspective.  I admit to enjoying a Seahawks loss for two reason, I don’t care, and secondly, the Monday morning whining is usually entertaining.  And often fascinating.

Football Fans, Men (mostly), who are generally seen as lunk-headed cretins, obsessed with plastic breasted cheerleaders, cheese dip, beer, and the perceived brutal simplicity of football, are more than capable of intricate analysis, of parsing the strategic and logistical aspects of the game, but also the on and off-field psycho-drama between teammates, coaches, fans and opposing players. Factors in play during preparation for next weeks game are fluid, complex, and discussed with a combination of cold analytic precision and nuanced, emotional tea-leaf reading that would impress Oprah.  You can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if millions of football fans felt the same vicarious tribalism, hyper focus, and emotional commitment towards ANYTHING of consequence.

Imagine teams of renowned physicists wearing brightly colored uniforms, taunting each other in pre-debate interviews, making millions a year after becoming top tier free-agents, battling it out week after week in front of 50-80 thousand screaming fans, with millions watching at home, as they discuss quantum mechanics, and the possibility that we are living in a multiverse, instead of a universe.

The beauty of gaming lies in clearly defined rules and procedures, and the human body’s ability to perfect feats of strength, grace and poetic finesse toward some end, either individually or as part of a team.  Add controlled violence, territorial conquest and complex strategy, and you’ve got an addictive, passion stirring, goldmine of a sport.

People, over-worked and rattled by life’s ocean of gray have-to’s, want clarity, drama, excitement and gore.  This seems universal in the human experience, think jousting, the Olympics, or Roman gladiatorial arts.  We have always the craved vicarious slaughtering of opponents, or out groups.  Games of restrained savagery have been useful outlets for our innate blood lust, our collective Champion fetish.

Over time, the levels of brutality we find acceptable change.  The arch doesn’t move steadily away from outright killing of opponents to gloved pummeling, but rather, ebbs and flows back and forth on a continuum of violence, depending on era driven norms and cultural idiosyncrasies. Yanomamo young men, to prove their stamina and toughness, engage in ritualized beating contests that leave participants coughing up blood from repeated blows to their purposely exposed abdomens.  Ritualized war is an acceptable substitute for the real thing. Which, despite a general softening, or evolution away from our brutish past, remains hardwired.  We seem to get this unseemly trait naturally.  Research indicates that chimpanzees are partial to assassinations, and murder for greater access to territory, mates, food and status.  We are well-groomed savages, smart enough to have decided that for the most part, it’s better to play at slaughter, than to do what comes natural.

Football, in its earliest form, was little more than drunken mob riots.  In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt met with college officials to design rules, attempting to limit deaths and injuries.  The November 27th, 1905 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle reads “Nineteen Killed On Gridiron.”

Two players died on the last game of the college season.  It continues:

“Among the injuries that have not resulted fatally are: nineteen broken collar bones, and shoulders, thirty-one broken legs, nine broken arms, nineteen fractures to some portion of the head, three broken ribs, three spinal injuries, and three concussions of the brain.  Reforms Suggested.”

With rules in place, state of the art safety equipment in use, and EMS on the sidelines, Ninety two young men died playing high school football between 2005-2004.  Seven young men died in 2015.  Long odds, given the number of players, but still, your odds of dying playing American football rank between scuba diving and Grand Prix racing, 1 in 50,000.

Living your life based on statistical probabilities is not living your life.  How many great experiences are at least partially dangerous, foolhardy, risky, or otherwise not recommended?

There is a tipping point though, a point at which common sense, scientific research, statistics and eventually public opinion, can catch up with almost any favored pastime, no matter how beloved…besides NFL football, which is almost bigger than Jesus.  But, if the pipeline of new players vanishes, even the mighty NFL could go the way of the Roman Games.

New research into chronic brain injuries sustained playing football makes it hard to imagine the game surviving for long, certainly not at the youth level. When I started playing organized football at the age of nine, my aunt, a nurse, went ballistic on my parents for allowing me to do something so dangerous. She had seen the injuries.  We thought she was nuts.

As of September 2015, 131 of 165 “football brains” had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  87 of 91 NFL football brains had CTE. CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals who have sustained repetitive brain trauma.  There are numerous stories of football players descending into depression, cognitive difficulties, irritability and suicide.  It was believed only players with long careers, players taking several thousand blows to the head for many years, could be affected.  Several cases have come up recently where the brains of dead young football players are, unexpectedly rife with the disease.  Michael Keck was 25 when he died.  16 years of football left his brain deformed and full of the signature protein of CTE.

Turns out, my aunt was right.  Research shows those who played tackle football before the age of 12 face a higher risk of altered brain development.  I cannot comprehend how this intuitive and obvious point could have been completely overlooked for a hundred years.  If a grade school gym teacher invented a game where third graders smacked each other over the head with padded bats, two or three hours a day, for three or four months, he or she would be arrested.  There is a painfully obvious reason why we don’t have grade school boxing or mixed martial arts teams.  Basic parenting instincts tell us that growing brains are fragile.  Go figure.

If you never played football, (or other contact sports), it’s hard to grasp how deeply ingrained the culture of denial is, related to injuries.  You are always getting hurt when you play football.  There are endless small injuries, abrasions, bruises, muscle soreness, strained knees, shoulders, mangled fingers, smashed feet etc.  These aren’t even considered injuries, because if they were, most games would be forfeited before they started for lack of “healthy” players.  If you make it to varsity high school football, you are willing and able to play through a certain amount of pain.  I suppose stoicism is character building, but it also makes it difficult for coaches, or even players themselves, to know which form of pain is actually dangerous, and which is just part of the price you pay to legally beat the shit out of people. The most dangerous aspect of the game is this lack of distinction.  I missed exactly one practice with a sprained back, and was treated like a traitor.  I was told,  “You are a linebacker, you’re not Allowed to be hurt.”  So, I played hurt.  If I took enough aspirin, or whatever it was, and applied this molten lava strength chemical, sort of a nuclear version of Icy Hot, my back went numb for several hours, allowing me to get through practice and games.  I wasn’t the champ, everyone was always hurt to some degree, but the only guys on the sidelines had sustained compound fractures.  One particularly tough bastard, was playing a week after dislocating his elbow on my head!

I played before the water era.  This bit of absurdity might give perspective. Until my senior year, water was for sissies.  A state law, put in place after a few heat stroke deaths, required coaches to grudgingly give us water every 45 minutes.  Before the law, you had to earn water.  So, if practice (in 95 degree, August heat) wasn’t brisk enough, you didn’t get to take a sip.  Water is for tennis players!  I don’t know where this deranged attitude started, but it was more or less universal for many years.

The game is changing, no doubt.  Hits that were commonplace when I played in the 80’s, warrant suspensions now, even in the NFL.  The problem for the future of football is two-fold, and in my opinion, insurmountable.  The culture of “toughness” inherent in the game, which leaves coaches and players unable or unwilling to call an injury an injury, coupled with increased knowledge of the risks involved, especially at the youth level, probably means we are not going to have a game that resembles football in twenty years.  Increased awareness often creates cognitive dissonance, a painful psychological state in which new information collides so completely with old paradigms, it is ignored for as long as possible.  Football is, by far, our most popular sport, and is so captivating, until recently, it wasn’t news that every year 12 kids, on average, die playing. CTE, and the growing wake of broken middle-aged men tossed aside by the NFL like old milk cows, and the formerly ignored, but now, painfully obvious idiocy of youth football, have made it impossible to look the other way.