October 11, 2009
The end of the NFL as we know it?By Mark Butterworth
A recent, preliminary study for the NFL demonstrates that "Retired professional football players may have a higher rate than normal of Alzheimer's disease or other memory problems, suggests a preliminary study that provides more fuel for concerns about long-term risk of concussions."
If these data are followed up with corroborating evidence, it could spell doom for football as we know it.
It's been known for a long time that the after effects of a pro football career are profound in terms of extremely high and early rates of arthritis, joint replacement, and everyday levels of high pain, but these conditions have been considered a worthwhile tradeoff by the players in return for their salaries, fame, and future earning possibilities based on their professional careers and affiliation to the sport.
Plus, the joy of the game, the comradery, the purpose and sense of discipline, and being an elite athlete are considerable inducements.
The attention paid in recent decades to the effect of brain concussions, though, has altered the picture not just for football players but also for the fans.
Take for example the situation of pro boxing. Up into the late 70s, pro boxing, particularly heavyweight bouts, generated worldwide interest with the return and ascension of Mohammed Ali. But as scientific evidence demonstrated the effect of concussions such fighting had upon people such as Ali (Parkinson's Disease), the general public began to lose interest in watching men engage in a sport where every solid blow to the head meant the boxer was that much closer to crippling brain damage.
I used to love watching boxing either in the Olympics or in the heavyweight division. I eagerly took in all the Ali matches and those of his better rivals. I can't bear to see fighting anymore.
Pro boxers can still make fortunes through pay per view events, but the amount of ink and interest in the sport has flagged considerably over the last few decades.
Pro football may soon find itself following the footsteps of pugilism into being a niche sport (like cage fighting) rather than the national phenomenon it is today.
I grew up with the NFL in the 50s, from the time it was a minor pastime like hockey that gave us something to watch until baseball season started, until it became the billion dollar spectacle it is now.
To my brothers and friends who all played tackle (never touch) football in various sandlots, often on frozen ground, the game was about open field running, long passes, punt and kickoff returns, open field tackles and interceptions.
Tackling was about grasping and wrestling the ball carrier down rather than trying to collide with him at maximum speed. We got lots of scrapes and bruises, but no concussions, no twisted knees or broken bones.
When we played in the Pop Warner league with equipment like shoulder pads, helmets, and various other accoutrements, we were coached to run and hit with more force, but lack of size and power prevented greater injury.
Unlike many fans of football, I never enjoyed watching terrific collisions between players. Too much empathy. I felt every bone jarring hit and took no pleasure in it the way I've seen a great fans and sports announcers do as if one gladiator deftly skewered another in the coliseum and the crowds erupted in glee as blood shot up in the air. My love for the athleticism of the game, the strategy and tactics, the tension and drama kept me watching, though, and wincing at the brutal hits.
Events like the hit on Darryl Stingley by Jack Tatum in a pre-season game in 1978 (Patriots vs Raiders) which made the wide receiver a quadriplegic the rest of his (shortened) life didn't just turn my stomach by the senselessness of it, but that of millions, and the NFL went about the business of trying to make rule and equipment changes that might prevent a reoccurrence of such things.
Still, it's a brutal sport and every year the league makes some attempt to alter a rule, create a foul in order to protect quarterbacks and receivers from becoming broken bodies.
Ironically, the attempt to make the player's armor (equipment) more protective has also rendered it more nearly lethal. Hard, shock absorbing helmets may protect a player's head, but also make it hard as a hammer to opposing players' bodies.
Right now, football has eclipsed baseball as the national pastime. The college game has expanded considerably in the number of high quality teams competing for a national championship, and they are drawing upon millions of high school boys who form a competitive pool funneling the cream of the crop up to each level of play.
So what happens if football proves to be a brain damaging game like boxing? It doesn't seem possible to transform the sport into something safer, less punishing; especially when training for sports has improved fitness, speed, quickness, size, and power to the extent it has even without the enhancement of steroids.
Softening the equipment when we now have such fast, large and powerful men sounds crazy. And does anyone want to go back to the way the game looks on old films from the days of Knute Rockne and Otto Graham? I doubt it.
And as many men there may be who revel in seeing vicious things done to the bodies of other men by other men, aren't these the same impulses supporting cock fighting, dog fighting, bear baiting, and all the blood sports invented through history? I don't think most American men find all that cruelty a vicarious thrill anymore than most fans dress up like the whack jobs of the Raider Nation Sunday at Oakland home games.
So, whither football? The violence is part of the allure of the game, but eventually the damage will bring about its end. How can it not? Imagine the future lawsuits from the families of damaged veterans if medical evidence is indisputable. Waivers simply won't work. Does any sport or employer of athletes have a right to subject employees to known, crippling work conditions? I doubt it.
Yet, the gridiron has proven to be the testing ground for generations of young American men to pit heroic ambition, courage and desire, against the fear of serious injury (even the occasional death); a place for boys to grow up, bond as athletic warriors, strive against odds, learn how to fail or succeed and emerge stronger, disciplined, and experienced through work, suffering, exaltation, and sadness.
It may be possible for football to survive much as it is through high school and college, but I'm not sure the pro game can survive as it now plays.