Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Heads Up

Last Sunday, I parked myself happily in front of a good-sized TV and prepared to watch the AFC championship game. My hometown New England Patriots were sure to meet a valiant challenge from the Baltimore Ravens, but I was fairly sure they would prevail in the end.

Oh well.

I have a number of friends, Facebook- and otherwise, who live in parts of the world that cause them to root rather harder for the Ravens than the Pats; and in the last few years, I have discovered what it’s like to root for a professional sports team that a great majority of the American electorate despises. Yankees fans, Cowboys fans, Canadiens fans … Soviet hockey fans! … I hear ya. So, this essay has nothing whatever to do with what I think of the team that sent my beloved Patriots to the golf course for the rest of the winter.

Needless to say, I turned away from the game after the final whistle and was a touch dispirited.

I think it’s absurd to say that one team “wanted it more”. The Ravens just played better. They may not have played harder; I’m not enough of a football analyst to be able to tell that. Everyone on that field was moving at full speed, or at least as full-tilt as their bodies would allow, following a full regular season of professional football. Which implies a lot of crunch, bang, smack and other comic-strip syllables.

As it turns out, though, my dispirited mood after the game was not totally inspired by the Patriot offense’s inability to move the ball when they wanted to. All that institutionalized banging and smashing, those comic-book syllables, the ferocious nature of the game … that was part of it, too.

 

When it comes to watching college or pro football, I have not historically been a shrinking violet. Big plays get big reactions from me. “Watch it watch it watch it watch it behind you man watch it uh oh watch it oh crap!!” Sack. “Over the middle, complete to Welker –OH!!! That had to hurt.” First down, but at what cost!

When you march in a college band, you get to see up to four seasons’ worth of live football, which always contains controlled violence. The point, for the defense, is to stop the man with the ball, as quickly as possible. The ball-carrier is running. The defender must run toward him. The collision will be firm. You are constantly reminded of why you joined band. If collisions happen in band, something is seriously wrong, and it gets fixed before we get in front of people. Hopefully.

This week, the family of former San Diego Chargers (and New England Patriots) linebacker Junior Seau sued the National Football League, saying that brain damage he suffered during his 20-year pro career was the cause of his decision to commit suicide, and that the NFL had ignored the dangers to its employees – or covered them up.

The Daily Telegraph reported, “Seau’s children and ex-wife, along with the trustee of his estate, also claim in the San Diego Superior Court lawsuit that the NFL has long concealed from its players and the public the risks of neurological injury in the sport.” The Seau family says that the suit is intended to “send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations.”

Independent researchers discovered that Seau was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – a debilitating brain disease that has been spotted in at least two other former NFL players who also committed suicide. CTE used to be known as “boxer’s dementia”. It also has been found in members of the armed forces who suffered concussive injuries from blast waves.

Recently, there has been an increasing amount of concern expressed about the risk of brain injury from repeated concussions suffered by NFL players. Referees now routinely throw personal-foul penalty flags in response to helmet-to-helmet hits. Traditionally, players have been coached to lead with their shoulders when tackling. But as the size and skill requirements of pro (and college) football players have grown larger and faster, respectively, over the last couple of decades, the game has grown faster and fiercer, with expanding opportunities for more serious injuries, such that classic, “safer” tackling techniques may not be as easy to execute or control. When the defense’s lion is tracking down the offense’s gazelle, the velocity involved tends to limit the ability to consciously consider issues of safety.

Certain positions in the game of football by their very nature involve less handling of the actual ball, and more repeated slamming into other people. If an offensive lineman ever gets his hands on the football, it’s probably because one of his teammates fumbled it. It’s never a designed play.

And certain other positions invite sharp, violent collisions. Very romantic to be a wide receiver, floating across the middle of the field, leaping into the air and retrieving a perfect spiral of a forward pass lofted by the quarterback. At least, until the strong safety comes from the other direction at the same speed and reminds the receiver about the laws of physics. Science tells us that the brain is nominally protected by the skull, but there’s just a little bit of wiggle room between the brain and the skull, and although the hit to the head is the “ka-”, the brain knocking against the skull is in fact the “-boom.”

Adding to the problem is: money.

Players are constantly auditioning to keep their (high-paying) jobs; therefore faster, stronger and harder-hitting are the adjectives that are key to impressing coaches and owners. They have been encouraged to play through pain, in part because otherwise their job may not be waiting for them when they return to health (hello, Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers, who will not be the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl next weekend) (come to think of it, Patriots fans, hello to Drew Bledsoe, whose injury opened up a spot in the lineup for some late-round draft pick, number 199 as I recall, name of … oh heck, I’ll think of it … oh yes … Tom Brady). They also play through the pain because to admit weakness has not traditionally been machismo-laden males’ “top thing” in our society.

As a corporate entity, the NFL makes a ridiculous amount of money on advertising, merchandising, television contracts and (oh by the way) ticket sales. It needs to put an exciting product onto the field in order to maintain this level of revenue. Big plays and hard hits sell – and in a reality-show-oriented entertainment environment such as These United States, impact beats out finesse every time.

But the recent medical research that points to some level of brain injury being a near-certainty following a career of playing professional football – or college football or high school ball, for that matter, since controlled violence is an integral part of the game, without which the sport ceases to be itself – is enough to cause one to watch the games with a very different level of enjoyment.

At least it did me, Sunday night.

Every hit in the first quarter brought forth the usual reaction from me – oh, WOW was that a stop. But a split-second after those hits, I did think, and consciously so – “oh. That hurts now, and it’ll hurt later.” Junior Seau. Ray Easterling. Dave Duerson. Three big and loud examples of extreme bodily responses to repeated head trauma. But what will be the effects of repeated head impacts that don’t qualify as concussions, but which, over time, wear down the brain’s ability to heal properly? Does the brain ever heal properly? I’m not a brain researcher, so I’ll make no assertions that I can’t back up – but it can’t be good for ya. Even the kids who play in college, or high school, or Pop Warner games … are they going to reap this dubious reward, as well? And is this, down the road, going to impact the ability of long-term health-care systems to deal with it? There aren’t many pro football players in the world. There are lots and lots more school kids who play, though.

My response to every hit from about the second quarter on went directly to thinking about the cumulative effects. And it got less and less fun to watch.

[Aside: And don’t get me started about the helmet-to-helmet hit, late in the game, that literally knocked Patriot running back Stevan Ridley out, and out of the game – which was not reviewed or even penalty-flagged, and there have been no fines levied in response, because of some arcane interpretation of the NFL rulebook. I do not say this as a Patriot rooter. I say this as someone concerned about equal enforcement of what are purported to be the rules: if the NFL is cracking down (an unfortunate phrase) on helmet-to-helmet hits, why are they only limiting themselves to protecting quarterbacks and receivers? “The play was not reviewable” is making a play for “Hammerton’s Least Favorite Football Referee Phrase”.]

Admittedly, even if the NFL were willing to go all-out to address the neurological dangers of its sport, it would be caught between a rock and a hard place. To eliminate the institutionalized, controlled violence at the level at which it currently exists would be difficult to begin with, for reasons previously cited. “More injuries are caused by players playing over-cautiously,” goes the conventional wisdom, which may or may not be so … but mere rule-changing efforts by the league would at the very least slow the games down (more referees needed, to throw more flags, about penalties which take time to sort out). At current player salary levels, fines that would need to make an impact would have to be in the high five-figures or possibly six-figures (to a player making a million dollars a year, a fine of $5,000 is a pittance). And by its nature, the sport of football is predicated on contact – otherwise we’re playing flag football and all the offensive linemen are looking for work.

And, the television networks will argue – possibly correctly – how many people are going to plan their Sunday afternoons around flag football?

 

So, I watch football still. I’m not one of the folks who has sworn off the stuff cold-turkey, although there are those out there who have (read this intriguing snippet by writer Ta-nehisi Coates and catch your breath). But I watch it differently now, and not entirely comfortably. The NFL stands at an interesting and crucial crossroads here.

And I have the feeling that I’m not at the end of whatever road I’m on, either.

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January 26, 2013 - Posted by | entertainment, football, news, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] in this space, I did chronicle a great deal of my worry about the long-term and permanent effects of head injuries on the […]

    Pingback by The Problem With Boycotts « Editorial License | September 9, 2014 | Reply


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