If I really was as bothered as I claim to be about the link between football and long-term brain trauma, I’d quit watching. Cold turkey.
But the ball goes back in the air Thursday night, this weekend and beyond. Yes, I’ll probably be watching. I won’t feel great about it, though. And no, that’s not taking much of a stand.
Welcome to football’s modern moral dilemma.
Tuesday night, PBS’s Frontline masterfully laid out the growing body of evidence that the repeated hits to the head that players sustain in football can lead, at least in some cases, to an Alzheimer’s-like condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — and, in the same program, Frontline explored the possibility that NFL officials worked for more than a decade to downplay and discredit the work of researchers trying to find out more about the condition.
ESPN was supposed to be a partner with PBS in the program but ESPN pulled its support, reportedly under pressure from NFL officials.
Even for those of us who have followed these issues closely and written about them over the past few years, seeing the full story laid out over the course of two hours was like being hit with a bucket of cold water.
So put the blame and accusations aside for a second. What about the uncertainty?
Even now that the problem has generally been acknowledged, nobody knows how to stop it. “Heads-up” tackling with “better fundamentals?” Please. That’s a league-generated red herring designed to throw responsibility back on the players.
So why don’t you go try to form tackle a wide receiver who runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and can change direction on a dime? Hint: You’re going to miss the target sometimes, and hit your head. Same deal, times a thousand, for linemen whose jobs it is to crash into each other over and over and over.
Changing rules to more strictly punish head-to-head hits might eliminate some egregious, dangerous hits — but that’s not even what researchers are most worried about at this point.
Instead, they’re worried about the multiple, sub-concussive hits players take during the course of years of practices and games. Stop all those? How? Guessing the answer looks a lot like the Pro Bowl … which, you know, everybody hates BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HAVE HITTING.
That leaves us, the football-watching public, in one hell of a moral dilemma: Is it OK to watch people slowly kill themselves for our amusement? Even if it’s a very small number of people who end up shooting themselves in the chest to preserve their brains for science? So how large a percentage should be considered acceptable?
If the players had full knowledge of what they were signing up for, does that help you rationalize it? (They didn’t, it seems, and still really don’t today.) And what if their bosses knew what they were signing up for and didn’t tell them?
This is all very messy, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve loved auto racing since I was a little kid; talk about potentially watching people hurt themselves for your amusement — although I’d argue that nobody in auto racing has any misconceptions about what they’re risking. Hockey has concussion issues, and so does my favorite sport, soccer.
So, with that … enjoy the games?
No, I have no idea whether or not the riders I’m watching in this year’s Tour de France are using banned performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, I’m still watching.
I’m curious, though: How is that different than any other sport?
After all, you have no idea whether or not your favorite NFL player is using PEDs; I think it’d probably be pretty easy to for players to get away with using HGH at this point, given that the league doesn’t test for it. And you’re still watching.
I keep reading that the colossal fall of Lance Armstrong is a “black eye” for cycling, the biggest — and least surprising, if you’ve been paying any attention for the past 10 years — in a two-decade string of confessions, law enforcement busts and positive tests in the peleton.
It’s awful publicity for cycling, obviously. But it’s also a sign that after turning a blind eye for years, they’re now actually trying to catch and willing to punish their cheaters. Even if they’re champions.
A cyclist who fails a drug test gets banned for two years. Occasionally, busted cyclists are led away in handcuffs. A few European media members doggedly pursue cheating allegations, no matter how much it might hurt their relationships with the athletes and teams they cover. Their records are erased.
Here in the U.S., dopers maybe miss part of a season and get to keep their awards. Fans yawn. Media members write a few stories and move on (I include myself in this group; I tried at times, but ultimately didn’t do enough when it was my turn).
So, tell me again: Which sport has the PED problem?
We’re partial to college hoops here at Marquette, and Milwaukee has plenty of love for its Brewers and Bucks. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers, of course, are a statewide obsession in Wisconsin.
But with Saturday’s big Champions League final coming up, did you know that there are plenty of places to watch the “other” football here, too?
Several local establishments — especially Bay View’s Highbury Pub, the East Side’s Nomad World Pub and the Three Lions Pub in Shorewood — go out of their way to serve fans of the beautiful game, opening up early in the morning on weekends to show high-profile soccer matches from all over Europe.
The result is a small but vibrant subculture in the city. Recently, patrons of the Highbury and the Three Lions challenged one other to a soccer skills competition, using the event to raise money to buy soccer balls for local schools.
Milwaukee’s wealth of soccer pubs puts the city squarely in the middle of a national trend, as international soccer continues to catch on in popularity among Americans; beginning this August, NBC Sports launches its three-year, $250 million deal to broadcast English Premier League matches in the U.S.
Sure, Milwaukee’s immigrant roots might play a role in soccer’s relative popularity here, and the city isn’t far from what might be the first-ever documented soccer match in the U.S., in nearby Waukesha in 1866.
But it’s more a reflection of the way in which a certain portion of Milwaukee’s 20-somethings have embraced world soccer.
In a recent visit to The Brew at Marquette’s Alumni Memorial Union, Marquette students were sporting jerseys of international stars Sergio Ramos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, plus American Clint Dempsey.
Oh, and did we mention that Marquette’s men’s and women’s soccer teams both were nationally ranked last season?