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?