Blood Sport.

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I only played football for one year, when I was twelve.  I was a lineman – mostly because I didn’t see very well, and had trouble catching and throwing the ball with much accuracy.  I certainly wasn’t built for the line.  I was also on the kickoff team, and I remember a particular hit – the hit, really, of my short football career.  The kickoff was to the other side of the field, and I was keeping an eye on the ball carrier, seeing that he was surrounded but making sure he didn’t cut back across the field.  Then something hit me from my blind side very hard, and I was briefly airborne before landing hard.  And then somehow it was five minutes later and I was sitting on the sideline drinking a cup of Gatorade.  I didn’t remember how I got there.  My head hurt.  I played the rest of the game, and after the game I laughed about the hit, but the whole experience was unsettling and it had a lot to do with my decision (to my mother’s eternal relief) not to go out for football again.

Malcolm Gladwell has an article out in the New Yorker trying to link football and dogfighting, and in that regard it isn’t quite successful.  But he also reports on new research on the brains of ex-football players that should be deeply disturbing to anyone who enjoys the sport.  It turns out that football is uniquely traumatic for the brain not because of the number of hard, concussive hits (which also occur in hockey or rugby) but because of the unrelenting number of sub-concussive hits that linemen take on every single play.

The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

This sort of chronic trauma has very serious long-term effects:

“There is something wrong with this group as a cohort,” Omalu says. “They forget things. They have slurred speech. I have had an N.F.L. player come up to me at a funeral and tell me he can’t find his way home. I have wives who call me and say, ‘My husband was a very good man. Now he drinks all the time. I don’t know why his behavior changed.’ I have wives call me and say, ‘My husband was a nice guy. Now he’s getting abusive.’ I had someone call me and say, ‘My husband went back to law school after football and became a lawyer. Now he can’t do his job. People are suing him.’ ”

And perhaps most disturbingly, most people who play football long-term start when they are very young, when the brain is at its most fragile.

She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”

The research also suggests that the problem is endemic to football, endemic to the manner in which the offensive and defensive lines come together – a foundation of the game itself.  It suggests that the material to build a helmet that will properly protect the brain under these conditions simply doesn’t exist.  And it suggests that practice can be as dangerous or more than games.

To me, as a football fan, the implications of these are – well, they’re sickening.  Of course, I never believed that football was healthy, exactly.  But I did think that there were ways that we could minimize the risks.  Heat stroke is an easy thing to fix – give the players more water and monitor their workouts closer on hot days.  So are concussions – modify the rules so that the kind of hits that bring them on are rare.  But this suggests that the game of football itself is damaging in fundamental ways, and I don’t know how you get around that.

The fact that linemen are the most effected is particularly tragic.  If you think about football heroes, they’re never linemen.  The men that we idolize are people like Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Joe Namath, or Barry Sanders – quarterbacks and running backs, or the people who get hit the least.  Nobody ever asks the left tackle where he’s going after the Super Bowl.  Guards are paid a small fraction of what quarterbacks make.  And yet they are literally sacrificing their ability to think for the game.  There’s a stereotype that football players are big and dumb, and that linemen in particular are big and dumb – it’s the basis for the high school jock stereotype.  But what this research suggests is that maybe that’s not just a coincidence; it suggests that maybe we made them that way.

The basic question is what we’re willing to do to people – what we’re willing to do to kids – in the name of entertainment.  I love football; I’ve loved football for fifteen years.  But I don’t know how I can balance that love with what’s in this article.  I do know that if I had a kid there’s no way I’d let him strap on a helmet.  And if I was a player I’d have to think long and hard about what I was giving up down the line.  And as a viewer – well, as a viewer I still don’t know what to do.

Photo Credit: Schlüsselbein2007