I have to be honest: I watch football on TV—a sport made for the screen. I watch the NFL games, especially if the San Francisco 49ers are playing, often watch Sunday Night Football (the successor to Monday Night Football and the allusion in my title) and I sometimes even watch college games. And when I was young and agile, I used to play a lot of sandlot football in our neighborhood. We played tackle without helmets or shoulder pads, and no one I knew ever got hurt because we were careful and friends and mostly not very fast or powerful. In high school, Friday night football games were the highlight: they were played in the cool, sometimes cold fall weather and all the girls I liked would huddle together with us in the stands and sometimes, after cherry cokes and fries in the local malt shoppe, let me drive them home with a stop at the park. So I’ve always liked the game. I like the skill displayed by the pros, the almost unbelievably balletic catches of today’s receivers and the stunning accuracy of today’s passers. I even like the bone-crunching hits on runners or wide receivers, when they’re clean.
After watching “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline two nights ago, though, I’m ready to swear off the whole thing. Actually, I and most people I knew swore off pro football once before—during the Vietnam War protests—when football was so tightly allied with the flag wavers that it became nauseating to watch. And in truth, that connection still reigns today, because the ethic of dominating your opponent stands as a perfect symbol of the imperial attitude America imposes on the rest of the world. We are the one superpower, what we say goes, we are the USA and are trained from cradle to grave in the indomitable will to win, to persevere through injuries and pain, to gut it out, whatever the cost.
What League of Denial showed was just what the cost really is, and has always been. Based on the book of the same name by brothers Steve and Mark Fainaru, the documentary focuses on the growing body of evidence proving that it is not just exceptional injuries that damage players’ brains; it is the routine slamming of heads together, in every game, and in practice, thousands of times in a season, with a force of 20 Gs (like hitting a wall at 35 mph), that eventually leads to CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is a disease that was once thought to plague mainly professional boxers, the vivid case being Muhammad Ali in his later, painful-to-watch years. But as League of Denial demonstrates, it is football players who are being affected more and more. Part of this stems, ironically, from the helmets players use to protect their heads from injury. The problem is—and when we played without helmets, we knew this instinctively, and so were careful—the helmet provides not only a false sense of security; it also gives defensive players a weapon. And so, the ideal for a lineman—these guys carry 350 pounds, these days, on 6’5” to 6’8” frames—or a linebacker or even a defensive back is to drive with full speed and power into whoever is carrying or trying to catch the ball. The aim is to rock the ball-carrier’s world to the extent that he won’t be able to concentrate on the ball so much next time. Players call the resultant disorientation from one of these head hits “getting your bell rung.” If a player like a quarterback gets blindsided, his spine can be crumpled by the blow. Both Joe Montana and Steve Young of the 49ers sustained such hits, the one on Young portrayed in the documentary giving him his 7th concussion, his last. Despite his love of the game, Young never played again.
The type case in League of Denial, though, is Mike Webster, the all-star defensive center for the great Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s. Watching it is enough to make you wretch. This giant of a man, with a will of steel, died at age 50, looking like a 70-year-old. He had seventy herniated disks, torn rotator cuffs, and teeth he maintained in his head with super-glue. His marriage fell apart when he could no longer remember what he was saying from one minute to the next and had outbursts of unexplainable rage. In 1997, broke and living in his car, Webster tried to get disability compensation from the NFL Retirement Board. The NFL fought Webster’s claim with everything it had—knowing that to admit that football causes brain damage could cost them millions—but finally granted Webster disability payments in 2000. Sadly, the great center had only two more years to live. That might have been the end of it, but a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennett Omalu, asked to examine Webster’s brain. Being Nigerian-born, Omalu didn’t quite understand what a hornet’s nest he would be opening. Long story short, Omalu found unmistakable signs of CTE in Mike Webster’s brain.
Even this, though, was no match for the public relations power of the National Football League—an industry worth billions. Omalu’s results were ridiculed, his background was belittled, and the medical “doctors” running the league’s so-called investigations into concussions produced their own “studies” proving that no linkage between football and CTE could be established. It should be said that even today—with all the pretend precautions that are now taken: penalties established for “head hits” and players forced to rest after anything resembling a head hit, and including funds for retired players to help them in their disabilities—the National Football League still refuses to accept the direct connection between football and severe brain injury, CTE. The really sad part is that some of the major researchers now working on the problem—Dr. Ann McKee, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher at Boston University medical center who was asked if she’d like to examine the brains of football players; and Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard player and author of Head Games, now a leading advocate finding the brains of dead players for Dr. McKee to examine—are convinced that it is not just professional football players who are at risk. Literally all football players are at risk. McKee herself has examined 46 ex-players and found 45 with CTE! Two high-school players were among them. And what Nowinski says is that even kids in the little leagues that dot America are risking brain damage in later life if they continue to play the game as it is now played.
This gets to the real point for me. Football can be played as a game. But in the United States these days, football has become a killer sport. Coaches teach players to “hit” their opponents with maximum force. To knock them out of the game. Which is to say, to cripple them. They belittle those who don’t like to do this. They reward those who do. Recently, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints was suspended for tolerating his defensive coach’s offering his players a “bounty”—extra money—for knocking key opponents out of the game. This kind of vicious attitude filters all the way down to the pee wee leagues. And when players wear these helmets that serve as weapons, as battering rams, and delight in and are made heroes for blindsiding an opponent, the inevitable result is constant blows to the head, and eventual brain damage. For many, this is just the price to be paid for playing a “contact” sport. I profoundly disagree, and I’m hoping lots of people watch the Frontline documentary (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/league-of-denial/), and lots of parents get horrified enough to keep their kids from playing the game in any organized fashion.
I also hope that some, at least, begin to see that there is a dangerous connection here to our culture at large. The emphasis on winning at all costs, the insanity of encouraging young men to hit and cripple their opponents in that effort to win, reminds me of both the same attitude drilled into our military—the language of football is decidedly military: “blitzing” a quarterback, for example, harks back to the Nazis—and into the masters of corporate America. The trouble is, crippling opponents is accompanied by the inevitable “blowback.” Those who spend years using their heads as battering rams end up with brain damage. Those who spend their lives abiding by the ethic of anything goes in order to make a profit end up crippling the very planet that makes their blind quest to be “number one” possible. Sometimes, in fact, I think our entire culture, including the yahoos now holding our government ransom, is suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.