We all live for the smashing hits, the blood on the field and the smack of helmets colliding. Tackling and massive collisions are qualities of football that Americans have come to expect. But lately there are numerous reports about the correlation of football-induced concussions and brain damage that have me questioning whether football fever is a good thing. Should the media continue to glorify the sport or do more to broadcast the inherent dangers associated with it?
Stories published this week by the New Yorker and 60 Minutes forced me to stop and reconsider the value of our beloved past time. It’s nearly impossible to describe America without mentioning our rich athletic tradition and if there’s any subject that can bring people together, or tear them apart faster, it is sports. Football is no exception. It’s a battle of will, pride and endurance. But could the desire to win, to hit harder and to dominate the game be killing the very men who choose to step on the field?
Several studies have been published since 2000, which indicate that multiple concussions and smaller head traumas, similar to the hits football players sustain in practice and games, can permanently injure the brain, causing dementia and depression later in life. Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, died homeless on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Another Steeler, Terry Long, ended his depression and his life four years ago by drinking antifreeze. At 68 years old, former Baltimore Colts player John Mackey had to be placed in an assisted-living facility for severe dementia. Mackey began showing symptoms of dementia when he was in his 50’s. This was the same man who caught a sweeping pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1971 Super Bowl, scoring a 75-yard touchdown and helping the team win football’s most coveted championship.
Unfortunately for Mackey, he didn’t earn a multi-million dollar contract that is uniform for today’s players. When dealing with the hospital costs to treat his dementia, Mackey was unable to pay his bills. In response, the NFL created the “88 Plan,” in honor of Mackey’s old number, which provides up to $88,000 a year to former NFL players to pay for hospital care associated with dementia.
While this is a step in the right direction and football equipment companies are quickly trying to develop helmets that can sustain harder hits, is this enough to justify the dangers of the game for the pleasure it brings to both players and spectators?
As a crazed fan who would lose a part of her soul if she never attended another football game in her life, even I have a difficult time spurring on a sport that could ultimately kill the players. I don’t think any game is worth sending a man to an early grave, but football is no different from hockey, rugby, or boxing where blows to the head are frequent. Contact is a defining fact of the game. Big hits can cause a crowd to cheer in excitement, or quiet a mob of 100,000 when their star player lies unconscious following a tackle.
I believe it is impossible to outlaw football due to the potential harm is could inflict on the players, but what is the answer, if there is one, to protecting boys, teenagers, and young men from its dangerous outcome? Eliminate the hits and you might as well watch soccer, a game that hasn’t been able to appeal to Americans the way it does to the rest of the world. By improving equipment, you only empower the player to feel more invincible, which may increase the viciousness of the sport. While the NFL has outlawed certain types of contact, such as head-to-head collisions and horse-collar tackles where the rate of injury is much higher, it still cannot banish the risk entirely.
The only fool-proof answer for this conundrum is to make football illegal, but you might as well attempt to outlaw fried food, cigarettes, and alcohol while you’re at it. There are certain things in life we know are bad for us, but we’re willing to accept the risks associated with their use because we don’t have the willpower to give them up, or the ability to relinquish the money-making potential…and football falls in that category. But if the media would highlight the dangers of the sport more often, perhaps a larger percentage of amateur coaches and professional personnel would heed the warnings of concussions and take time to recover, rather than returning to the field too quickly and increasing the chance for permanent brain damage.