Is Football Finished?

There is a wave of interest in banning football in the U.S. The evidence, derived from autopsies and oberved deterioration of living athletes, about the effects of repeated blows to the head is overwhelming. Football destroys brains, no question, now what to do about it?

Left: a normal, 65-year-old brain. Right: The brain of former NFL linebacker John Grimsley, who died of a gunshot at age 45 after nine concussions.
The brown spots are tau proteins, which build up after brain trauma. []

Do nothing, says one group that includes a lot of players. Sure, they say, this is dangerous but we knew that when we signed on. Banning football is an intrusion on personal liberty. Of course, there are other cases where individual freedoms are subjected to the dictates of society: drug laws for example. The right to harm your own body is curtailed by the authority of the state. Suicide is illegal. Sports seem exempt from laws against self-damage.

Prizefighting was made illegal in England and most of the U.S. in the latter part of the 19th Century. This did not end boxing, as it was defined then, but bare-knuckle fight-to-the-finish encounters. The legal arguments had little to do with the damage fighters suffered and much to do with problems of crowd control. There are still demands for boxing and other fighting matches to be banned but these seem (to me) to have little traction.

Is it possible to reduce football injuries, particularly brain destruction? Some say yes, that there are a number of small steps that can be taken that will, each of them, lessen the probability of serious brain damage. “The reality is you’re going to need about twenty fixes that reduce risk by a couple of percentage points each,” says Chris Nowinski in an interview with Ben McGrath.

But American football rules as they currently exist are the result of earlier attempts to change the game and make it less injurious, as pointed out in John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Deaths on the field almost got football banned at the beginning of the 20th Century. Helmets were brought in (though were not manadatory in the NFL until 1943). Teddy Roosevelt helped craft a new game incorporating the forward pass that was supposed to end the head smashing at the line of scrimmage. That line, incidentally, was itself introduced to stop the violence of continuous rugby-type scrum, instead it created a new set of injury-creating conditions. 

Perhaps violence is what the game is all about, after all the New Orleans Saints actually offered bounties on other teams’ players. Get a guy injured so badly that he’s taken out of the game and you get paid. Brent Favre, who had a $10000 bounty on his head, shrugs this off, hitting is not illegal so why get upset about rewarding it? Some players would agree with that:

…we’re well aware what we’re signing up for. The violence, we love it. The madness, we love it. We love measuring ourselves in it.

There aren’t too many places a 400-pound guy with an attitude can go and beat the crap out of somebody and not get locked up for it. I have a violent streak. I have to fight it out of my system. We signed up for it. All of it. We’re not trying to be sane or rationale.

That kind of argument bothers some people. Maybe you can’t ban football, they say, but that doesn’t mean you should condone it: Quit watching! Malcom Gladwell took that line in talking about college football and Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken the pledge:

I’m not here to dictate other people’s morality. I’m certainly not here to call for banning of the risky activities of consenting adults. And my moral calculus is my own.  Surely it is a man’s right to endanger his body, and just as it is my right to decline to watch. The actions of everyone in between are not my consideration.  
I’m out. 
Gladwell wants to end college football and he is not alone. American colleges have become training grounds for professional athletes and feeders for the business of athletics. Football is an expensive sport and, inevitably, winds up taking money from education. Since a lot of this is tax money, the public has a reason to stop the process. Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights:

I can’t help but wonder how a student at the University of Oregon will cope when in-state tuition has recently gone up by 9% and the state legislature passed an 11% decrease in funding to the Oregon system overall for 2011 and 2012. Yet thanks to the largess of Nike founder Phil Knight, an academic center costing $41.7 million, twice as expensive in square footage as the toniest condos in Portland, has been built for the University of Oregon football team.

 Massive liability suits might be enough to end the college game and, once college ball is ended, pro football would shrivel for lack of interest. In fact, that may happen anyway:

 …boxing and horseracing didn’t end [after attempts to ban them]. They have persisted, just in vastly less popular forms than before. They have gone into slow and irreversible decline. I suspect that the same will happen with football. It’s going to wither as the supply of talent slowly dries up.

I have little interest in American football. But I am involved in this topic because it relates to hockey, which does interest me. There are some differences — the NHL has a long season, eighty-two regular games plus playoffs meaning an athlete on a successful team will play over a hundred games in a season. Football players have fewer matches than any other pro athletes and they play less — the ball is in play for only eleven minutes or so each game — yet perhaps twenty percent of pro football players will suffer serious brain damage. In the 2010 season about half the players suffered a concussion.  By any measure, football is a more destructive sport. Even so, unless the National Hockey League finds some way to reduce concussions, fans will inevitably have to question their support for the game.


9 comments on “Is Football Finished?

  1. Sean Breslin says:

    Glad you mentioned Teddy Roosevelt — it’s a sign that the game can change for the better, and it needs to. These guys have a very rough life after football, and that has to change.

  2. nursemyra says:

    “The right to harm your own body is curtailed by the authority of the state. Suicide is illegal.”

    So if it’s illegal there must be a punishment. what’s the penalty for suicide? Lethal injection? Electric chair?

    • mikulpepper says:

      Up until 1961 you could go to jail for attempting suicide in the UK and every place I know of in the Commonwealth had the same law. After Britain changed the law the rest of the Commonwealth also slowly changed. The law (in Canada) says now that you cannot aid or assist a suicide, which is now the crux of a different debate. I think the Australian states are all similar except that you can be charged with manslaughter if you survive a suicide pact. I have seen video of American police shooting people to keep them from committing suicide.

      • nursemyra says:

        i find that last sentence extremely disturbing

      • mikulpepper says:

        Yeah. There was one from Florida a year or two ago. Guy was threatening to jump off a bridge, cop shot him to prevent the suicide. There’s others. I don’t know. I try not to be judgmental but sometimes America is just too much for me.

  3. Solution to this problem rests in helmet technology. I do not see the multi-billion dollar football industry being curtailed. Officials have been cracking down (pardon the pub) on head hits in hockey.

    • mikulpepper says:

      The problem is that helmets don’t help with the secondary impact of the brain inside the skull. At high speed the brain slams against the inside of the skull and there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about that except reduce the impact. Hockey is fighting, I think, a losing battle on head hits. The NHL will have to adopt international rules and (probably in addition) slow down the game by bringing back the center line.

  4. […] Is Football Finished?: The notion behind the post was that concussions would end American football. One of the articles linked there suggested that the end would come when people started suing colleges and universities for brain injuries suffered while playing ball. Since then, there have been some high profile examples of concussed college players being sent back into the fray. Professional sports have adopted certain protocols for dealing with concussion that involve time spent away from play and medical examination. College sports have no such guidelines and the NCAA seems unwilling to deal with the problem, because even acknowledging the situation might make the Association liable. So, when the lawsuits are filed, they will be aimed at individual schools. We’ll see how long that takes before something really happens. Meanwhile, the NFL keeps tweaking the rules to try to lessen the danger of concussions. One move has been to move the point of kickoff further up the field — to the 35-yard line presently — so as to force more touchbacks and fewer returns that end in particularly high-speed impacts. Some are advocating ending kickoffs altogether. […]

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