Friday, October 26, 2007

Are Football's Days Numbered?

In 1906, responding to an increasing number of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from playing football, President Roosevelt told leaders of the sport to either change it or see it banned. The result: the creation of the forward pass as a means of spreading the players out on the field.

None of the presidential candidates this year from either party would dare threaten to ban what has become the national pastime. However, the popularity of football is on a collision course with realities made possible by ever improving dietary and training techniques. The violence of the sport, when combined with the fact that players continue to get larger and faster, may make the game unsustainable in the long term.

Of course, none of this will happen soon. The human mind has an amazing capacity to avoid uncomfortable dissonance, and the notion that one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the land may be irretrievably inhumane is one that most of us would prefer not to contemplate. Nonetheless, the growing data on the effect on football players of "repetitive trauma to the brain" raises the uncomfortable possibility that enjoying the sport is fundamentally inhumane.

Chris Nowinski -- who may be the only living human being who has both a degree from Harvard and a past career as a professional wrestler on his resume -- understandably does not want his name associated with talk of banning a sport that he once played and still loves. He became interested in these issues after retiring from wrestling after suffering several concussions that resulted in cognitive impairments -- "the last match I actually forgot who was supposed to win." The stories he relates from other athletes are gripping. Wrestler Chris Benoit, who's suicide was treated by the media as a steroid issue, had told friends that he had suffered "more concussions than he could count" and had depression, memory impairment, and erratic behavior. Mr. Nowinski describes a meeting with another former athlete who during testing could not name the first six months of the year.

In raising issues related to athletes who have experienced life long disabilities as a result of multiple concussions, Mr. Nowinski's goals are to improve benefits for former players and to raise awareness of issues faced by student athletes. The NFL -- in terms of both the owners and the players union -- has not taken to these efforts kindly, and one wonders about the level of indignation. Certainly, providing adequate treatment for debilitated former players would be expensive. However, the cash rich NFL could certainly find a way to fund such health care, especially given the positive public relations that would come with doing so. One senses that the NFL may not be taking this on because they fear the opening of Pandora's box. The extent of a wide array of injuries endured by a huge percentage of former players has never been one that the league has wanted to be widely known. The types of cognitive injuries resulting from multiple head traumas would make for especially bad public relations on an issue for which the league will have no solutions.

And the problem is arguably getting worse as players get ever larger. In the 1980's, a lineman for the Chicago Bears was so enornous that he stood out on the field. Fans called him "the Refrigerator." At 320 pounds, today he would be average size for his position. Some running backs are now the size that linemen were a generation ago.

What are the solutions? Before this week, I had considered improved equipment (such as helmets that absorb shock better) to be part of the answer. Perhaps it will be. However, it has been reasonably pointed out to me that in some ways improved equipment makes the problem worse. While statistics about closed head injuries in another violent sport in which the players wear less protective equipment -- rugby -- are not available, experience shows that players instinctively protect their heads differently when not wearing helmets. In a football game, a helmeted head is a weapon used frequently (in spite of some rules to the contrary). No unhelmeted athlete uses his head in this way. A fair number of football tackles result in helmet to helmet contact. A rugby player who did that would crack his skull.

While much of the media focus is on pro athletes, high school and college players face similar issues. For various reasons (kids wanting to stay in the game, others considering a kid "not tough" if he sits out because of a head injury, etc.), closed head injuries are by every indication grossly under reported.

I write this as a football fan and would prefer to be proven wrong. However, as I increasingly try to climb over the wall designed to keep me from my own cognitive dissonance, I fear that I am not.

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