Super Bowl 50

Professional football isn’t one of my favorite sports and I haven’t watched many Super Bowls, since the first one, 50 long years ago. But the one this year was different, so I did watch most of the game last Sunday.

With the increasing reports of brain disease in former National Football League (N.F.L.) players, I was concerned about where the game was going. C.T.E is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma that has been found in dozens of former N.F.L players.

The game is brutal, violent, fierce, a genuine battle of gladiators. When a player is tackled, there’s a mass of other players piling on one another with as much force as they can muster. The playing field is sometimes hard. Even with newly designed helmets, banging your head on that surface time and time again is jolting. So is every collision between two players that jars their head.

According to Susan Margulies, a concussion researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, “no helmet has been devised that can effectively reduce the rotational acceleration that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.”

The data on the frequency of concussions is clear. According to Ben Shipgel (Times, 1/30/16) National Football League players sustained 271 concussions last year, an increase of 31.6 percent from 2014.

Shipgel writes, “Helmet-to-helmet contact accounted for 92 of the 182 regular-season concussions…The second-leading source was the playing surface.” Shoulder and knee contact produced a majority of the balance.

It’s those concussions, game after game, year after year that give rise to degenerative brain disease. As the players age, the signs of the disease become more frequent—forgetfulness, bursts of anger, depression, severe dementia. It is only after they die that an autopsy can reveal the extent of brain disease.

Watching the N.F.L games becomes something of a moral dilemma. Am I complicit, along with all the others who feel as I do, in supporting the game by continuing to watch it? And then there’s the added issue how the game itself might foster a certain tolerance for violence.

Greg Easterbrook writes in his book The Game’s Not over: In Defense of Football, “What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America…features giant muscled men, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?”

Yes, the players say they know the risks and, in spite of that are willing to keep playing. But do they really know the risks, the possibility that many years down the road, they will fall victim to a brain disease? We are woefully lacking in being able to accurately predicting our future, particularly the likelihood of those events that will befall us as we age.

Is there anything than can be done? Adam Gopnik puts the matter realistically on the New Yorker website:

“But it does not seem beyond the ingenuity of Americans…to find a way for us to play our national sport without condemning its heroes to nightmarish final years of confusion and depression. As with most social problems, a program of reasonable reform on many fronts—new helmets, however silly they may look; a roster of sensible protocols and precautions, above all new rules on tackling, …might yet rescue the game, and assure that there will be a hundredth Super Bowl, somewhere ahead.”


Stefanie said...

My parents are both big football fans but I've not watched a game since I left home so many years ago. And now with all this information about concussions I have even less desire to watch. The players say they know the risks but then people who smoke say they know the risks too and most of them think it will be someone else, not them who gets cancer. I suspect given that football players are young, they have no understanding of what it might ultimately mean for them. I'm not sure the game can be changed in a way that will satisfy everyone both players and fans. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Richard Katzev said...

I don't think much is going to happen, Stefanie. The NFL hasn't done much to alleviate the problem in a major way. Frankly, I think football as it is now played should be banned---professional, college, etc. It gets rougher and rougher every year. I know that's not going to happen. So those who watch the game will see more and more players getting carried off the field in a stretcher with injuries that may haunt them for years.

Dom said...

The article left me with a number of interesting points to ponder:

• Alternative outlet for violence? – Does professional football (A) “foster a certain tolerance for violence”, or (B) does it instead instead provide an alternative outlet for violence that might otherwise be expressed in some alternative way that would be more harmful for innocent vulnerable people?

• Lack of awareness of risk assumed? – Is it reasonable to assume or believe that professional football players do not “really know the risks”, given both (A) the widespread publicity given to these risks, and (B) the extraordinarily large relative compensation that professional football players earn that enables them able to afford expert advice is to advise them?

• Permissible lifestyle choices? – Is it realistic to believe that professional football players, like many other people, are capable of making, and want to personally make, rational lifestyle choices and trade-offs between (A) obtaining short-term lifetime benefits that they perceive as very substantial and attractive, such as the extraordinarily high pay, glamour, power, and prestige usually associated with being a professional football player, and (B) a potentially longer, lower paying, less powerful, and less prestigious ordinary life?

• Why single out professional football? – Are not there many other such “trade-offs” and additional lifetime shortening and increased health risks decisions that people intentionally assume and make on an everyday basis, such as when they smoke, drink to excess, fail to exercise, consume foods not good for their health, excessively exceed the speed limit on highways, etc.?

• Why should society feel responsible? – If society believes that these professional football players, and others who make such other risks/reward “trade-offs”, are making “poor choices”, then should members of society, and society in general, have or feel a personal responsibility that they are “condemning” those who make such poor decisions, such as, with respect to fans of professional football “condemning its heroes to nightmarish final years of confusion and depression”?

• Where should the line be drawn? – For those who believe that professional football should be “banned” as part of an effort to protect professional football players from the perceivable potential consequences of their intentional actions, then what decision methodology, and what criteria, should appropriately be used, and justifiable, to determine if and to what extent society should have the right and the power, by popular vote, to force other individuals from engaging and actions that the majority of society does not believe would be in the best interest of such other individuals? What criteria should be used in determining where to draw the line?

• Significance of reference to African-American professional football players? – From a different perspective, the quote in the blog article attributed to Greg Easterbrook about “… giant muscle demand, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage” leaves me wondering what the significance or relevance is that particular distinguishing reference to African-American professional football players?

• What does the evidence show? – Is it intended to be implied by this reference to African-American professional players that they are somehow being forced into, or being unfairly taken advantage of by, professional football more than non-African-American professional football players? That they are less able to make rational lifestyle choices, etc.? This causes me to wonder if Greg Easterbrook has any independent object of verifiable evidence to explain or justify such distinguishing reference to African-American professional football players?

Your blog article has done what every excellent article does – stimulate a great deal of thought and reflection on important issues than might otherwise occur in the absence of such an article. Well done.

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: Thank you for your most provocative review--eight good questions. Let me try to briefly answer each one.

1. Watching or playing the game may produce a limited, short term tolerance for violence but I don't think it provides an "alternative" to expressing violence in other ways.

2. I don't think anyone can accurately predict what their life will be like in old age. I know I could never imagine what has befallen me. And I doubt professional football players seek out the advice of gerontologists or any so-called old age experts. Yes, they are very well paid and that is a powerful incentive for most individuals.

3. Sure, professional football players are as capable as anyone to make rational lifestyle choices. They are strong, talented so they find the game worth trying to play for as long as they can.

4. No reason to single out professional football--soccer, rugby, any contact sport suffers from the same potential harm.

5. If people stopped watching the game, attending it, paying high prices for the tickets, it would come to an end. The team owners and the N.F.L. itself depend on the income derived from television ads, ticket sales, etc. Absent that, it would be all over.

6. My comment about banning the game referred to the game as now played. If you are aware of the Pro Bowl rules, you will see how the game can be far less violent than it currently is.

7. I don't distinguish African-Americans from any other group. That was how Easterbrook put. Any player is subject to the effects of the game.

8. See comment #7 in answer to this question.

Again, I thank you for your reflections upon reading my blog. It isn't among my better blogs, rather I was stimulated by so many recent articles and essays on the long term effects of playing professional football.


Linda said...

Once again, Richard, you echo my thoughts and probably those of a lot of other people who have been squirming in their easy chairs in front of the TV this football season.

I've always loved watching football when "my teams" were playing - the KC Chiefs, the St. Louis Rams (that team is going away) and the GB Packers - it always seemed such an exciting game - the physicality (ok, the violence) - it is a modern day version of the gladiators in the colisseum. it has always been a holiday ritual in my family.

But I don't feel the same way anymore. I still want my teams to win, but I don't watch as much - makes me uneasy, I wince now at the body contact. I did not watch the Superbowl this year, and I did not miss it at all.

Dom is right - if enough people like those of us now feeling uneasy about it stop watching and buying tickets, the game will change or die. Look at what is happening to boxing. But I do think violence can be addictive and desensitizing, in any kind of entertainment. And just because society loves and supports violent entertainment doesn't mean that it's a good thing.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: I'm surprised you enjoy or used to enjoy watching football. I've come to dislike or if not dislike, worry about contact sports of any kind--football, hockey, soccer. (My grandson recently had a concussion playing soccer at Penn.) Rather my favorite sport has always been track and field events and now tennis with the incredible skill of the likes of Federer and Djokovic. Yes, as you say, football etc. makes me uneasy. No, violent entertainment is not a good thing. Frankly, the violent movies that appear every week and the television shows of the same ilk, appall me. What do they say about out culture? Not anything that is the least bit commendable. Richard

crofter said...

My college line coach passed away last year with CTE. He was a two time all-American at Nebraska, and went on to play a few years with the Vikings. Those were the days when the head slap was legal, and we were coached to beat the head, the body would follow. It does work, but that move is illegal now. In the 4 years of college ball, there are quite a number of games I remember very little about, and I suffered 4 concussions my senior year . The Doctors were very adamant that I should not go to the next level. I keep wondering if I will suffer the adverse effects of CTE, so far no symptoms of which I am aware. I have a grandson, don't know that I will encourage him to play or not, it was a wonderful experience for me, and I would not trade that or the many friends I have from those years!

Richard Katzev said...

Crofter: If you have a grandson and don't experience any noticeable effects from your concussions and playing days, I suspect you will not suffer from CTE. At least, I hope you won't. As you point out, the head slap is now illegal and I think we need more such rules to make the game a little safer. The rules for the Pro Bowl are an example. I can appreciate you're now sure what to tell your grandson--it's a tough call. Richard