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.”