Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Football violence: the Catch-22

The problem with American football is that, with increasing evidence of its dangers, especially to young players, people still love it, even some of those doing research on brains impacted by the collision sport.

It was the legendary coach Vince Lombardi who said, "Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport."

David Maraniss, himself a devoted fan, opens his review of several key books and documentaries about football violence with this quote. Like so many other American writers, he is torn by his devotion to the game and the guilt he feels about its effects. (NY Review of Books 2-11-16)

He says the game has never been more popular, even as evidence against it mounts. The NFL alone brings in about $11 billion a year, and hundreds of universities depend on football to secure alumni loyalty and income, even while those in the know remind them that no helmet can defend the head against the kind of impact that the brain jostling inside the skill endures.

Neuroscientists now say that rather than concussions, it is the accumulation of successive blows to the head that lead football players to experience depression, dementia, and other long-term damage, sometimes resulting in suicide.

Chris Borland is one of the few NFL players who quit the game last year at age 24, alarmed by the statistics. He wanted to live to be a healthy 75, at least. Most players, says Maraniss, say that playing the game, usually for big bucks and fame, is worth the price.

Yet the question remains: why does the most popular and unifying game in  the U.S. keep causing so many players to suffer brain damage? It's hard to change when even a researcher like Ann McKee, whose pioneering studies of diseased brains of deceased players at Boston University revealed horror stories, remains loyal to the game she loves.

At least Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears says he won't allow his son to play the game. If only more dads would follow suit, starting with high school parents. Why should a Steelers player, Randle El, be suffering, at age 36, memory problems?

As David Remnick says in this week's New Yorker, many football fans today live in a world of denial, in which reason, science, and statistics aren't yet enough to convince them to give up the game they love. He alludes to the famous line from the Confessions of St. Augustine: "Lord, make me pure, but not yet."

So the theme seems to be, Let's do something serious about football. But not quite yet.  How sad.

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