The NFL got its lights knocked out just after the Super Bowl halftime show that included a record-tying 108-yard kickoff return. The NFL was unconscious for about 34 minutes before being resuscitated and allowed to continue playing, notwithstanding that the level of play was significantly altered for the balance of the game. The long term effects of the event are difficult to ascertain, but it is likely that future games will be better protected by providing stadiums with greater electrical capacity, which will surely generate even bigger electrical spectacles and even greater risk that a circuit will break. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t want my kid to be an electrician at an NFL arena. Better that he pursues a safer vocation with a far lower risk of getting his lights knocked out, like maybe being the head greenskeeper at Augusta.
During the week leading up to the Super Bowl the primary football topic seemed to revolve around the life-long debilitating effects incurred by repetative head trauma, or concussions. Players and non-players even questioned the ability of football to continue to exist as a status quo extreme contact sport. The Super Bowl spectacle raised the level of this discourse to superstar status. Bernard Pollard of the Baltimore Ravens – who has laid out some pretty significant blows in the past – has been quoted as saying that he didn’t think the NFL would be around in 30 years. Well I don’t know all about that, but the NFL sure took some major head-to-head hits in the run-up to Sunday’s kick-off. The NFL is getting some pretty negative PR nowadays, which wasn’t helped when President Obama indicated that if he had a son he wouldn’t want him to take up the sport. Ouch.
Roger Goddel has to be listening to all this and wondering, Really? As if things couldn’t get any worse for him, Kristen Cavallari came out to announce that she would steer her son with Jay Cutler, Camden away from playing football. Obama’s factually irrelevant statement is one thing, but the mother of Culter’s son and cultural reference in her own right are in another arena altogether. Cavallari advocated for a non-contact sport like baseball so little Camden wouldn’t endure some of the injuries his Dad has suffered. Jay Cutler has suffered numerous concussions, the extent of which by others threatened if not ended on-field careers if not far more devastating results. Jim McMahon is alive to be a kind of spokesperson for the issue, while Junior Seau is not. Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a condition caused by continuous trauma to the head.
Now while Cavallari’s maternal concerns and PR motivations might be taken with a grain of salt, Cutler – the man whose brain is currently on the line – says he would let his son play football. And Pollard’s rant about the NFL’s limited prospects included his admission that “We understand what we signed up for and it sucks”. In this respect, Pollard seems to have hit the nail on the head. Boxers must certainly appreciate the risk-reward profile. I don’t know of any who have turned down millions during their prime out of fear for their prospective diminished mental capacities. Punch-drunk symptoms are hardly newly revealed to the sport of boxing. Youth, money, sex and fame steamroll over the more pragmatic aspects of life in a violent profession. The allures that coexist with a budding football career are extraordinarily attractive. That’s hardly the time that a young man stops to think about negative consequences. On the contrary, consequences be damned. (Thereby accounting for military recruiting successes over the course of human history.) And so long as they are adults making adult decisions, who are we to do their thinking for them by pointing out the obvious risks to their participation? They do so willingly, and they are free to willingly risk their lives to engage in legal activity. And, for now, football is a legal activity.
The question is: What do we, as a society, want to be? Do we want to be defined for our blood lust and acceptance of our core leanings toward violence? If that’s okay, then let’s suck it up and move on, seemingly inexorably to some kind of consequential downfall. If that’s not okay, then Pollard may simply be prescient as we demand hard decisions from our elected representatives whom, it is rumored, put our best interests front and center.
Rocky Marciano. Thomas Hearns. Evander Holyfield’s travails are well known. Ali? I cry every time I see him and recall all that he meant to me in his prime and that his legacy still means to me. And Seau – just so tragic. The thing about football and other incredibly violent sports like Boxing or MMA is so much of the damage is not recognized in the time and space of the event. It may be years removed. Football is just coming to grips with this. Current players have only to look at those who played before them. Brian Urlacher might ponder Ted Johnson, or Johnny Knox consider John Mackey. This is not a local problem but potentially a league-wide and nationwide epidemic. Barret Robbins, Bernie Kosar, Dave Duerson, Chris Henry and Ray Easterling are former NFL players who have something in common and its neither the position played nor the team played for. They developed symptoms of a form of CTE during their lives. And they were each devastated accordingly. The evidence is becoming startlingly apparent that something is very very dangerously associated with trauma of the football sort. So much so that it is becoming almost trite to announce that one’s young son will not be playing football in favor of an activity that is less blatantly violent.
So to President Obama, Ms. Cavallari and Mr. Pollard I suggest that reform isn’t needed to keep players safe from football. What is needed is the kind of educational push that forces us all to recognize football risks for what they are, and to focus attractive societal attributes on well-developed alternatives – including sports – so kids don’t see football as the only realistic route to recognition, satisfaction and success. Let’s at least lead the horse to water.
As for me, if my future son chooses to pursue a life in sports I hope and pray he’s paid to do it in a Red Sox uniform, where the worst-case health scenario would be for him to let a slow grounder pass untouched between his feet.