Thursday, October 22, 2009

The High Cost Of Glory

Findings like the ones detailed in this Malcolm Gladwell article, which have become ever more frequent in recent years, make me glad I quit playing football in high school. While I never suffered a serious injury, I did get my bell rung a few times, and that was playing against players who were mostly smaller than I was and not particularly fast. I shudder to think about how I might have damaged myself if I'd stuck with football through college, as my coaches wanted me to, and spent four years banging heads against larger, faster players.

I have a feeling that football is headed for trouble in the future. Modern training methods have produced players that are far larger and faster than those who played in the old days, and it's probable that a full-speed collision between Ray Lewis and Brandon Jacobs produces more concussive force than one between, say, Jim Brown and Dick Butkus would have. The improvements in protective equipment that have been made in the interim have thus been at least partially erased. Sports medicine and concussion awareness have both increased dramatically in recent years, but that hasn't reduced the number of players who suffer head injuries each year, and I don't doubt that thirty years from now we'll be reading stories about the sad fates suffered by some contemporary players. The fact is, no matter how much lip service is paid to the issue of brain injuries in football, they will persist unless serious structural and/or rule changes are implemented. And with more people than ever playing the game nowadays, their number is likely to increase.

There are two primary mechanisms for this, one psychological and one economic, and the higher the level of competition, the more powerful they become. The sport's built-in warrior ethos, which the article explores at length, is certainly a factor - it's a punishing game and any player without a high pain tolerance won't last long in it, even at the high school level. It's also a game in which success demands rigid discipline and teamwork. Toughness and and a military-like sense of devotion to the team are among the most prized attributes a player can have in the culture of football, and every player feels pressure to fight through physical setbacks so as not to wimp out or let down his teammates. Combine this with the delusions of immortality common in young men, and the fact that the sort of brain injuries cited in the article may not be noticed when they are incurred because of the delayed or subconscious nature of the symptoms, and it's unlikely we'll convince players to start taking themselves out of the lineup just for taking a hard shot. In the NFL, where careers are short, contracts are non-guaranteed, and getting labeled as "soft" or "injury prone" is pretty much a death knell for a player's prospects of striking it rich, it'll be pretty much impossible. The sad but true reality is that most athletes who are driven enough to make it to the professional level will risk their long-term well-being for the sake of a ten million dollar signing bonus and a brief few years in the spotlight, and with a few exceptions are happy to do so.

So, assuming banning football is off the table (which as a multi-billion dollar business it is for the forseeable future), what options are there? Certainly we ought to continue to promote awareness. Guidelines dictating medical care that puts the well-being of players first and enforces strict standards for allowing recovering players to return to action, of the sort the NHL has implemented in recent years, are a good idea at all levels of football. Recent rule changes prohibiting even inadvertent blows to the head of an opposing player are also an improvement. And making it mandatory for players to wear the most effective headgear possible should have happened yesterday. But I have a feeling even these steps may not be enough - we may need to think more radically, imposing weight limits or limiting substitutions to reduce the amount of high-speed mass on the field. One thing we should not be doing, as the NFL is considering, is increasing the number of games in a season.

Football is probably, all things considered, my favorite sport, and I'd hate to lose it. But the enjoyment I derive from it is tainted by the thought that despite the compensation the players receive it remains a bloodsport as it is played right now. I have no doubt the Romans found the spectacle of armed slaves fighting each other to the death fantastically entertaining, but they ultimately concluded that the practice was immoral and discontinued it. I hope that we will not have to do the same with football.

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