Rooting for the Saints as I Occasionally Wish the Game Disappears

I only wish for the game of football to disappear because of the damage done to its players, both during the time they play and especially for the extremely high onset of dementia and trauma-related conditions that haunt them in middle-age, as brought together in an insightful essay by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker.

He attempts, valiantly and provocatively, to bridge the gap between dogfighting and football (yes, a Michael Vick-related essay worth reading) by essentializing the giving or sacrificing of one’s health for the benefit of another. In the case of dogfighting, this means the dog incurs pain and injury-sometimes death-for its human owner. In football, it means the player continues or goes back to practice despite obvious signs of brain malfunction–like forgetting how to get home from a place after just driving there, or falling into walls and puking in the morning after waking up from a sober night–for the financial benefit of the owners, standing with other players and the artificial merriment of the fans. This parallel is profound and worthy of exploration, but still not fully fleshed out in this article. What are the differences between human-to-human relations in regard to self-destructive behavior versus a human-to-animal relationship? Are they even relationships or versions of ownership? One is “freely” accepted, but with money as bribe. Another not freely accepted, but accepted nonetheless with fondness and love as counterweight to pain and injury.

In the article, Gladwell interviews the top medicial scientists looking at deceased former NFL players’ brains. They have found incredible amounts of trauma tissue that contributes to a state of dementia often confused with Alzheimer’s. Often memory lapses and strange new, often destructive, behaviours emerge  in former players at rates from five to tenfold that of the average person. And often these effects are felt at a much earlier age. An 18-year-old football player who passed away showed more trauma signs in his brain than a regular person would at age 50.

However, there seems to be little in the way of field rules or regulations that could be done to stem the destruction of a football player’s brain. Limitation of full-contact practice. Shock-absorbent helmets.  Even kick-offs have been singled out as especially harmful, but even with certain modifications, the game is built on contact. Offensive and defensive lineman especially feel the brunt of this with fifty to seventy “little hits” of inadvertent helmet g-force on every play.  The hits don’t render immediate concussions, but the latest studies reveal how the build up of smaller consistent hits to the head and brain create a vulnerability to concussions that is almost unavoidable.  And if avoidable, the lack of concussions doesn’t decrease the brain ailments one could suffer not much later in life.

So, the Saints. I will be rooting for them Monday night to beat the Falcons. However, after reading this, I doubt I could ever let a child of mine play American football, but mainly the issue just needs to be open and honestly talked about. Because I feel the players aren’t “freely” making this decision to play in exchange for these lifelong post-football brain problems.  I might feel better with Drew Brees playing now if I knew that he knew he was likely sacrificing his last twenty years of life to be a revered multi-millionaire star.

Not that I have anything against that choice–let the flame burn brightly at both ends while it can burn, i say, rather than wait until it flickers out–but we should know that kind of info before making the devil’s wager.


Who DAT.


Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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