chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which is a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. C.T.E. has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, before moving on to dementia. And C.T.E. appears later in life as well, because it takes a long time for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death. But C.T.E. isn’t the result of an endogenous disease. It’s the result of injury.The article documents how much higher the rate at which ex-football players have dementia-like symptoms, especially on those younger than fifty.
At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so.Yes, but actually, what makes dogfighting so repulsive is not just that violence and injury are inherent in the sport, but that victory is out-injuring the other side. In football, injuries affect the game, but are not the game. It is not quite Deathrace 2000. Sure, we find ourselves somewhat happy when the other side loses a player so that our team's chances of winning are increased, but we are not rooting for the injury itself. Of course, the past ten years or so have seen a greater fetish for big hits, replayed by EPSN and simulated in videogames, and that should raise questions. I am not saying that the comparison is not a good one, just that the analogy has some limits.
This is not the first time, of course, that this has come up. Teddy Roosevelt got involved at the turn of the century. One doctor at the time referred to college football as: A professor at the University of Chicago called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” And that statement is still pretty accurate.
What if you did everything you could, and banned kickoffs and full-contact practices and used the most state-of-the-art techniques for diagnosing and treating concussion, and behaved as responsibly as Nascar has in the past several years—and players were still getting too many dangerous little hits to the head?What can we do?
There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.Well, that might be an overstatement. A writer who spent a short time on a football team has a variety of recommendations that would improve things a bit, giving the players a few more rights and making the doctors more independent from the team. Another piece in the NY Times focuses on the problem of repeated head injuries that are short of concussions, arguing that teams might want to reduce the intensity of practices--that practices would not have tackling.
So, we can improve the medicine, we can reduce the intensity of practices, we can change the game (as they did in the early 1900s) by eliminating kickoffs (the league did away with the wedge strategy during kickoffs before this season). Fundamentally, we can take better care of the players. Gladwell talks about how Vick's former dogs are being cared for, but what he surprisingly overlooks is the current scandal that is the NFL's retirement package. As we approach the next contract/work stoppage, one of the issues may well be how well do the players get taken care of after they leave the league. There have been plenty of stories of retired players living and dying in poverty.
Given that so many people make so much money on such a damaging sport, it should not be that hard to take care of those who play the game. Eliminating the game or fundamentally altering is not going to happen, but we could do a better job of taking care of those who pay the price of our Sundays and Monday nights.
No small irony that I write this on a Sunday morning with plans to watch a game or two this afternoon.
[Update] New article on CTE afflicting those who only played in high school or college:
The focus of the discussion of brain-trauma issue has been on the N.F.L. — it really needs to be on youth players,” Nowinski said. “Ninety-nine percent of football players in this country are college and below. They’re not being paid. They don’t have as good access to medical people. And the fact that they’re at risk for this disease should give us great pause.”