Are We Ready for Football?

Thursday was the launch of the NFL season. We all watched Denver (led by Peyton!) take Baltimore to the cleaners.

But today is the first Sunday of football. To me, no matter what the NFL does, it’s hard to remove that Sunday/NFL feel. For those of us on the West Coast, that means 10am with a bowl of cereal in your pajamas, and you shower/change at halftime, go for a walk/hit the gym for the start of the 2nd game, then come back home in time for the 2nd half. Then maybe meet up with some folks for the Sunday night game.

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the writer of this piece in a glorious old school starter jacket, worn on the eve after the 49ers victory over the Saints in the playoffs, 2012.

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That’s why this is so hard. 

Having your eyes opened to the reality of football as a sport and the effect it has on brain trauma is hard to reconcile. I’m conflicted. I’m contradictory, and I think any fan should be. We watch what is probably the modern equivalent to gladiators fighting in the coliseum. Then we draft them in fantasy leagues, make family pools, and look past the bloodshed. I do it. Plenty of us do. I love this game, I enjoy watching it, I have fondness for the memories it has given me. I write this as I set my lineups for tomorrow morning’s fantasy football games.

I was driving towards visiting my parents when the idea for this post hit me. An uneasiness about football. It doesn’t feel as clean to love as other sports, does it? I started to think that we’d see more and more research as the season progresses. More information, more to know, more to consider. Then I heard this week’s  Edge of Sports podcast, which only helped further distill my thoughts into a post and realize the need for more speaking out among fans.

First off, for everyone who complains about the game getting soft: basic medical science. The athletes we are seeing now are bigger, faster, and hit harder than ever before. Offensive linemen move faster and with the quickness of running backs in a bygone era. It’s a different game. These athletes are borderline cyborg compared to the 1970s, so please, let’s stop distracting from the point.

I shudder knowing that the majority of guys playing will suffer injuries that will not be covered by the insurance plan negotiated in the CBA because they won’t meet the service time requirements, and those are going to come to all of us to help pay for, as discussed on Grantland.

Per the Washington Post:

“The average NFL player’s career lasts just 3.9 seasons, according to the NFL Players Association’s latest figures. Studies show that one in four retirees will need a joint replacement, they suffer arthritis at five times the rate of their peers and are four times as likely to suffer neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or ALS.

Critics say the NFL’s medical benefits don’t adequately address the full range of these problems. The NFL’s health insurance lasts five years after retirement — players who lasted fewer than three seasons don’t qualify for it at all — but the most serious health consequences of a football career often don’t manifest for a decade or more.”

And I bring this all up as a fan. I’ve got a Joe Montana autographed picture in my kitchen to prove it. I wear my 1990s 49er starter jacket. I yearn for a 6th Super Bowl. I dream of Jerry Rice’s grace. I worship at the altar of Peyton Manning.

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proof of the photo in my kitchen. ❤ you Joe Cool.

But what are we fans to do? I love the grace. I keep using that word, but it’s true.  I love football despite it’s violence, not because of it, as Bob Costas so eloquently put it. I don’t want to see big hits (but part of me does). I want to see beauty in everything. I appreciate the timing of a pass thrown by Drew Brees, sailing into the arms of Jimmy Graham.

I love miracles. I appreciate football for giving me some of those miracles. I also know that I would hope no child of mine, or anyone I know, would play the game as it is played now, given what we know about head trauma and the long-term effects, as this piece in the New Yorker in the few years really taught us–highly suggested reading.

Which probably says something about whether it should exist.

This week we learned that the NFL just paid $765 million dollars to keep a wrap on everything it knows about head trauma related to football.
I’ll say it another way (similar to how Sean Pamphilon does) :

The NFL just paid 765 million dollars US in a settlement with a group of former players, just to keep the records classified. Just so we don’t get to know what they know.  

Aren’t we entitled to know? As people asked to produce the next generation of players and subsidize the sport with tax payers yearly? Being asked to be a part of this spectacle, don’t we have a right to know what we’re buying and what it really costs us?

Do we want to know?

I mean, do we?

Don’t we already know? 

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to ‘what to do about football.’ Simply stopping watching doesn’t change anything. Neither does simply watching.  We need a a movement of fans asking these questions and to fight for these answers. We need to be able to have access to the information, the data, to determine if football, as it is played now, is a public safety risk. We need to use that data to design interventions to make the game as safe as possible, or have a grown up conversation about it as a society and it’s social value if we determine we cannot.

We’re entitled to that information to make choices as a society.

Keeping that from the public is criminal.

I’ll be watching on some Sundays, knowing I’d like to be a part of something to make a different kind of game, and with prayers of safety for the athletes putting themselves out there.

Harjit

For more on this subject, it was covered wonderfully on the Edge of Sports podcast by Dave Zirin with Bob Costas and Sean Pamphillon

Also, the documentary “The United States of Football”

The New Yorker piece by Gladwell titled “Offensive Play” 

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