I never thought it would come to this, that I would have to write so negatively about the game I love.
As a 13 year old, I mowed 20 yards in my neighborhood to pay the $40 insurance fee to play “American” football. My father, who with me and my brothers was fresh off the boat from Cuba, would ironically lecture us on the art and fairness of boxing while calling football “un juego de animales.” Translation: a game of animals. “Look at that,” he would say with disgust as he walked by the TV in the Florida room, “11 people jumping on one man.” Then he would ask, “how can you call that a sport?”
He was too poor to pay my fee and likely would not have paid even if he had the money. Thus, he rarely went to my games — worked too many hours to attend to such foolishness. Which caused me, like most kids, to lavish even more in this newfound forbidden and exotic sport.
By 15, faster than most kids my age, I was breaking Pop Warner records. And by the time I reached high school, I was being recruited by the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Brown, The Citidel, Moorhead State University and other places my dad had never heard of.
Coaches came calling at our door. My dad didn’t understand their language, but he did understand the value of a college education.
Maybe football wasn’t so bad after all.
Lo and behold, my dad started liking American football as he watched me go to college, start a career in journalism and raise a family thanks to “American” football.
Expectedly, my love and appreciation for the game of football has never wavered —but something has been happening of late that has me questioning my devotion.
Sunday I watched a Seattle receiver get hit so hard his head excruciatingly snapped back from his shoulders as he lay on the ground unconscious. Tens of thousands of people rose to their feet and roared with excitement. Touchdown!
Monday night, I saw the right knee of a New York Giants offensive lineman bend in a frighteningly unnatural direction, shattering most if not all the bone and cartilage that previously held it together. It was a perfect time for ESPN to squeeze in two minutes of commercials so he could be carted off the field and the game resumed.
This is what we see now repeatedly from the all too clear vantage of our 50-inch high definition plasmas that in the past was just a blur.
For me, it’s starting to become way too cringe worthy. The kind of stuff I often edited out of newscasts because it was “too disturbing to show.” But we watch it live each week Thursday through Monday in both college and professional football.
Yes, I know! The men who break their legs and snap their heads from vicious blows for our entertainment are well rewarded. They gain riches and are admired, even worshiped for prevailing and conquering their opponents. So were gladiators.
What does that say about us? I’ll leave that to you and to anthropologists. Let’s stick to the facts.
The more we’ve improved the equipment to make bodies more resistant to collisions, what we’ve actually done is increase the force of the collisions. Add to that bigger and faster players and what you have is a frightening trend.
The Boston University School of Medicine recently autopsied former football players and found the majority of them showed signs of degenerative brain disease. Of the 35 brain donors examined, only one of them did not test positive for brain injury. The rest showed widespread evidence of traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which in layman’s terms means memory loss, dementia and depression. And 31 of them had stage three to four level CTE.
The autopsies showed brains that were clogged by protein tissue from repeated head trauma leaving these once heralded conquerors in a pathetic state, unable to remember names or numbers. They experience early dementia, depression or worse, as some seem to lose their minds all together and may even be committing suicide because of it.
We don’t know yet if Kansas City Chief Javon Belcher’s bizarre killing of his girlfriend and himself was caused by CTE, but we should want to know –because as unpopular as it may be to criticize our beloved national sport, there is a trend brewing.
Before Belcher, 43-year-old former San Diego Charger superstar Junior Seau shot himself in the chest.
In May, 62-year-old former Atlanta Falcons player Ray Easterling shot himself in his Virginia home. His wife says he had dementia from playing football.
Last year, 50-year-old former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson was found dead in his Florida home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He chose to not shoot himself in the head so his brain could be tested for neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.
According to a special report by the Sporting News, the number of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL continues to grow, with more than 3,000 former players now involved. Many of these lawsuits claim that the NFL fraudulently concealed long-term effects of head trauma. The NFL says there is no merit to the charges.
It is left to lawyers to figure out who is right. But it may be up to us to re-assess our love of the game. We are the ones who fill stadiums and watch by the tens of millions on TV.
We then must accept some responsibility for this dangerous trend in head and spine injuries that we know is leaving men and boys crippled, even as we wait for the legal and medical conclusions.
It pains me to write so critically of this game to which I owe so much –and still enjoy. But it may be time to agree with my dad’s original assessment as he first came to America, watched football on our black and white TV and said, “This is a game for animals.”