Happy New Year to everyone and I apologize for not writing for the last two weeks. I haven't got a good excuse, but I'm trying to get back in the saddle and this is the first for the New Year.
I will eagerly place my chair near the TV in anticipation of the game between the Forty Niners and the Green Bay Packers. It's a playoff game with all the implications and a victory moves the Niners one step closer to the Super Bowl. I have a pizza-bowl all prepared. (layers of tortillas, sausage, pepperoni and cheese which is then micro waved) It's as close to a real pizza as we can get here. (Tortillas are not an adequate substitute for fresh pizza crust, but we make do) All of this to carry me through the 3-plus hours of the game. Oh yes, it is possible this could be one of the last football games I watch.
Junior Seau played for 20 seasons as an all-pro linebacker for San Diego, Miami and New England. He retired in 2009 and last year committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The results of a post-mortem examination of his brain concluded he suffered from Traumatic Encephalopathy. His brain was damaged by repeated blows to the head. This can lead to premature dementia, depression and suicide. Seau gave his life entertaining me and millions of other fans. He was paid allot of money to take the field each week and it led to his death at a young age. Unfortunately, he is not the first, and won't be the last, to suffer so we can sit in front of the television on Sunday with a pizza bowl, wings, sub-sandwich and all varieties of beer and beverages.
With what we know about brain trauma, it appears the number of blows one has to endure to be affected are much less than you might think. We have examples of this condition occurring in high school and college football players who had only played for a few years. The science is clear. Blows to the head, which jar the brain, have serious consequences. It is also clear each blow does not have to result in a concussion for it to be a contributing factor to traumatic encephalopathy.
So, now it begins to feel more like Rome than it does America in the 21st century. How many of us saw Spartacus, Ben Hur or The Gladiator and cringed at the idea of men being put into an arena to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses? What kind of a society...what sick person...what immoral culture would be entertained by a "death sport"? We watch these movies with an air of moral superiority because we would never go back to the gladiator age...we would be repulsed by the suggestion of pitting men against each other for amusement...we are above the idea of bread and circuses aren't we?
Yet, we now know every week millions gather to watch in person, or on TV, athletic contests which are killing the players. It isn't so crass as to have them killed each Sunday. Instead, it's a slow death which takes a number of years and devastates not only the specific athlete, but also his family, wife and children. We don't extend our thumbs up or down on Sunday, but we revel in the great hit...you know the one that make everyone go oooh! If you didn't get to see it live, we provide highlight shows which repeat the great hits over and over again. (anyone remember the horrible scene of Joe Theisman's leg bending and twisting in a stomach-churning way and how often it was repeated? Why do we know the names of Jack Tatum, Ronnie Lott, James Harrison along with Dick Butkus, Ray Nietchke and Lawrence Taylor?) As much as we love touchdowns, no touchdown in history has ever caused an entire stadium to stop in its tracks and just oooh.
There is nothing the pooh bahs of football can do about this problem They run ads about how they are changing the rules at the Pop Warner level so children don't lead with their heads when they tackle. Given what we now know...given that a child's brain is still growing and developing...given we don't know how many blows are needed...why do we let children play the game at all? Former Rams and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner says he will never let any of his children play football.
At the professional level you have men who weigh 300 pounds and can run as fast as running backs. The blows they deliver are akin to getting hit by a speeding truck. There is no helmet or rule change which can protect someone from the basic physics of the game. One team physically dominates another until they win. The irony should not be lost on anyone that helmets and pads and mouthpieces etc. were all mandated because the sport was considered too brutal, but the law of unintended consequences is these changes actually guaranteed more devastating physical confrontations as players became human missiles.
If you knew to an absolute certainty some of the men you watch each Sunday will die that day, would you still watch? Would it still be entertaining? You know to an absolute certainty, some of them will die, just not on this Sunday, or the next, but as they turn 40 and look to the rest of their lives, the chances of reaching old age are drastically reduced.
Ultimately, football has to go the way of boxing. People can't continue to see men brutalize each other and themselves and not be affected. (Boxing is trying to comeback via the mixed martial arts of the Ultimate Fighting franchise, but it will never approach the level of interest of football) More and more players will sue over injuries and mental impairment. Those in charge of football will try to tweak the rules, but fail to stop the damage. Parents cannot be in denial anymore and have to refuse to allow their children to participate which will be the death knell of the sport.
Meanwhile, I will watch the Forty Niners, and hope they win...that they knock Aaron Rodgers out of the game...have their defense totally dominate Green Bay with an intensity which results in powerful hits and takeaways and turnovers. However, I will find myself thinking about Junior Seau or Dave Dureson and it will become more and more uncomfortable to be a willing participant in our modern version of gladiatorial combat.