FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, SAVE THE CHILDREN!!!! Well, I guess only some children. In particular, my children. In fact, let’s just save my children and screw the rest of anybody else’s. Gosh,do we ever lie to ourselves as a society! We project some sanctimonious, morally pious view on all around us only to burrow into our little holes of depravity when no one else is looking. Case in point? How about the discussion regarding the evolving societal understanding of the impact of concussions in today’s National Football League. In a scene reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, we are witnessing an unconscionable compromise being made with America’s youth, all in the name of fiscal reward.
This Christmas, Columbia Pictures will release its film Concussion starring Will Smith. The plot centers around the mounting evidence that head injuries sustained during contact sports, particularly football, have a far more damaging, long-term impact than we thought years ago and that the NFL has known much of this for years. As the tragic impacts of these injuries begin to rear their ugly head in cases as familiar as Junior Seau and Mike Webster, it has become abundantly clear that as dehabilitating as the knee injuries, etc. are, the brain injuries that are commonplace in football can inflict damage that lasts a lifetime.
So yes, the NFL lied to us, but what did they do really? They allowed us to perpetuate the shamefully naive belief that these injuries weren’t really that bad. It’s just like what the cigarette manufacturers did for decades by helping prop up our misguided desire to really believe that inhaling smoke into our lungs had no deleterious health impacts, but who is really to blame here? Yes, the NFL and cigarette manufacturers are profiting from their blatant cover-up of the significant health implications of their products, but do we really have no culpability in this equation? Can we blithely whistle away when we ignored the patently obvious impacts of head trauma?
I remember getting hit so hard during a hockey game in high school that when I did recover, I skated hurriedly to the bench, not realizing that play had already been stopped for the penalty call. My coach asked me how many fingers he was holding up. I guessed. I’ll never know if I was right, but he let me go back in for the next shift. For decades, we were all inclined to laugh off getting your bell rung as no big deal.
But not anymore. With the science pointing towards irrevocable effects from head trauma, parents are increasingly prohibiting their children from playing football, especially in more affluent communities where education levels are higher. Unwilling to subject their children to concussions, parents that do not need to rely on college scholarships to enable their kids to have a crack at higher education tell Johnny to play soccer instead.
But we all still watch football, and that’s the rub. We are more than happy to watch somebody else’s kid, be they a grown professional athlete or a college student, play the game we know will leave many of them ruined for their later years. It is their choice, we suggest, alleviating ourselves of the culpability for a sin we know we have committed. But do they really have a choice?
Increasingly, football is being by a lower income demographic, folks who often know that football might be their son’s lone ticket to the college education that could pull him out of the poverty they have endured. And while a handful will earn the lottery ticket of getting to expose their fragile skulls to the savage ferocity of the NFL game, what about the vast majority that will have risked their brains for a high school football career they may not even be able to remember in later years? Are we really any different than the Romans whose bloodthirst let them revel in violence as a spectator sport? And the already underprivileged are our sacrificial lambs to feed to the lions (though not the Detroit Lions- they just plain suck).
Choices are available. There are non-contact versions of this game that can be played. Ok, ok- pipe down…. I can already hear the cries of heresy, the same voices that even now scream at the “wussification” of American blood sports. But are we really just letting the savages rule the day? When I taught at boarding school on the East Coast, our girl’s team was being coached by “Russ”, a legendary coach who had played in the NHL and coached at elite levels in the boys’ game before making the transition to coaching girls’ hockey. When I asked him why, I remember Russ suggesting, “The girls’ game is just so much cleaner without all that checking. It’s a more beautiful, fluid game- more like how hockey is supposed to be played.” Do we actually need violence in these sports to make them entertaining?
And that’s where the real irony comes in. The NFL hid concussion data because they knew people wouldn’t watch football without contact. We love the violence and so the violence remains, damn be the consequences- just as long as those consequences happen to someone else’s kid.