Let me say at the outset that I’m not going to win friends or influence many people with this commentary.
Football . . . is a beautiful game.
With the unexpected death of Pittsburgh Steelers Franco Harris last month, the media refreshed all our memories of “The Immaculate Reception,” the play that not only defined Harris but remains one of the most beautiful moments in sports history having taken place during the 1972 playoff between the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.
So revered for his skill on the field, Harris was not only inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Pittsburgh placed his statue next to George Washington at the state’s international airport.
Football is also a brutal sport.
Last Monday night’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals took a tragic turn when the Bills 24-year-old safety, Damar Hamlin, collapsed on the playing field after what appeared to be a routine hit. Medical techs had to restart his heartbeat twice before he was taken to a local hospital in critical condition.
Hamlin’s injury, while rare, spotlights the dangers inherent in football. The NFL, the players and the fans know that when players take the field, collision-related injuries happen . . . regularly. It’s just a part of the game.
However, what repeatedly gets shoved to the sidelines is a more insidious injury that doesn’t show up until years later. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) occurs when a player sustains blow after blow to the head over the course of a career triggering a cascade of injuries to the brain.
“Symptoms of CTE are lethal,” sports medicine writer Michael Dong says. “The extensive list is daunting: paranoia, memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, parkinsonism, and dementia.”
In 2021 I wrote about the courage it took for sports analyst and announcer Bob Costas to talk about the tragic effects of CTE.
“The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains, Costas said. “The day-to-day issues, as serious as they may be, they may come and go. But you cannot change the nature of the game.”
Then, with a huge football audience watching, Costas said the unthinkable:
“If I had an athletically gifted 12 or 13-year-old son, I would not let him play football.”
“ESPN columnist, Tony Kornheiser seconded Costas.
“It’s not going to happen this year,” Kornheiser said, “and it’s not going to happen in five years or 10 years. But Bob is right: At some point, the cultural wheel turns just a little bit, almost imperceptibly, and parents say, ‘I don’t want my kids to play.’
“If they don’t find a way to make it safe, and we don’t see how they will,” Kornheiser adds, “the game’s not going to be around.”
Football can be made safer but never safe. The rules can change, the equipment can improve. But you can’t make something safe when two or more individuals are charging toward each other at full speed. While injuries happen in all sports, the two sports where injuries take a terrible toll on a regular basis are boxing and football.
Injuries like those of Damar Hamlin’s may be rare, but not CTE.
While Kornheiser may wish and hope and pray that football “is not going to be around,” it’s not going to happen in the next 10 years, 20 or, I’ll bet, even 30.
While football is an off-the-charts popular sport, it’s also a business . . . a very profitable business . . . a billions-of-dollars business.
That’s not cynicism; that’s reality.
According to reference.com, an online website devoted to facts and stats, “about half of all Americans, which is about 160 million people, say that they are fans of professional football, according to a poll done in 2014 by ESPN. Of the main sports leagues in the United States, the NFL is the most widely watched by a large margin, and the league’s revenue continues to grow.”
With that kind of audience and that kind of money, it would take a tectonic shift in the consciousness of half the country to change their attention and love of the game.
At the end of the day, football, while beautiful to watch, is a brutal sport where players entertain millions of fans while facing the dreadful risk of permanent damage to their brains.
Medical science knows this.
The NFL knows this.
Fans know this.
And the players know this, too.
The moral questions are obvious:
Is it irresponsible for a sport to put players at that kind of risk? Is it justifiable because players know the risks but choose to play anyway? Is it irresponsible for fans to watch a sport where so many players who retired from the game have developed CTE leading to the destruction of their minds?
Clearly, those questions are similar to those regarding cigarette smoking. Millions know the risks. They’ve heard the science, yet they choose to smoke, regardless.
While you can’t legislate morality, I believe it should be incumbent on parents to look at the facts and decide if they want their sons involved in a sport that may leave them permanently disabled or dead.
Okay, I’m ready to take any hits you want to give me on this piece.