A report in the Journal of The American Medical Association yesterday detailed a devastating connection between tackle football and brain damage. Friday, the New York Giants have their first public preseason practice, while the New York Jets welcome fans Monday. And all over the country, high school and college players are ready for grueling practices, preparation for a grinding game played with maximum heart and effort.
Fall is coming. Our deadly gridiron love affair beckons. What’s a fan to do?
Fans of the sport are increasingly conflicted. Many of us cherish football, obsess over it, gamble on it, plan our weeks around it and apprentice our sons to it. But if our love of the game, and our willingness to watch it and pay for it, is increasingly making us complicit in harming players, do we have an obligation to give it up?
The study, conducted on the brains of 202 deceased former football players, produced results that are both scary and skewed. Of the 202 players who participated at a variety of levels, 87 percent were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is caused by hits to the head and leads to dementia and death. And of the 111 who played in the NFL, 110 had the disease.
The sampling wasn’t random. The brains came from family members of dead football players who were eager to have their loved ones checked out for CTE, and in many cases suspected the disease. But even acknowledging that, experts say the study shows a terrifying prevalence of CTE, a very rare disorder. Knowing 110 NFL players in history had it would be daunting. The fact that the sample size was only 111 is chilling.
The longer they played, the worse the odds. Of the 14 players who only competed through high school, 21 percent had CTE. Of the 53 who played through college, 91 percent had CTE.
None of the three players who played only youth, pre-high school football had CTE, but that might well be misleading. Organized youth football did not become a huge phenomena until the 1960s. The generations who would have suffered serious brain injury mostly haven’t died yet.
Let’s put aside, for today, talk of proper tackling and making the perfect helmet. This all helps, but football is football.
The question is whether adults should play, whether kids should play, whether we can let ourselves watch it, and what responsibility the football authorities have.
The days of minors playing tackle, with offensive and defensive lines smashing together, and players hurling each other to the ground, are coming to an end, and rightfully so. Studies tell us the contact, endured repeatedly, is dangerous. Minors can’t truly consent. And we don’t generally let parents endanger their kids when the risks are clear.
“Knowingly” is the key word. The NFL and the NCAA must commit to finding the truth about hits and brains and publicizing it. The sport’s track record thus far is shameful. It’s one thing to enable people to play a game about which they understand the dangers. But, just as with cigarette companies, it’s a far different sin to hide the consequences.
As for grown men playing, and us watching them? People do a lot of dangerous things for money, or fame, or because they enjoy it, from boxing to racing motorcycles to climbing mountains. Enjoying football can be morally justified.
The problem, for fans, is that we come to love the players who give us so much joy, and we don’t want to be part of the cause of their injury. We are increasingly afraid to watch, yet still unable to turn away.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.