Marolt: The time has come to use our heads for something else
October 17, 2013
It looks like the game of football has an expiration date. The only question is whether it comes before or after the one printed on a package of truck-stop beef jerky that resembles what's left of most National Football League players' brains after they retire. That comparison is more fact than opinion. Look it up. See the gruesome images for yourself. Come up with your own description.
The NFL is under fire from former players who claim they weren't adequately protected from or compensated for taking huge risks of permanently damaging their brains. After they hang up the cleats, many say they can't sleep, concentrate, remember or even possess the will to keep living. They blame the symptoms on the repeated pounding of the head most endured over the duration of time they played their game, many since they were 10 years old. They believe those risks were enormous and that the NFL knew it and denied it but, either way, never let the players know what they knew about it.
The evidence is mounting. Without a doubt, the occasional severe blows to the head that result in an identifiable concussion are worrisome. They result in scarring on the outside of the brain. But worse might be the repeated smaller hits to the head that occur on nearly every play in football. Researchers are discovering that those shocks might be responsible for destroying the brain from the inside out. If you are looking for the scientific proof to deny, be prepared. You are going to be busy. There is more every day.
The NFL has a lot of resources to fight for its life. The same holds true for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It can hire attorneys and pay out-of-court settlements in exchange for nondisclosure agreements for a long time. Where the weak link exists for football's survival is with the kids. How long will it be, with an expanding body of data showing more and more conclusively the inherit dangers of playing football, before the organizers of high school football along with dads who coach in Pop Warner leagues and every assistant and athletic trainer between are hit with crushing lawsuits related to what — it will be claimed — reasonable people should have seen were clear and present dangers?
What is not clear now is how hard and over what length of time a person has to be exposed to the impacts of playing football to incur permanent damage. Does it take 15 years of full-on dedication to playing the game at the highest levels, or do two or three years of light pounding on the developing brain of a kid cause more damage? We don't know for sure, although one can surmise with certainty that this type of activity is not good for the brain at any level of exposure.
At some point the evidence might incontrovertibly prove that playing football is more dangerous to kids' health than driving under the influence of alcohol or smoking crack cocaine. While love of the game might be strong in fathers who survived their own participation in the violent sport, at some point love of their sons might override the allure of Friday-night lights. The discipline, the ethos of hard work, the camaraderie, the value of teamwork, the joys of winning and the valuable lessons of defeat don't mean much if you have trouble remembering their source or end up living with chronic depression.
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Now, when I'm standing in the middle of the grocery store struggling to come up with what I came for or when I meet an old friend on the street and have difficulty coming up with their name, I wonder about my own reckless childhood. Is the numbness I feel around my memories the ordinary result of getting older, or is it the result of physical trauma? It's probably both, but to what degree of each I don't know. There are four concussions I know about that others have described the details of suffering to me. Two happened while skiing, one was while bicycling, and the last came while just fooling around in the backyard. I say with certainty that they were all the result of taking ridiculous risks, and no, I didn't fully understand those risks when I took them. My personal experiences with head injuries confirm my suspicion that life is hazardous to our health. It also makes me wonder if playing football is taking a ridiculous risk.
Roger Marolt understands that experience is a great teacher and that our past can be a cruel master. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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