photo by Parker Anderson
Odds are good that your weekend plans somehow involve football. About 189 million viewers are expected to tune in for the 50th Super Bowl, more commonly designated “Super Bowl L,” on Sunday.
Some of those people will be watching mainly because they are attending a party, and a few will tune in to check out the top-shelf advertising or the halftime show. But most of America will park itself in front of a TV or other screen for the game itself.
I enjoy watching professional football. At its best - when a receiver leaps to snatch a long pass out of midair on a perfectly executed timing play, or when a placekicker defies wind and precipitation to put a ball through the uprights from 50 yards away - it is a form of physical poetry. Most humans cannot hope to achieve such feats, just as most cannot write timeless literature or discover scientific breakthroughs. But we can all admire the accomplishments of those who can, and in the case of football, we can enjoy the drama and spectacle their athleticism creates.
Unfortunately, the Super Bowl is not the only reason that professional football was in the news this week. News broke that former star quarterback Ken Stabler, who died last year from complications related to colon cancer at age 69, suffered the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Dr. Ann McKee, who performed the examination of Stabler’s brain and spinal cord, told ESPN that it was clear the disease was widespread throughout his brain at the time of his death.
McKee is a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University and performed her examination as part of research at the university’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. Stabler had arranged to donate his brain to further the center’s work and, according to his long-term partner, had shown signs of cognitive difficulties prior to his death. The postmortem diagnosis puts Stabler among dozens of pro football players to have displayed the signs of CTE, though he is the first prominent quarterback to show the tell-tale brain lesions.
This is bad news for the National Football League. Evidence continues to accumulate demonstrating that football is not only dangerous to players who suffer from accidents, but to those with fairly typical careers in the league. Worse, the league is still giving outsiders reason to believe that it is more interested in suppressing and minimizing news about the sport’s health risks than about making football safer for current and future players, or recognizing the extent of the harm it may have done in the past.
In December, the NFL challenged an ESPN story that reported the league had backed out of funding a Boston University CTE study seeking to accurately diagnose the disorder in living patients. ESPN said that the study was to have been funded out of a $30 million research grant the NFL gave to the National Institutes of Health in 2012, but that the NFL raised objections leading to NIH’s choice to fund the study on its own, according to anonymous sources. The NFL has denied any influence over the NIH’s decision, though ESPN stood by its report when challenged.
NFL officials should not be surprised if observers are skeptical of their denials, however, considering that the league has pressured ESPN before where CTE reporting is concerned. Concurrently with the NFL’s decision to settle with former players seeking damages related to traumatic brain injuries suffered on the field, ESPN pulled its name from the documentary “League of Denial,” which PBS’ Frontline aired in October of 2013. The documentary went on to win a Peabody Award.
The NFL has spent tens of millions of dollars on concussion research in recent years, including a recent grant to McKee through the organization’s same 2012 donation to the NIH. But from 2003 to 2009, league officials pushed later-discredited research on the public denying a link between football and brain damage. And the NFL’s attempts to silence Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was the first to publish research about CTE in football players, is fresh in the minds of moviegoers who saw those events depicted in the Will Smith film “Concussion.”
Frontline’s Michael Kirk spoke with Omalu three years ago for “League of Denial.” In that interview, Kirk asked Omalu for his estimate of how many NFL players had CTE. Omalu’s response was direct and chilling: “Based on my experience, there has not been any NFL player I’ve examined that did not have CTE.” In other words, though the level of severity many vary and the speed of the disease’s progression may not be the same, it is Omalu’s opinion, based on his forensic experience, that all professional football players (and probably many amateurs) have some degree of brain damage due to their participation in the sport. Boston University’s CTE center reported that 96 percent - 87 out of 91 - of deceased NFL players whose brains it studied showed the disease, and that it was found in 79 percent of all players examined.
Research on CTE is ongoing, and there is still a lot we do not know for sure. But as the public becomes more aware of what we do know, it seems inevitable that America’s relationship with football will change. In the wake of CTE coverage, especially “League of Denial” and now the dramatized “Concussion,” calls for fans to boycott the NFL have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, the Boston Globe, Time, The Atlantic and CNN.
The effect is trickling down, too. Many of my colleagues have young children or expect to start families soon. When I asked these parents and parents-to-be whether they will let their children play football, knowing what we now know, many of them said their kids will have to stick to other sports.
I plan to watch Sunday’s game, which features a matchup between Denver’s Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, and Carolina’s Cam Newton, arguably the best at that position today. But how much longer will my conscience let me watch other people’s sons, husbands, brothers and fathers get hurt expressly for my entertainment? Not too much longer, if it becomes clear that Omalu is correct that essentially all pro football players are being condemned to shorter and compromised lives due to irreversible brain injury. Something has to change. Time will tell whether it is the sport of football or my cool-season Sunday pastimes.
Can middle and high schools across America keep sending children onto fields to play tackle football, or is that simply inappropriate? Will we keep letting college students trade their athletic prowess for tuition money if it means tossing in their neurological health as well? And could the NFL make football safe, or at least safe enough to be a reasonable activity for players and spectators to enjoy?
The physically violent acts of slamming into an opposing player and trying to throw him to the ground are essential elements of tackle football as we know it today. It just may be impossible to fix the game in ways that make it acceptably safe but still recognizable. Flag football will probably never fly in college and the NFL, and maybe not in high school either.
The parallels between modern American football and gladiators in ancient Rome are drawn by both the sport’s fans and its critics. Certainly the insistence on using Roman numerals to identify “Super Bowl L” encourages that mental leap. Yet while gladiatorial games were almost certainly less lethal than they have been depicted in Hollywood, many men still died for the entertainment of others. We don’t hold such spectacles anymore because we agree that packaging such deadly contests for mass consumption is not acceptable. We don’t allow dogs or roosters to fight to the death, either. How far are we willing to let football players - or boxers, for that matter - go to hurt one another?
In my own lifetime, the Super Bowl has gone from having nearly 40,000 unfilled seats at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the first edition was played, to being the single largest national spectacle we have, with an audience measured in hundreds of millions. Might it all reverse in the next 50 years? I think it could, for the same reason boxing is no longer a major televised sport, and for the reasons we no longer watch gladiators fight to the death. Some activities are just too violent, too risky, to be widely appreciated as sport or entertainment. Accidents happen in any sport, but that is not the same as having the sport itself be the accident.
The NFL has good reason to be concerned about its future. Maybe the league can improve the equipment and change the rules in ways that protect players and make it again enjoyable for us to watch our own sons, or other people’s, play the game. But I am not sure they can. Either way, I think we will know the answer well before 50 more Super Bowls have been played.