Foot­ball’s en­joy­ment on a fade pat­tern

Texarkana Gazette - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will WASHINGTON POST WRIT­ERS GROUP

WASHINGTON—Au­tumn, which is bear­ing down upon us like a men­ac­ing line­backer, is, as John Keats said, a sea­son of mists and mel­low fruit­ful­ness and chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE). Ac­tu­ally, Keats, a ro­man­tic, did not men­tion that last part. He died be­fore the birth of the sub­ject of a wan­ing Amer­i­can ro­mance, foot­ball. This sport will never die but it will never again be, as it was un­til re­cently, the sub­ject of un­com­pli­cated na­tional en­thu­si­asm.

CTE is a de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease con­firmable only af­ter death, and of­ten caused by re­peated blows to the head that knock the brain against the skull. The cu­mu­la­tive im­pacts of hun­dreds of sup­pos­edly mi­nor blows can have the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of many con­cus­sions. The New York Times re­cently re­ported Stan­ford re­searchers’ data show­ing “that one col­lege of­fen­sive line­man sus­tained 62 of these hits in a sin­gle game. Each one came with an av­er­age force on the player’s head equiv­a­lent to what you would see if he had driven his car into a brick wall at 30 mph.”

Bos­ton Univer­sity re­searchers found CTE in 110 of 111 brains of de­ceased NFL play­ers. In 53 other brains from col­lege play­ers, 48 had CTE. There was sig­nif­i­cant se­lec­tion bias: Many of the brains came from fam­i­lies who had no­ticed CTE symp­toms, in­clud­ing mood dis­or­ders and de­men­tia. A BU re­searcher says, how­ever, that a 10-year NFL line­backer could re­ceive more than 15,000 sub-con­cus­sive blows.

Foot­ball’s ki­netic en­ergy—a func­tion of the masses and ve­loc­i­ties of the hurtling bod­ies—has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally in 50 years. On Alabama’s un­de­feated 1966 team, only 21 per­cent of the play­ers weighed more than 200 pounds. The heav­i­est weighed 223; the line­men av­er­aged 194. The quar­ter­back, who weighed 177, was Ken Stabler, who went on to a Hall of Fame NFL ca­reer— and to “mod­er­ately se­vere” CTE be­fore death from can­cer. To­day, many high school teams are much beefier than the 1966 Crim­son Tide. Of the 114 mem­bers of Alabama’s 2016 squad, just 25 weighed less than 200 and 20 weighed more than 300. In 1980, only three NFL play­ers weighed 300 or more pounds. Last sea­son, 390 weighed 300 pounds or more, and six topped 350.

Play­ers love foot­ball, and a small mi­nor­ity will have lu­cra­tive post-col­lege NFL ca­reers. Many will make in­creas­ingly in­formed choices to ac­cept the risk-re­ward cal­cu­lus. But be­cause to­day’s risk-averse mid­dle-class par­ents put crash hel­mets on their tykes rid­ing tri­cy­cles, foot­ball par­tic­i­pa­tion will skew to the un­in­formed and eco­nom­i­cally des­per­ate. But will in­formed spec­ta­tors become queasy about de­riv­ing plea­sure from an en­ter­tain­ment with such hu­man costs?

No. They will say: Play­ers know the risks that they, un­like the baited bears, vol­un­tar­ily em­brace, just as smok­ers do. No­tice, how­ever, that smok­ing, which is in­creas­ingly a choice of those least re­cep­tive to pub­lic health in­for­ma­tion, is banned in all NFL sta­di­ums and is se­verely dis­cour­aged on all col­lege cam­puses, in­clud­ing those that are foot­ball fac­to­ries. And foot­ball fans will say: Bet­ter equip­ment will solve the prob­lem of body parts, par­tic­u­larly the one in the skull’s brain pan, that are un­suited to the game.

Per­haps evolv­ing stan­dards of de­cency will re­duce foot­ball to a marginal­ized spec­ta­cle, like box­ing. But the UFC’s (Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship’s) bur­geon­ing pop­u­lar­ity is (re­dun­dant) ev­i­dence that “evolv­ing” is not a syn­onym for “im­prov­ing.”

Be­sides, as dis­turb­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence ac­cu­mu­lates, NFL fran­chise val­ues soar (Forbes says the most valu­able is the Dal­las Cow­boys at $4.2 bil­lion and the least valu­able is the $1.5 bil­lion Buf­falo Bills) and an­nual rev­enues reach $14 bil­lion. The league dis­trib­utes $244 mil­lion to each team—$77 mil­lion more than each team’s salary cap. Lo­cal rev­enues are gravy. The ap­pendage of higher ed­u­ca­tion that is called col­lege foot­ball also is a big busi­ness: The South­east­ern Con­fer­ence’s ca­ble tele­vi­sion chan­nel is val­ued at al­most $5 bil­lion. Uni­ver­si­ties, who find and de­velop the NFL’s play­ers, pay their head coaches well for per­form­ing this pub­lic ser­vice: Twenty head coaches make more than $4 mil­lion a year. Michi­gan’s Jim Har­baugh earns $9 mil­lion.

It has been said (by Thomas Babing­ton Ma­caulay) that the Pu­ri­tans banned bear bait­ing— un­leash­ing fierce dogs on a bear chained in a pit—not be­cause it gave pain to bears but be­cause it gave plea­sure to Pu­ri­tans. But what­ever the Pu­ri­tans’ mo­tives, they un­der­stood that there are de­grad­ing en­joy­ments. Foot­ball is be­com­ing one, even though Michi­gan’s $9 mil­lion coach has called it “the last bas­tion of hope in Amer­ica for tough­ness in men.” That thought must amuse the Marines pa­trolling Afghanistan’s Hel­mand Prov­ince.

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