One of the oddest things I’m thankful for in life was that I didn’t love football enough to be really good at it. I played football in junior high and high school, but I never really loved it. To be more specific, I love the game of football, but I was never able to turn off the part of my brain that constantly does cost/benefit analysis. I have known for a long time that the more years you spend on the football field, the more you have to deal with joint pain and stiffness later in life, but it’s only been recently that people have started talking about the huge concussion problem that afflicts former football players.
I remember first hearing about the long term effects of multiple concussions when former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster died in 2002. It was also discussed when Merell Hoge was found wandering around his neighborhood, suffering from memory loss. HBO Real Sports has done a number of pieces on concussions, forcing the NFL to address the issue. And then this week, 60 Minutes ran a piece on concussions, and Malcolm Gladwell writes in the New Yorker on the similarities between football and dog fighting.
Every football fan should think about the moral implications of taking enjoyment in watching a spectacle that is literally killing the competitors. I love football, but I wonder if I should support it, given the injuries inflicted on the players.
I also wonder why we never hear about what is to me the real root of the problem — hard plastic helmets and face masks. Players make helmet to helmet contact because the shell and padding give the feeling of impunity.
Back in the good old days, players wore leather helmets like the one pictured here. I can guarantee you that these guys didn’t smash into each other face first or have hard helmet to helmet contact on every play. Players would hate it if the protective equipment were scaled down in football, because it would take a lot of the speed and recklessness out of the game, but it would increase the safety in a big way.