I like watching football. In fact, it's the only sport I can actually follow for the entirety of its regular season. I think it's an intriguing mix of concept and execution. You need both a well minded coach, a good team dynamic, and individual talent to be successful.
Football is, however, a brutal game. Scientific evidence is showing more and more
just how brutal
it really is.
[College lineman Greg] Hadley wants to see, in raw, microscopic detail, what could await him. All CTE victims have had some kind of head trauma, and Hadley has received four concussion diagnoses during his college days. As they examine images under a microscope, McKee tells Hadley that the brown splotches represent the dreaded tau buildup in the brain. The brains are as brown as the pigskin itself.
Hadley lets out a quiet "Jesus" and sinks in his chair. His girlfriend stares at him, looking as if her cat just died. "I had no idea it was all over the place like that," Hadley says. He glances at a picture of a normal brain next to the stained brain of a deceased player. "You look at something like that and think, This is your brain, and this is your brain on football."
One evening in August, [30 year old retired lineman] Kyle Turley was at a bar in Nashville with his wife and some friends. It was one of the countless little places in the city that play live music. He’d ordered a beer, but was just sipping it, because he was driving home. He had eaten an hour and a half earlier. Suddenly, he felt a sensation of heat. He was light-headed, and began to sweat. He had been having episodes like that with increasing frequency during the past year—headaches, nausea. One month, he had vertigo every day, bouts in which he felt as if he were stuck to a wall. But this was worse. He asked his wife if he could sit on her stool for a moment. The warmup band was still playing, and he remembers saying, “I’m just going to take a nap right here until the next band comes on.” Then he was lying on the floor, and someone was standing over him. “The guy was freaking out,” Turley recalled. “He was saying, ‘Damn, man, I couldn’t find a pulse,’ and my wife said, ‘No, no. You were breathing.’ I’m, like, ‘What? What?’ ”
The short end of it is that football, particularly for constantly physical positions like lineman, is very bad for the long term health of your head. So bad, in fact, that even the propaganda machine of the league has had to concede, and players are now taking considerably more time off before returning when they have concussions.
Now, I want to tell myself that this is something players at all levels (HS, college, NFL, etc) are aware of and are participating in by choice; but I'm too familiar with the culture of team sports to really consider that a justification. I was a rower throughout HS, and I liked it a lot, but I remember plenty of instances where people would be vomiting and get told to clean up their shit and keep moving. I imagine football can be very similar. "Pick yourself up, keep going". I've heard a number of anecdotes, some present in the above articles, regarding players finishing games without remembering half of what occurred.
Further complicating matters is the question of just how you fix the problem. I want there to be better helmets. I want to say that and think it will fix everything. But the trauma isn't really caused by the exterior of the head being hit. It's caused by the brain hitting the interior of the skull. You can't really account for that with gear. If anything, helmets lead players into situations where they're willing to take harder hits. It's a bizarre double edged sword. You protect the skull at the cost of the brain.
The practical solutions involve player education. It seems like we're moving in that direction already, but I'm still willing to bet a lot of players, pro or younger, think they can get back in the game far too soon after receiving a concussion. This problem is compounded by the fact that injury doctors feel the amount of time needed to recover from a concussion is incredibly vague. Perhaps an enforced, exaggerated minimum standard is a good idea; along the lines of a player should be out a minimum of 6-8 weeks for a concussion. I also like the idea of adding "shifts" of lineman, much like in hockey. Take those positions where people are constantly getting smacked and divide the work with more personnel until experts are satisfied that the negative byproducts of constant trauma are reduced to reasonable levels.
Outside of these solutions, though, I can't think of anything that wouldn't fundamentally change the game. If things remain as they are, I may have to conclude that I can't watch football anymore with a guilty little voice in my head every time a lineman's head gets snapped back.
What do you think, D&D? Is there a solution outside the realm of "they know what they're getting into, that's that"?