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I Don’t Think I Can Watch Football Anymore

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I Don’t Think I Can Watch Football Anymore


Reprinted with permission from Creators.


There are good reasons Russian roulette has never become a mass spectator sport. Not many fans want to see people competing to see who can cheat death and who will inflict lethal harm on his brain.

But it turns out we’ve been doing that for years, watching the most popular sport in America. Many of football’s hazards are obvious: shredded knees, dislocated shoulders, broken ribs, even spinal cord injuries. But the worst one has been invisible. Football carries the high risk of irreversible, life-impairing brain damage.

The latest evidence came in a study of brains taken from deceased players conducted by Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University. Of 202 brains she examined, 177 showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Of the 111 from NFL players, 110 were diseased. CTE is a progressive, fatal condition that can cause memory loss, depression, psychosis and dementia.

This collection was not a representative sample. Many of the brains were donated because the men or their families noticed possible symptoms. But as The New York Times reported, about 1,300 former NFL players have died since the study began, and even in the unlikely event that all the others were unaffected, “the minimum CTE prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.”

Nor are college or high school players safe. Of the 53 brains from men who played in college but not the NFL, 48 had CTE. So did three of the 14 who played only in high school.

The most debilitating part of the sport appears to be not the rare concussion but the regular, inevitable blows to the head that occur at every level. A study conducted by Stanford researchers on Stanford players found that in a game, the typical offensive lineman endures 62 such hits, each equivalent in force to driving a car into a brick wall at 30 mph.

Ask someone to give you a solid slap upside the head. Then consider how it might affect your mental functioning if your friend did it dozens of times once a week.

The risk of severe consequences for football is lower than risk for Russian roulette. But it should be too high for anyone who likes watching the game.

I’ve been one of those people since attending my first game at the age of 8. I’ve been to Soldier Field, Notre Dame Stadium, the Cotton Bowl, Kyle Field at Texas A&M and more. I have a son and a stepson who each played four years of high school ball.

My wife, a proud University of Texas alum, loves the college game and follows every school attended by anyone in our blended family, which means that in the fall, football is on most of every Saturday. I’d like to keep enjoying it.

But this season, I don’t think I can. As the evidence accumulates, it becomes impossible to forget that what occurs on the field is a systematic, relentless attack on healthy young brains — with consequences that may not appear for years but will inevitably appear.

Remaining a fan means trying to forget that some of the players I watch will become demented and die prematurely simply because they played. It means acting as though my entertainment is worth the sacrifice of their fragile brains.

It’s tempting to think the risk can be greatly reduced with better equipment, rule changes, less tackling in practice and closer medical attention. But football is a game of collisions, and collisions subject the brain to violent impact. If you want to fix it, you have to eliminate blocking and tackling. That’s called flag football.

Some parents have concluded the risk is intolerable. The number of high school players on 11-man teams has dropped nationally by 3.5 percent over the past five years, even though total student enrollment has risen. In Illinois, participation is down by 10 percent since 2011. Same in California.

McKee, the BU neuropathologist, grew up a devoted Green Bay Packers fan. In 2012, she told journalist Jane Leavy, “I love football. I’d like to put everything I know about it in another room when I’m watching it.” But she can’t quite do that. “At the end of the game, I think, ‘How could I watch this?'”

Good question. With what we know today, it’s like watching Russian roulette. The guns may take decades to fire, but they’re all loaded.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.




  1. dbtheonly September 2, 2017

    Mr. Chapman,

    Based on this study, there is significantly more testing going on of living Players, retired and active. Over the next several months we should stat to see results from that testing.

    Again I’ll renew my post on why Baseball is better than Football. There has been one fatality in Major League Baseball. It was almost 100 years ago. 1920 to be exact. Baseball, and it’s cousin Softball can be played by anyone. In my County we have leagues for 7-10 year old Girls through Men 70 years old and older. People playing outside, having fun, a win in all respects.

  2. Lola Johnson September 2, 2017

    I grew up when Friday night fights were on the radio. As a third-grader, I was listening the night Rocky Marciano became world champion in one minute and 28 seconds of the first round. My brother was a Golden Gloves boxer. I loved boxing. I watched Cassius Clay win the Olympics. AND, I was watching the night a young Korean fighter was literally beaten to death in an Olympics match. I saw his empty eyes as they led him from the ring, and I’ve not been able to watch boxing since. How many men must be sacrificed before we all feel the same way about football? Even now, don’t we shudder when we hear the sound of those harsh, hard hits.

  3. Richard Prescott September 2, 2017

    Every sport has its pitfalls. And every sport has had its deaths. Football epitomizes the violence of players hitting players and teamwork in creating a win.
    But to state one cannot watch something because of the violence, well that is your choice.
    It is the same with claiming that the violence in military would make someone not want to read or review military actions because of the death and violence and aftermaths, leaving cripples in various forms.
    And baseball, while low in fatalities does not have an edge on injuries, simple and devastating.

    1. dbtheonly September 2, 2017

      Indeed Mr. Prescott, bring back the Gladiators. Societal misfits vs. wild animals also might do well on pay-per-view. Ms. Johnson doesn’t want to watch someone get killed. Her choice and one, I thought, universally accepted.

      Every sport, tennis, track and field, swimming, and baseball has accidents and injuries. They are accidents. In football and boxing those injuries are the direct result, or the intent, of the “game”. Baseball is so non-violent that there is not an on-field penalty for unnecessary roughness. The player is ejected from the game. There is no penalty against the team.

      As Mr. Chapman points out. Football is suicide. Watch as you choose.

  4. Beethoven September 2, 2017

    I enjoy watching college football. I have also enjoyed watching boxing since I was a child. But I never played football, and never was in a boxing match (except one time when I was assaulted by a fellow college student who didn’t accept verbal criticism). I don’t think we should prohibit people from engaging in the sports of football or boxing, but I do think every person who wants to participate, especially young people, should be made aware of the risks involved, and we should do whatever we can do to minimize those risks. We have made a lot of progress, especially in football. Players now wear helmets that provide much more protection than the simple leather helmets of 80 or 100 years ago; they wear shoulder pads and other gear that provides more protection than players of even 40 or 50 years ago. One of my favorite players, Joe Namath, is essentially crippled because of knee injuries. But the sport is inherently dangerous. And other popular sports are also dangerous, though much less so than football or boxing. Injuries do occur in baseball, sometimes permanent or life-threatening, though those are rare. And the same can be said of basketball. I remember one of my childhood friends having his arm broken badly during a youth league basketball game. People, even young people, should not be prohibited from engaging in sports because of the possibility of serious or permanent injuries. But they should be made aware of the risks involved, and everything possible should be done to minimize those risks and protect against them.

  5. Thoughtopsy September 2, 2017

    I’ve stopped watching professional sports.

    5 years as a sports rehab practitioner (fixing people after sports injuries) made me realise that it may well be their choice, but it’s still gladiatorial combat that will cause every player disability and pain, and most likely many surgeries, later in life.
    One particular friend (who was ranked one of the best in the world at their team sport at the time) was up for a double knee replacement before the age of *33*.

    Lost my enjoyment of it after those years where I spent far too long analysing and trying to fix more and more avoidable long-term damage. :-/


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