Sunday, September 14, 2014

Today's Big Game, Fans vs. Facts

When the Patriots-Vikings game comes on TV today, take a moment and check the opposing sidelines.

Scan the Minnesota sideline. Adrian Peterson probably won't be there. He's inactive due to being a monster. One of pro football's biggest stars, the darling of all fantasy leagues, was charged last week with beating one of his children in the name of "discipline."

Ray Rice cold-cocked his future wife in an act of alcohol-fueled rage. That's horrible. Peterson's case is worse. He beat a child as a deliberate decision. That's not the act of a normal, let alone decent person.

Now look at the Patriots sideline. Doing so during the National Anthem would be perfect. Gaze at the 45 Pats lined up in order. Try to guess which 15 of these young, strong, vibrant athletes will be half-human wrecks tottering to premature death by my age of 65 or younger, much younger, maybe by 50, their brains permanently injured and diseased due to the game that's just about to start.

According to an actuarial survey conducted for the former players suing the NFL, a survey not disputed by the league as a matter of fact, roughly one-third of all players will develop some form of brain trauma related medical issue in their lives. Go pick your particular Patriots hero and imagine them with Parkinson's disease, or unable to recognize their own grandchildren in 2040. Now have some more chips and dip and root, root, root for the home team.

Some say that the increasing evidence that many NFL players are a danger to others as well as to themselves poses a threat to pro football's ludicrous level of popularity. I wish this were so, but I have my doubts. People are as attracted to monsters as they are frightened by them, and their safe display has long been a very profitable racket. Ask the Discovery Channel and Chatham, Massachusetts about the great white shark's contribution to their bottom lines.

Most players aren't monsters, after all. Most leave their gift for violence in the locker room next to their shoulder pads, go home and lead lives appropriate to reckless rich young men, no more of a menace to society than Justin Bieber. Many lead humdrum suburban young married with children lives. It is quite possible for any fan to rationalize that a few bad apples don't spoil his or her barrel of NFL fun.

But what if the barrel itself is killing people, shortening the lives of football players in the most terrible way imaginable? Even the dimmest fan knows that the entire massive structure of the NFL rests upon their willingness to pay for tickets and sit in front of the tube for hours on end watching the collisions that are causing those brain injuries. The dimmer the fan, the more likely they are to tell you loudly they are the sport's bedrock.

When I was a child and teenage NFL fan, it was accepted knowledge that former players had permanent health issues and the risk of premature death. But it was thought the risks were joint issues and the possibility of cardiac arrest. Former players had limps. Former players needed to lose weight. These were not problems to disturb the fan's role in the game.

Now well into the 21st century, we know better. Football the sport contains the certainty, not the risk, of a casualty level among players that'd be deemed unacceptable by any military planner in the world. One third of them will be lost or crippled by the time they hit normal retirement age, in a country with a significantly increasing percentage of people in that age group.

Dangerous sports can improve player safety. Auto racing has. But those changes were to machines, not human beings. They were also conducted by sports organizations who actually believed some risks were unacceptable, that danger was bad for business.

If there's one thing we've learned about pro football in 2014, it's that the men who run the NFL don't think anything can ever be bad for their business. Make that two things. We've also learned they don't care about anything in their business but the rapacious search for more profits. The league SAYS it's deeply concerned about player safety. It says it doesn't like domestic violence, either. The survey I cited only took place because the NFL was sued, not because of its well wishes for its former employees.

The most disquieting thought I want fans to have this afternoon is that maybe the NFL couldn't make its sport safer even if it did want to. Perhaps no rule or equipment improvements can alter the fact that repeated collisions between strong, fast, insanely motivated young men are going to permanently damage one of every three brains involved.

If so, then every fan must look at complicity. Their enjoyment, and pro football offers plenty, is being purchased at the price of someone else's cognition. Fans are the bedrock of football. Therefore, it is our obligation to know just what the hell we are supporting.

Rationalization being one of humanity's supreme skills, most fans will deny or ignore what the NFL's human damage this afternoon except for knee injuries suffered by their fantasy teams. 2040 is a long way off, after all. Medical science will save the heroes of 2014 by then.

Some won't. The ones who won't are the real risk to the NFL, a risk it ignores at its peril, and a risk of course it will ignore.

Boxing's dangers to the human brain have been known for centuries. It's still popular enough. Floyd Mayweather, another beautiful person, remains quite rich.

But boxing is nowhere as popular as it was for the first two-thirds of the 20th century. If you chart its decline in the U.S. alongside the NFL's growth the two lines are almost exactly parallel. America found a violent sport it found more acceptable because it seemed safer. The athletes wore helmets and pads!

The knowledge that football violence is just as if not more dangerous to long-term human health as boxing ought to be hard to rationalize. Some fans, the best of us in many ways, will renounce pro ball forever and watch the Premier League or something else instead. Others won't drop out, they'll just consume less of the sport than they used to. They'll watch the Pats or whatever team they follow and find three hours of moral dilemma a week is enough for them.

I am not an optimist about mankind, but neither do I think humans are incapable of change for the better. While I know the vast majority of fans will continue to consume the NFL's product with gusto, I believe most of them will at least feel the occasional qualm about it, and that the numbers of dropouts and use-lesses will grow as the facts about football brain damage grow.

I  believe this because that while most people like watching monsters from a safe distance, few like to think maybe they're the monster.


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