In the 1950s, I played football for five years, grades 9-12, and freshman football in college for three weeks. During that time I experienced a strained knee, a broken nose, a face cut requiring 10+ stitches, a concussion, and a shoulder separation. In retrospect, I got off easy compared to others I know. By now, I have outlived the life expectancy of an average NFL veteran and have not suffered to date from dementia, which pro players succumb to at five times the rate of average citizens.
You see, I played football when it was a sport, not a savage means of mass entertainment. In the 1950s, the idea was to tackle low and around the legs, roll, bring your opponent down, but not with the intent to maim and injure. Today we see the helmet used as a weapon, tackling as a major collision, and all forms of contact delivered with maximum force. In the 1950s injuries were not uncommon, but not epidemic: annoying and hurtful, perhaps, but not the result of vicious, bone-rattling hits.
There is also the contrast that boys and men weighing a normal, naturally acquired, 150 to 200 pounds, do not hit with the same force of men weighing 250-375 pounds, men whose bodies are all muscle, often the result of drugs and steroids. Consequently, collisions today set in motion disastrous consequences for the players as suggested by current research.
“Recent studies have show that men who play five or more years in the NFL have a life expectancy of 55 years, 20 years less than the average in the general public.” (CBS Sports, Nov. 19, 2008). Another fresh study found that former professional football players suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia, and memory loss, at rates ranging from five to nineteen times higher than the national average.” (Steven Reinberg, Healthday, Sept. 30, 2009.)
There can be little doubt that professional football players today are our equivalent of the Roman gladiators who faced the likelihood of death for the entertainment of the Coliseum spectators. “Ave Caesar morituri te salutant” which translates as “Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you.” Yes, they die so we can enjoy the spectacle. And today, the dementia inducing, early death likelihood of our professional football players is not questioned. “That’s entertainment!” That’s big business!
Given the hundreds of thousands of fans, many of whose tedious lives are relieved by the Sunday shows, it is unlikely anything will be done to halt this inevitable trend. There is too much money, too much momentum, and too much reliance on its entertainment value. One can only hope that young college players deliberating about careers in the NFL will ask themselves whether the risk of an early death, of facing post-middle age suffering from dementia, of hobbling through life with blown out knees, headaches or depression, is worth the pay, the brief camaraderie, and the cheers of the spectators.
When I was headmaster of Crossroads School, almost every year a student or parent asked if I was planning to start a tackle football program. At first, I begged off, saying we had just too small an enrollment to field a team. Besides, I would argue, it’s too expensive. But, finally, I had to tell my deeper reasons. Those mentioned above. I don’t want it, I would say, because it’s too violent, too dangerous, and because its values have gotten messed up.
On T.V. you watch a wide receiver cut over the center, looking back for the pass, a linebacker draws bead on him, and the receiver, who never saw the hit coming, is blasted down and practically broken in half. What does the announcer say about the tackler? “Wow, he’s some kind of man!” Really? What a definition of manhood. What a lousy lesson for young men watching the game. No, it isn’t the same game I played in high school. As Gabe poignantly says in the film The Misfits, “They’ve changed it.”
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