A stadium packed with thousands of fans chanted, cheered, and screamed as the Ohio State University football team pummeled Penn State University. This was my first experience at a “real” football game, and I was overwhelmed to be part of a crowd larger than the entire population of Aruba.
When I shared that realization with my stepmother, she blinked and pursed her lips and told me to never say such things again – not until halftime, at the very least.
“This is football!” she admonished.
My stepmother isn’t the only fan who considers football an untouchable emblem of what makes America great. Millions of fans turn out every year to watch football players bash into each other, and resist any threat to their game.
But many don’t seem to realize that the game itself currently poses the greatest threat to its continuity.
A rash of high-profile suicides among former NFL stars has garnered national attention, with three casualties in the last 19 months alone, including retired linebacker Junior Seau and former safeties Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.
Easterling, Duerson, and potentially Seau – his autopsy results have yet to be released – suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological disorder similar to Alzheimer’s. In both diseases, the patient’s brain shuts down due to the presence of tau, a protein that builds up in the brain cells.
Unlike Alzheimer’s, CTE is not genetic. It is the result of the repeated head injury almost indelibly associated with tackle football.
According to Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the University of North Carolina Sports Concussion Research Program, a lineman will be struck in the head nearly a thousand times during the average football season. And not a little bump or jostle. On average, the force of each blow is comparable to that sustained by someone who drove his car into a brick wall at 25 mph without wearing a seatbelt and bashed his head into the windshield.
This means that by the time a lineman on a Division I team reaches his senior year, he would have been in the equivalent of 8,000 car accidents.
“There is something wrong with this group as a cohort,” said Bennet Omalu, neuropathologist, CTE researcher, and founding member of the Brain Injury Research Institute, who has studied well over twenty brains belonging to former NFL players, only finding one that lacked the definitive markers of CTE – a brain that belonged to a 24-year-old running-back who played in the NFL for less than two years.
“There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker in 2009. “We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else – neither considerations of science nor those of morality – can compete.”
Because of that love, which often verges on worship, many fans ignore the serious issues confronting players and demand no changes from the NCAA and the NFL, claiming, “This is football!” as they slap on earmuffs and head to the stadium.
In The American Spectator, Daniel J. Flynn claims that “There’s no evidence, just speculation” connecting the NFL suicides, CTE, and football. His simplistic conclusion: “Playing football is good for you. Being a wuss isn’t.”
Perhaps the real “wusses” are in the cheering, stamping crowd, making no move to protect the very men for whom they cheer and blotting out the threat entirely.