By Laura Pappano
News that NFL veteran Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year, suffered from degenerative brain disease was hardly a revelation.
We paused, saddened, on Thursday when the National Institutes of Health announced that Seau’s brain revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the result of absorbing frequent blows to the head.
I love watching this game, but lately, it’s rattling my conscience. Is football becoming like foie gras or fur – with such ugly downsides that consuming feels cruel?
Seau is not the first former NFL player for whom head blows have wrought catastrophic outcomes. Concern has been mounting, not just about concussions, but also about the still-unknown long-term traumatic effects of a game that has grown more violent (tackling has given way to hitting), despite feints at making it safer. For good reason NY Times columnist Joe Nocera last month asked: Should Kids Play Football?
Credit the genius of Bert Bell for the rise of the N.F.L. and a sport that was little more than another college game until the 1960s. There is now no more effectively marketed athletic event in the world. This prestige has trickled down to every level of play. In athletics, from rec to college, there is football – and there is everything else.
Is football in trouble? This time last year, the Penn State scandal put everyone on notice – especially college presidents – of the risks that come when programs became bigger than the universities they represent. The sheer popularity of a sport had bestowed dangerous power. Starry-eyed presidents were suddenly sobered (or said they were).
This latest news asks a more elemental question of many more of us: Is football simply too dangerous?
It is one thing to cheer knock-outs in boxing and view the brutality of a bull fight (sports some shun as a result). It is another for debilitating assaults to be the dark, delayed underside of a sport that we gather in communities to watch on Friday nights, that we make heroes of the children who play, that we sell to the world and to ourselves as America’s greatest game.