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Feeling a Little Uneasy About Football 

I love football -- have for decades. I know it’s politically incorrect (my goodness, so much violence!) but I freely admit it and make no apologies for it.

I have a U of O flag on my car and watch every game. I don’t root for the closest thing we have to a “local” NFL team because the pathetic Seattle Seahawks are just too depressing to watch. But I catch the New York Giants on TV every chance I get.

Recently, though, there’s been a flood of news stories about long-term brain damage to football players, and I’m not sure I can ever watch a game with the same enthusiasm again.

A number of scientific studies have produced evidence that ex-NFL players show symptoms of brain damage – dementia, early-onset Alzheimer’s and others – at rates from five to 19 times those of the general population. The House Judiciary Committee considered the issue serious enough to hold a hearing on it Wednesday.

“I have been clear: medical considerations must always come first,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell testified. “We are changing the culture of our game for the better. Our goal is to make our game as safe as possible for those who choose to play it and treat our retired players with the respect and care they deserve.”

(So far the NFL has paid out $5 million to help retired pros with brain damage – which doesn’t seem like much “respect and care” considering that the league makes billions every year from guys who are willing to smash their brains into mush to entertain the fans.)

As for making the game “as safe as possible,” it’s unsafe by its very nature, and it’s doubtful that anything can be done to make it significantly less so.

A piece by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, comparing pro football to dogfighting (it’s not so far-fetched once you really think about it), goes into the brain damage issue in detail, both scientific and personal. The personal side focuses mainly on Kyle Turley, who played nine seasons as an NFL offensive lineman before retiring in 2007.

Turley tells the story of how he got knocked unconscious at the end of the third quarter of a game against the Packers in 2003. He was out for only a minute and a half, he says, but he wasn’t fully aware of what was going on for about four hours.

“They sat me down on the bench. … The trainer came up to me and said, ‘Kyle, let’s take you to the locker room.’ I remember looking up at a clock, and there was only a minute and a half left in the game — and I had no idea that much time had elapsed.”

Turley was hospitalized briefly, was cleared for practice Thursday and was back playing on Sunday. For years there have been complaints that team physicians don’t give players enough time to heal after concussions, and having independent doctors make the call might improve things.

But according to the doctors and scientists Gladwell talked with, it’s not the big concussion-producing hits that do the most damage; it’s the cumulative effect of hundreds, maybe thousands, of blows to the head that a player sustains throughout his high school, college and pro careers. Linemen get the worst of it because they’re bumping heads – with the other team’s players and their own – on almost every down.

What’s to be done? Not much, it looks like. It’s possible to outlaw intentional blows to the head, but accidental contact can do just as much damage. (Turley was knocked unconscious when he was on the ground and another player, trying to jump over him, hit his head with his knee.) Improved helmets increase the players’ sense of invulnerability and make them play more recklessly.

In the early 20th century there were so many deaths from college football (18 in 1905 alone) that colleges strongly considered banning it. President Theodore Roosevelt averted that by getting the colleges to adopt rule changes that opened up the game and eliminated the most dangerous tactics.

But it’s hard to imagine how to radically change football today and have it still be football. Would American fans come out or tune in to watch the pros play flag football or two-hand touch? Not bloody likely.

But maybe it would help if high school and college football were de-emphasized a little – shorter seasons, fewer full-contact practices, less of the win-at-all-costs mentality.

It might straighten out our educational priorities too. If a school board decided to drop foreign languages and history the response of most parents would be a shrug of the shoulders. But let it vote to eliminate football and the recall petitions would be circulating the next day.

It’s great that the U of O football team is ranked in the Top 10. Wouldn’t it be great if Oregonians got equally excited about their university being in the Top 10 academically?


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