Voices in the Wilderness

This is a difficult subject for me. As I have attempted to explain before, the overwhelming majority of my friends are football fans. Many of them — I dare say most of them — have children who play football. I want them to know I completely respect their love of the game and their support of their children playing it. As I have written before, football, as designed, is a great game. It teaches a lot of important life lessons, lessons too numerous to list here. As I have also stated before, the game was in many ways good to my father and me. I do not hate this game that you love so much. I do not want to see it outlawed. I do not want to see it die. I wish it could be fixed. I just don’t know if it can be.

So please respect me when I say this: I don’t share your love of the game. My kids never played a down. Not because I prevented them from playing, but because they never expressed any interest in playing. And I’m relieved and at times thank God they didn’t. They grew up in areas different from where I did. Areas where football was just another game. They played other sports and developed other interests. I was never put in the position of having to reconcile their desire to play with my personal reservations. I have lived for the past two decades in places that don’t worship the game, and I have gotten used to it not being much a part of my weekends or Monday nights. I weaned myself off it years ago. Although, as I have also confessed, I occasionally break down and watch like everyone else, I am not invested in any team; it’s just not a part of my life anymore. I moved on.

So forgive me, but I have a different perspective than you. And I have my reasons.

As far back as 1979, sports writer and author John Underwood warned in his book, The Death of an American Game: The Crisis in Football, that football had become too violent. Although he initially focused on the NFL and many dirty techniques that were both legal and taught by coaches, he presciently argued that the helmet — initially created with the purpose to protect players’ heads from inadvertent contact, had by 1979 turned into a lethal object used intentionally as a weapon and responsible for 29 percent of serious brain and spinal injuries. Meanwhile the NFL, lulled by huge profits, continued to do nothing. Underwood also foresaw the ramifications of his subject reaching down into all levels, including the NCAA, high school, and even little league. The sad thing is, today you might be fortunate to locate Underwood’s book anywhere on the internet, such was the cricketesque response it received. It was a brave book at a time when the NFL’s popularity had exploded to mythic proportions.

Modern sportswriters like Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times have recently and courageously picked up the torch, arguing that although the sport remains popular, the gleaming new stadiums, multi-media experience, and brightly colored uniforms we see each season — like the whited sepulchres from Scripture — mask a rotten interior; one filled with gladiator-like young men who suffer serious injuries, yet somehow muster the strength to play through them for fear of losing their jobs in one of the shortest on average careers on the planet. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average NFL career is 2.66 years, and that average continues to fall. As Plaschke notes, pro football’s popularity continues unabated while its players are quickly cast aside and forgotten, “All this affection for an ancient and brutal game of gladiators. We loudly cheer as they slowly die.”

I myself have written about my and my father’s own experiences in the aftermath of our football careers and my frustrations that although the medical proof is there, NFL insiders continue to act and speak irresponsibly about the head-trauma issue.

And in any event, fans simply don’t care and don’t want to hear it. It’s very much like the approach we as a nation take with our veterans, an approach pointed out and criticized brilliantly by author Ben Fountain in his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, in which he criticizes our national obsession with our veterans, an obsession we engage in by doing things like flying the flag every day at our homes, pasting “I support the troops!” stickers on our cars, and garishly recognizing them before and during sports contests, but doing nothing to actually support or help them. And then forgetting about them as soon as the game is over.

Because I am the son of a former NFL player and a former college player myself, and because I now reside in the town where he and I played (where everyone knows the above), I try to go along to get along with the overwhelming majority of people who are rabid football fans. It’s so literally a way of life around here that friends act surprised when my wife and I don’t go to the games and don’t watch them on television. We get texts like, “Where are you watching the game,” assuming we are doing so. Or questions like, “Can you believe we came back and won like that,” when I didn’t watch a single down of the game. The fact that fans use the term “we” after a victory by their team has been coined in psychology studies as “reflected glory,” as opposed to using the term “they” when their team loses, a practice called cutting off “reflective failure.” The condition is not limited to sports alone.

This is a place where a fan was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after a home game earlier this season when he yelled criticism containing a few four-letter words at the head coach after the game, an arrest that met with the overwhelming agreement of most online commenters. (In defense, I can’t say the same thing wouldn’t happen in other cities in the conference if a fan yelled similar criticism at one of their head coaches).

I lived here for a while after school before I left. And one of the best things about leaving here to pursue a military career after law school was we lived in places that didn’t worship football like some sort of golden calf and didn’t live, breathe, and eat it 365 days a year. We knew giving our boys that opportunity — to be themselves and have their own identity— would have been impossible if we had raised them in the South or in my home state of Texas, which, by the way, I love with all my heart. No. On the west coast in San Diego, or in Virginia, or on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, football was just another sport. It was not a god. Kids didn’t have to play it to get the letter jacket or be cool. Baseball, basketball, soccer, surfing, and track and field were all equally cool. And my anonymity in those places was refreshing.

Back here it just ain’t like that, and things get old and trite, especially when September comes around. But I get along. I bite my tongue. I attend the functions. I even go to the tailgating once in a while to see friends, and I leave right before the kickoff. I nod smiling at all the football discussion. I even take part in them when asked questions. What else am I supposed to do? Unload on well-intentioned people? I manage to stay under the radar and keep myself occupied outside the prevailing obsession.

Then last Thursday night I get a video replay from the Carolina-New Orleans game from my mother. See, I don’t watch games on Thursday night, or any other night. And what football-related news I do get I usually get from her, because she has been married for over 50 years to a former NFL player (my father) who now suffers from cognitive dysfunction. And when I watch the video, I get disgusted all over again.

The video in the article above, which since Thursday night is becoming more and more difficult to locate on the internet in an uncut form, containing commentator and former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth’s sympathetic and emotional, “Oh my gosh, Oh my gosh,” observations when he sees Kuechly’s uncontrollable sobs, is one of the most disturbing videos I have ever seen. The condition Kuechly is suffering from is called pseudobulbar affect, which can occur simultaneously with concussion and other forms of head trauma. Nobody wants to talk about this right now, except for Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky, who should be commended for pointing out what looks convincingly like pseudobulbar affect on the video. This phenomenon involves uncontrollable crying, or sometimes, laughing, related to brain trauma. In a nutshell, you lose complete control of your emotions from a concussive hit to the head.

And just as disturbing as the video above is the fact that pseudobulbar affect also occurs in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, two insidious afflictions alarmingly more common in former football players than the general population as a whole. Luke Kuechly is one of the toughest players in the league, but his brain hitting the inside of his skull reduced him to a sobbing four year-old. But he is not a 75 year-old Alzhemier’s victim; he’s a 25 year-old young man in the prime of his life.

When I was a kid, I used to have this dream where I was screaming warnings about something amorphous, yet nobody could hear me. I would be within their earshot, but it was like nobody could see me or hear me. That’s what it feels like now. Nobody listened to John Underwood in 1979. Strength coaches and players accelerated the use of steroids and other performance enhancing substances until the NFL and NCAA couldn’t ignore it any longer. Unfortunately, that crackdown had more to do with the criminal law than some new-found concern for players’ current and long-term health; football programs that promoted and overlooked those practices became the subject of grand jury investigations and prosecutions. There, illegal drugs were involved. Here it’s just brain and muscle tissue. The connection between the two? The elevation of football above any real concern for the young men who play it.

And in the recent decade, we now know that concussions are not the temporary set back we always thought they were. We have a full-blown medical crisis on our hands, although the NFL and the NCAA would love to downplay it as much as possible. The evidence stares us all in the face. Yet nobody is listening. There’s too much money at stake and the fans just don’t care, because after all, it isn’t happening to them or someone they actually care about. As Bill Plaschke notes, the small minority who might care pay attention only as long as it is until their team next takes the field.

I sit back and I ask myself, “Am I the only one who recognizes this? Why do people worship this spectacle? Why do we implicitly exert pressure on our boys to participate?” But sadly that is human nature; we don’t really pay attention or listen until an explosive round lands very close to us and hits someone we love or care about.

It doesn’t matter that football is popular. The gladiators were a popular spectacle in their day too. Lots of things are “popular.” Pornography, drug use, television and movies that graphically depict and glorify sex, violence, and crime are popular, but that doesn’t really mean anything, other than to reflect our societal appetites.

So tee it up. Get ready for the gladiators to entertain everyone this coming Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. If we are all lucky, we won’t have to confront another scene like the one we saw with Luke Kuechly last Thursday night. Because that would force us to look in the mirror for a few seconds.

Or would it?