Super Bowl Sunday has become a quasi-national holiday but we should at least be honest about what we are watching. We are watching men slowly kill themselves.
Can someone pass the guacamole?
The game of football does permanent and irreversible damage to the brain and body and each year the medical evidence becomes more certain that the damage is more common and takes place earlier than anyone previously anticipated.
It has been widely reported that researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine have asked football players to donate their brains after death so that the long-term impact of football can be studied. Sadly, they have not needed to wait long in some cases.
The early findings are sobering. Every brain they have studied has shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. More simply put, when Andre Waters, the tough, physical defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, committed suicide in 2006, his brain resembled that of an 85-year old Alzheimer’s patient. He was 44.
More sobering, researchers found signs of CTE in a player who was just 18 when he died.
In one sense, such results are not surprising. Football is a violent game.
The NFL, which has an unfailing sense of where future problems exist, has tried to get in front of the issue by updating its policy on concussions and by looking at ways to make the game safer. The problem, of course, is that the game can not be made too safe. The violence is part of its appeal.
And let’s not kid ourselves. Football is king.
The NFL’s already impressive television ratings have spiked again this year. The game between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints for the right to represent the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl was the most watched non-Super Bowl television program viewed on one network since the last episode of “Seinfeld.” (The benefits for victims of 9/11 and Haiti were watched by more people but were broadcast on multiple networks.) And CBS has sold out advertising for Sunday’s game, where a 30-second spot will run a cool $3 million. All of this as the economy continues to struggle to regain its footing.
There is no reason to believe the specter of permanent damage that the game causes its participants will dampen its popularity. Football is uniquely designed to make certain most of its players are faceless numbers, while heavily protecting the few whose faces we do know. Behavior that would bring assault charges in the real world is allowed but the quarterback, the face of football, must not be touched in a way that would inconvenience him.
But the NFL’s foresight can’t change simple facts. Nor can Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, the state Senate Majority leader and Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the Education Committee. Gaffey and Looney have introduced legislation requiring high school athletes to be benched until they are given medical clearance if they are suspected of having a concussion.
Nothing wrong with the proposed law. It makes sense, especially since an estimated 40 percent of high school athletes who suffer a concussion return to the field too early, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Such a change should be enacted immediately but, when it comes to football, there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked. If it is one day proven (and we are not there yet) that youth football causes the same kind of damage found in Andre Waters and Mike Webster and a host of others, will we allow our kids to play?
Put another way, will we one day decide that we love football more than we love our kids?