Super Uncertainty

To plagiarize Dickens for the umpteenth time, this is the best of times and the worst of times for the NFL. For the first time in recent memory the Super Bowl pits the NFC’s best team against the AFC’s best, as well as the best defense against the best offense. And Peyton Manning’s return to the championship game has to please everyone who follows the NFL. A victory for Denver would complete the arc of a career that started out with all of the advantages of being Archie Manning’s son but then was sidetracked by a debilitating injury, followed by a comeback worthy of the pluckiest underdog in a Horatio Alger story. Manning has become Superman playing with Kryptonite in his pocket.

 Even the New Jersey winter weather, which could have been awful, appears to be cooperating. No one wants to see Manning grounded by the cold rather than the Seattle defense. The game may be a little chilly for those in attendance, but who cares? and it will likely draw the largest TV audience ever, which would mean more than 111 million, in the wake of some of the highest rated playoff games in NFL history. The TV audiences for the NFC and AFC championship games averaged more than 50 million, following weekends of wild card games and divisional playoffs averaging over 30 million. For comparison, the BCS championship game between Florida State and Auburn was watched by 24 million, and the new season of American Idol debuted with an audience of slightly more than 15 million. The NFL not only blows away all other sporting events (regular-season games sometimes outdrawing the World Series) but typically tops all non-sports programming as well. How could business be any better?

But the NFL’s bad news is as obvious as the good. The League of Denial, as both a documentary on PBS’s Frontline and a book by ESPN’s Fainaru brothers, provided a devastating and convincing story of NFL leaders not just ignoring the dangers of head trauma but working aggressively to discredit the science and the scientists who were making the disturbing discoveries. The $765 million settlement of the lawsuits brought by former players is currently in limbo, at risk of unraveling and possibly sending the NFL back to court to answer the questions raised by The League of Denial. Even should the settlement stand, the controversies surrounding it won’t end: the $112 million pocketed by the players’ attorneys, the tradeoff between immediate benefits for those in most dire need and the relatively small amount awarded to players overall, the opting out of many former players to keep their separate lawsuits alive.

 Participation in youth football appears to be declining, if only slightly so far but a potentially dangerous trend for the NFL’s pipeline of future players. And underlying all of this is the uncertainty whether concussion awareness and new techniques such as “heads-up” tackling at the youth level, along with rule changes and stiff penalties for targeting opponents’ heads at the college and professional levels can make football not only safer but truly safe, or at least safe enough.

What’s struck me most powerfully in the weeks since my eBook on “The Head in Football” came out is the divisiveness over the issues facing football where there ought to be growing consensus, whatever that consensus might be. Perhaps it could not be otherwise: if we’re hopelessly divided about everything else, why would football be excluded? The charge from the radical Right that trying to change the game in order to protect players’ brains is a “war on football” waged by Lefties who want to create a “nanny state” seems ridiculous—as if conservatives should be unconcerned about their children’s health and well-being! Brain science holds the key to football’s future, but here is where the divisiveness over the concussion crisis has become most depressing. As an academic I am very aware of science’s limitations and its slow, incremental advances. I take for granted the provisional and partial nature of scientific “truth.” I understand that there is “good” science and “bad” science, that all science is not equally reliable, and that scientists sometimes engage in rivalries, both petty and profound. None of this invalidates science altogether, only requires repeated studies and serious peer review.

Because scientists have not yet established a definitive causal link between head blows in football and later brain damage through studies that satisfy the most rigorous scientific standards, it does not follow that they’ve discovered no possible connection at all. Of course Ann McKee’s sample of CTE cases is not representative of all NFL players; neither she nor anyone else has claimed that it is. Nor has she claimed to have found a definitive causal link between CTE and head blows in football. What she has found is CTE in the brains of nearly every former NFL player she has examined who has suffered from brain disease, in addition to the brains of a few young men who played only in high school or college. A definitive link, through long-term, double-blind studies and so on, will take a long time—that’s why they’re called “longitudinal.” For now, we have enough compelling case studies to suspect a causal link and compelling reasons to assume, until we know otherwise, that head blows can produce long-term damage and that we should do what we can to prevent them.

The so-called concussion crisis isn’t a Red State/Blue State political issue but a family issue, a public health issue, and a social issue. As both a family and a public health issue, it requires weighing uncertain but potentially huge costs against known (or assumed) but less life-altering benefits. And the public has a stake in this: future medical costs are borne by all of us. As a social issue, in relation to NFL players rather than kids in youth leagues, it touches on how much suffering we as a people are willing to let others endure for the sake of our own pleasure. Football players have been called “gladiators” since the 1890s, and the appeal of the game has always been tied to its keeping alive a kind of primitive masculinity that is no longer very useful and seems to have been otherwise lost. But if football’s metaphorical “gladiators” turn out to be actual ones, a significant portion of them destroyed mentally as well as physically for our entertainment, can we as a people accept that? Our answer to that question will be a sign of just how “civilized” we’ve become.

The recent scenes from Friday Night Tykes on YouTube—pencil-necked 9-year-olds being driven by coaches and parents to inflict and endure the pain of head-on collisions—are incomprehensible to me. These parents and coaches seem immune to the concerns that are causing such uncertainty about football. I assume that they are anomalies and that uncertainty is more common. Uncertainty haunts football but also preserves it. The haunting comes from parents’ natural concerns about their children’s well-being. The preserving comes from the fact that the damage to players, whether kids or professionals, rarely happens immediately, before our own eyes. It shows up years later, perhaps subtly at first before it becomes full-blown dementia or depression or rage, and in the privacy of homes rather than viewed by 30 million on TV. Watching games, we’re not forced to weigh consequences.

Uncertainties abound, and how all of this will play out is itself uncertain. I share the uncertainty of those who want football safe enough to play and watch guiltlessly but are unsure if this is possible. I have the luxury of having sons who are 33 and 29, not 14 and 10, as we all wait for neurologists and pathologists to make things clearer. There’s more funding for brain research now, due in part to the media coverage of football’s concussion crisis, in part to the fact that the military and the NFL face similar challenges. But science is messy, and its “truths” emerge over time. Sadly, we live at a time when too many people believe that “truth” is determined by who’s telling it, on whether they heard it on Fox News or MSNBC. There’s much more at stake here than the future of football in the war on science. But football’s future is at stake, too.

Michael Oriard is the author of The Head in Football, published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. 

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