Everyone knows that football physically destroys its participants from the outside in—breaking bones, smashing shoulders, shredding ligaments. It’s just that no one really cares. A football player goes down, writhing in pain. A trainer jogs in from the sideline. Cut to commercial. The end. The entire scene is routine and mundane.
Brain damage destroys lives from the inside out—not only what people can do but also who they are. For much of the past two years, I’ve been reporting and writing on football’s concussion crisis, which is less a crisis than an everyday state of affairs and hardly limited to concussions. (Big hits, little hits: They’re all unavoidable, and they all add up.) I’ve met parents mourning the death of their teenage son; former players who get lost driving around their own neighborhoods; scientists describing in microscopic detail how proud, intelligent men become hollow, half-mad husks. I’ve learned that the NFL can be callous, and fans even more so, and that for many people, ignorance is bliss, even when it involves the health of their own children.
I can’t watch football because of Linda Sánchez, a California congresswoman and member of the House Judiciary Committee. During a 2009 Capitol Hill hearing on concussions in football, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell slouching meekly in his seat, she likened the league to the tobacco industry.
For decades, Big Tobacco said cigarettes were harmless, backing up that claim with junk science and bogus expertise, working very hard to discredit scientific evidence to the contrary. The league seems to have used the same playbook, Sánchez said.