When forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, MD, dissected Hall of Fame lineman Mike Webster’s brain and subsequently published a groundbreaking article in the academic journal Neurosurgery concluding that football-related head trauma causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a mind-ravaging disease associated with repetitive head trauma, Pellman and two other committee members wrote a letter to the journal to invalidate his research. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010 that the NFL started warning players about a link between concussions and long-term brain damage.
Football hits pull the brain like Silly Putty, stretching and shearing nerve cells.
That was three years after former league concussion-committee cochair Ira Casson told Bernard Goldberg of HBO’s Real Sports that there was no evidence that multiple head injuries increased the risk of depression, dementia, or early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Currently, more than 3,500 former players and surviving family members are suing the NFL, essentially attempting to hold the league liable. I have no idea if the plaintiffs will win. I know they have a moral case. I also know that the various lawsuits—and anyone who cares about football should read a few—make it awfully hard for me to feel good about the sport. It’s also hard to feel good about all the rationalizations that go into being an informed, socially aware football fan:
• Those money-grubbing, ambulance-chasing ex-players knew what they were getting into. Now they’re complaining? Tough luck. Why can’t they just leave football alone?
• OK, fine. They didn’t know. Today’s players do. And they’re fine with the risk. Who am I to feel differently?
• Football is culturally irreplaceable. It teaches important values, like teamwork and self-sacrifice. It gives young men an outlet for aggression.
• You can suffer a concussion driving a car. Or riding a bike. Life is risky. Football is risky. Sure, we should minimize the risk. But doing so is enough to keep on enjoying the sport, right?
But here’s the thing about football, the thing that separates it from everything else, that makes the sport exciting, the thing that’s so hard for me to reconcile: The hits aren’t accidents. They’re pretty much the point.