A Moral Equivalent of Football?

Neither book seemed promising. Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers recounts being embedded for most of 2010 with the New York Jets, of all teams, which seemed like trying to learn the craft of the American songbook by spending a year with Britney Spears. And League of Denial, by ESPN writers (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, follows the scientists and doctors who exposed that repeated concussions could cause long-term brain damage in NFL players. It was not clear why it would take 352 pages to prove that being clobbered by the some of the strongest, biggest, and fastest men in America was not good for your head.

Yet, as the regular season was ending, things had been bothering me. I decided to study up. And I was rewarded: both books are absorbing and humane even as they meet their goal to challenge fans like me. I watch football without worrying about the damage being done to the players the same way that I, for the most part, eat an orange without worrying about migrant workers or drive a car without worrying about global warming: a well-oiled ability to not think about things that get in the way of my own enjoyment. The Fainarus seek to end my ignorance of the game’s consequences. I also watch football clueless about 90 percent of its intricacies and even basic player movement the same way I watch an opera with a thin command of music history or admire a redwood with only the foggiest understanding of photosynthesis. I figure that if I grasp 10 percent of the drama and beauty in something, it’s still better than not experiencing any of it at all. Dawidoff seeks to end my ignorance of the game itself.

But reading one book after the other left me with nagging irresolution: does my increased admiration for the sport as fostered by Dawidoff somehow excuse the damage to the players as detailed by the Fainarus? The game is even more complex and beautiful to me now (from the patterns run by a wide receiver to the branding done by the home office). It is also more repugnant. We may be in the early stages of the death of football, on its first steps along boxing’s seeming path to be one day forgotten or altogether banned. Enjoy the playoffs while you can.

“With so many alternatives, how can we let our children and our loved ones, ourselves, play a game that may destroy the essence of who we are?” the Fainarus ask, in the closest they ever get to advocating a ban. They begin League of Denial with a tale of destruction, the unraveling of “Iron” Mike Webster, the relentlessly hard working Hall of Fame center of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s. In the twelve years he lived after his nineteen-year career, Webster became a monster of paranoia, self-medication, and alienation. He was frequently homeless. He often put himself to sleep with a stun gun. His centrality to the story told in League of Denial comes from his death. Bennett Omalu, a pathologist in Pittsburgh’s coroner’s office, first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the specific pattern of brain damage found repeatedly in dead NFL players, by examining Webster’s corpse.

League of Denial is equally the story of players like Mike Webster and Junior Seau (a suicide at 42 after one of the longest and most jubilant careers in NFL history) and the “Dissenters,” an often rivalrous group of doctors and scientists who sought to get the NFL to admit that football may cause brain damage. Doctors have known since 1928 of the CTE-related condition that leaves boxers punch-drunk. A study by the NFL itself revealed that the heads of concussed players were subject to the g force equivalent, for 15 milliseconds, of being struck by a ten-pound cannonball traveling thirty miles per hour. For a time, the NFL gestured at caring. Starting in 1994, it organized a mildly named Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee under the leadership of a resume-embellishing, unqualified rheumatologist who was also a team doctor for the Jets. The committee produced “anti-science” study after study that, as mocked by the Fainarus, declared, “Don’t worry, be happy . . . The number of concussions is a meaningless predictor of future injuries; theoretically, one can have an infinite number of concussions and still be fine.”

League of Denial did not break the news on concussions. The topic has been widely discussed for two decades, especially since the high profile cases of quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman in the ’90s. The Times had a full-time investigative reporter assigned to a concussion beat for five years. It covered (and still covers) the story with a ferocity usually reserved for political scandals or Breaking Bad. League of Denial’s accomplishments are how it retells the history of a familiar modern tale: scientists fighting a powerful corporation that, as the Fainarus write, “used its power and vast resources to try to discredit scientists it disagreed with and bury their work, cherry-picked data to make selective argument about concussions, and elevated its own flawed research.” The most obvious analogue, one repeatedly made by the Fainarus, is Big Tobacco. The NFL also muddied the obvious with a “metaphysical quarrel over the definition of cause,” as journalist Dan Zegart described a tactic in his investigation of the tobacco industry. Who’s to say that Mike Webster’s problems were not caused by genetics or steroids rather than decades of practicing his signature move of lifting enormous onrushing defenders off their feet with his head?

Eventually, the NFL shut the curtain on the farce. The Fainarus’ portraits of their hero scientists—a mixed bag of sober professionals, self-promoters, sell-outs, and brain-craving ghouls—are rich enough to keep the reader interested even as the narrative sags with the scientists’ victory. After Roger Goodell replaced Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of the league in 2007, the NFL admitted that football can cause brain damage, changed the rules to make the game safer, and, just a few months ago, settled a massive lawsuit with 4,500 retired players and their families for $765 million plus hundreds of millions in legal fees. The Times reports such strange rewards from an announced distribution formula: a retired player would get $1.5 million if he has mild brain damage but double that amount if his dementia is full.

Not every scientific fact is yet established. We know that, while former NFL players’ mortality rate is not that different than the general population’s, the players who experienced concussions are three times more likely to experience depression in retirement and have “significant neurological problems: memory loss, confusion, speech or hearing problems, and headaches.” Players who report three or more concussions in their career are five times more likely to be diagnosed with early signs of dementia. Retired players between 30 and 49 are nineteen times more likely to have Alzheimer’s by then. Yet it’s still not entirely clear whether brain damage is a likely consequence of an NFL career, when one is hit in certain ways at a certain frequency, or a nearly inevitable one given enough time playing the game. And even if we get all the facts, what would our moral rubric be? How many suicides of how many Junior Seaus are worth my entertainment?

Nicholas Dawidoff asks a similar question: “Was it acceptable to enjoy something that brutalized the minds and bodies of young men? That impoverished kids became young millionaires by giving their bodies over to a game that might cripple them seemed both wonderful and macabre to people.” But from his embedded position with players and coaches, Dawidoff received no particular insight. “Here there was no such discussion. The subject of concussions never came up except in the context of regulations.”

Collision Low Crossers, named after a Jets defensive play, makes clear why this is so: playing and coaching professional football is such a life-consuming, time-incinerating, bone-breaking job that there is very little opportunity to think about anything other than the game ahead of you and the one you just played. The book is consuming, too, a regularly startling work that opens up your idea of life. Dawidoff is an anti-Janet Malcolm: what he does is morally defensible because he gains the trust of people and sympathizes with them without remorse. The Jets players and coaches clearly liked Dawidoff, nicknaming him ”Bookworm” (and then, in another sign of our dying literary culture, just “Worm”). They let him call a play in pre-season. Dawidoff returned that affection. He even celebrates the Jets’ reputationally mixed head coach Rex Ryan for his inspiring, enthusiastically loving, self-deprecating fat man personality. It pains Dawidoff, near the end of the book, to suggest that Ryan may not be a good coach.

Of all the reasons Dawidoff admires the Jets players and coaches, their capacity for work stands out most. Darrelle Revis, the best player on the Jets, told Dawidoff, “Playing football is a tough, hard life we have. There’s a lot of long days, a lot of repetition, a lot of perfectionists, a lot of high tolerance for pain.” Players get off on Tuesdays and Thursday nights. The rest of their time is the team’s. Football has a 100 percent injury rate, Ryan likes to say, and a Monday after the game is first spent repairing the players’ bodies in a facility room that resembles a “busy auto-body” shop. On Monday afternoons, players are forced to watch the entire game again, often with the video isolated on an individual player, his good plays held up as an example, his mistakes often replayed again and again in a torturing loop in front of his teammates. From Wednesday until Sunday’s game, the players’ lives are about learning new plays, practicing against players striving to imitate the opponent, spending even more time watching videos of the opponent, and engaging in endless exegesis. (Nate Jackson in Slow Getting Up, his excellent and soulfully hardboiled memoir as a middle-of-the-pack football player, notes that he joined the league to find out that “the NFL, it turns out, is mostly talking.”) From watching videos, a safety will notice, for example, how the positioning of a running back’s feet tells whether the play will be a run or a pass. A quarterback will try to memorize every potential defensive coverage of an opponent to be able to recognize it instantly on the field. The staring at the screen can make everything abstract. “Professional football players prepare so obsessively for each game,” Dawidoff writes, “they often don’t know the names of the players on a future opponent’s team until the week before the game.”

The coaches don’t suffer from beaten-up bodies like the players, of course, but they seem to do penance for their health by sacrificing everything else in their lives. The only times coaches get off during the season are the eight Saturday afternoons before home games. They spend the rest of the time trying to reassess the physical and mental state of their players (an ever changing state because players are constantly getting better, getting worse, getting hurt), trying to guess the play calling and strategy of the opposing team, and devising plays that are complicated enough to not be easily cracked but not too complicated that their own players can’t process them in the semi-scripted donnybrook of the game. The variables are infinite. Sportswriters criticize you incessantly. There is not enough time. Many of the coaches sleep at the training facility, the Jets defensive coordinator often on a mattress in Rex Ryan’s closet. A drama builds through Collision Low Crossers about whether any of this would drive a coach completely insane. A few came close. Football, legendary coach Bill Parcells says, is not for the well adjusted.

The game, Dawidoff explains, is “the attempt to impose order on a significantly unstable pursuit,” and the order must be imposed in unbelievably short bursts of time. Football is the poem to baseball’s novel, with a concentrated consequence in each moment. The Wall Street Journal once estimated that the ball is in play in a football game for only eleven minutes. Given that an offensive, defensive, or special teams players is not on the field for much of the game, a season of actual action for a player is likely to be around an hour—an hour and a half, maybe, if you make the Super Bowl. In each moment of that season’s hour, twenty-two players are trying to follow one of dozens of coach-ordered plays while also trying to respond to his own teammates’ planned or unplanned actions, the other team’s plays and improvisations, the players’ own shrieking injuries, physics, luck—and the potential on every play to get seriously hurt.

Collision Low Crossers is partly an investigation of why players, and coaches, almost never quit. Fans are comically absent from that decision. (This could because the Jets would have to be motivated by Jets fans, which by my unscientific observation are as goony as Eagles fans without the legitimate excuse of being from Philadelphia.) The money in professional sports is good, of course, and NFL players don’t grow up on Park Avenue. But the average career in the NFL (nicknamed Not For Long) is three-and-a-half years. Eighty percent of NFL players encounter financial stress two years after leaving the league. Coaches’ job security is equally bad. Most of them, Dawidoff writes, “placed no personal mementos on the walls of the rooms where they spent twice as much as they spent at home. Why put up what you might soon have to take down?” The glamour of being a professional athlete doesn’t hurt as motivation, I suppose. NFL players probably get to have sex with more women, sometimes in interesting combinations, than tax accountants. But Dawidoff, through the course of the Jets’ tumultuous 8-8 season, portrays a sport so exteriorly punishing and interiorly crushing that one imagines players often envy accountants.

“The working class is loyal to friends, not ideas,” Norman Mailer wrote in Armies of the Night. “No wonder the Army bothered them not a bit.” All that working-class cultural and individual pride is in Collision Low Crossers: playing harder to not let the team down; the self-assured humor; a comfort with football’s military regimentation (the army analogies are constant); and the pure physical joy in the game’s precision, speed, athleticism, and—yes—hitting. “It’s a blue collar sport,” Jets guard Brandon Moore told Davidoff. “Got to bring the lunch pail. You do a lot of things you don’t like to do. Uncomfortable things.”

I believe in the noble lessons to be found in football. The game provides chances at greatness for poor men and shared identities for diverse communities and models of stoicism for our own disappointed lives. But Shakespeare wrote King Lear without once having seen a cornerback blitz. And some player this Sunday may be planting the seeds of his future ruin by doing his job well. Is there a better way?

The NFL would answer that they are working on it: a safer type of football. New rules come out every year. No tackling during pre-season camp. Ball carriers are not allowed to lower the crown of their helmets into defenders. Defenders are not allowed to “unnecessarily” assault offensive players, mostly receivers, who are in a defenseless position, usually while stretching to catch the ball. The kickoff point has been moved up five yards to make kickoff returns, one of the most dangerous plays, less likely. A non-affiliated “neurotrauma consultant” now decides whether a player can return to the game, not the coach. When, in 2012, the New Orleans Saints and their coaches were caught for having paid cash “bounties” for hard hits, the head coach and defensive coordinator were suspended for a year without pay. These rules and responses are changing the mores of the league. Dawidoff quotes Jets safety Jim Leonhard: “Used to be, you got a head injury, you were a pussy if you came out. Now it’s the opposite, the worst thing.”

Macho critics complain that NFL now stands for the No Fun League. Are the new rules fundamentally affecting the game’s appeal, turning it into flag football? I like watching a bruising open-field tackle as much as the next asshole, but football is not ultimate fighting. The violence in the NFL is going down, and the sport’s popularity is going up. This popularity is generally attributed to the continued benefits of the NFL’s famous revenue sharing system: greater parity among teams; surprisingly strong competitors every year; lots of close games. Dawidoff reports that “anywhere from half to three-quarter of NFL games had been decided by one score” in recent years. The NFL is also, frankly, a convenient sport to watch, in our increasingly hectic lives, with games once a week over little more than a third of the year. In comparison, the baseball season doesn’t just seem like just any novel; it seems like Proust.

But professional football isn’t as popular as it is—it owns Sundays, as the church used to—because it is convenient. It’s popular because the games are interesting and often thrilling. The near impossibility of players even standing up, not to mention making eye-popping plays, despite the speed and power of those trying to stop them is part of that thrill.  And violence is part of the impossibility. For the players and coaches, Dawidoff reports, “physical intimidation was not only how you won at football, it was the point.” Nate Jackson goes further: “on the field we are pulled toward the mayhem.” And, attitudes aside, there is only so much the NFL can do to improve the safety of the sport. (Vince Lombardi: football “is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport.”) Players are getting bigger and faster, and force equaling mass times acceleration cannot be legislated away by the NFL’s rules committee. Better equipment is unlikely to be the answer. League of Denial recounts how Riddell, the league’s official helmet manufacturer, hyped a safer helmet with almost no scientific grounds for their claims. Concussions occur from the jolting of a gelatinous brain against a skull’s jagged interior, not damage to a skull. In war, shock waves from bombs cause concussions with no contact to the head whatsoever.

We’ve all heard it thousands of times, usually by skinny sophisticates who yearn to be Dutch: with all this danger, why can’t we finally have a soccer-centered country like everyone else in the world? Wouldn’t this be the moral equivalent of football, as William James would call it? In international soccer, at least, it’s only the fans that are violent—not the game.

But sports aren’t replaced by mandate, outside of North Korea at least. A sport becomes less popular if the matches become less interesting or if the game falls out of the grooves of a changing culture. And football could become more repulsive, fan by former fan. Other types of violence—war between developed countries, lynching, spousal abuse, child-beating, bearbaiting—have become increasingly unfathomable or unpalatable over time. Or else promising athletes could choose safer sports or have this choice made for them by people even more formidable than the scariest defensive end. In the most melodramatic moment of League of Denial, after Bennett Omalu discovers CTE in the brain of Mike Webster, he is pressed by Joseph Maroon, a doctor working for the Steelers:

“Bennett, do you really understand the impact of what you’re doing.”

“Okay, what is the impact?” said Omalu.

Maroon tilted his head back.

“If only 10 percent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game,” Maroon said, “that is the end of football.”

Of course, current players will lose if football fades in popularity. What Dawidoff said about running back Bilal Powell could be applied to many others: “The implicit irony, and maybe not so ironic, was that the violence of the sport had saved Powell from a life of violence.” But an argument that eliminating football, while helping prevent brain damage in one player, would hurt other players by not giving them a chance to play, is like the argument that eating chicken, while bad for that unlucky bastard you ate, is good for chickens as a species: chicken-kind is more likely to genetically prosper the more convenient they are to us. This is altogether true, for players and chickens, but also morally lame.

We live in a culture of disappearing blue collar jobs, skyrocketing private interest, professionalized armies, and ubiquitous impatience. Football, though, remains hard. I still don’t fully understand how a player can get through a game, a season, a career without one year ending in victory. I still don’t understand the totality of what goes on in any play. But Dawidoff caught my attitude at the beginning of Collision Low Crossers: “Football kept its distance, remained a closed society whose core inaccessibility increased its appeal.” League of Denial is about a different closed entity with a core inaccessibility: the brain. No one cares that players have bad knees: that seems an OK price to pay for the glory of youthful greatness. But to lose one’s mind endangers, as the Fanairus say, the essence of who we are. We have no right to ask someone to do that.

There are only three games left in the season. The hits will be harder, the preparation more intense, the pressure on them unbearable. We remind ourselves how lucky we are to be fans.

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