No Fun League (2017)

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The news last week that the brain of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was damaged with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was disturbing, but in a ho-hum sort of way. Another dead-too-young former football player whose brain we would have described, not that long ago, as “punch drunk?” Pardon the lack of shock on my part. Pardon the brief pause to wonder if CTE may have contributed to Hernandez killing another human being, or to his own suicide. (The 27-year-old Hernandez was serving a life sentence for murder at a Massachusetts prison when he hanged himself in April.) There are countless people with mental disorders who do not commit murder (or suicide), but let’s say this unequivocally: CTE can’t help.

With CTE now “in the room,” so to speak, you have to wonder where football is going, particularly at its highest level. A multi-billion-dollar industry has been built on the violent collision of large men at high speed. And no helmet will be designed to fully protect a human brain from sudden, jarring stops. That precious organ — floating as it does in a small, protective space — prefers not to be slammed against the inner wall of a skull. Until tackling (and falling down, for that matter) is disallowed, more football players are going to die before they should with brains left scarred by the profession they chose.

I’m conflicted. I have been, honestly, since my first football hero, Roger Staubach, retired after the 1979 season. Staubach was 37 years old at the time and led the NFL in passer rating in what proved to be his final season. But he was concerned about repeated concussions, worried about how they might impact the rest of what he hoped would be a lengthy life. (Staubach has been hugely successful in real estate since his retirement from football.) I was 10 years old then. You can say brain trauma has been whispering in my ear as I watch football for almost 40 years.

My high school was too small to field a football team. (I played soccer in the fall.) My wife and I are blessed with two daughters who have played soccer and softball since they were losing baby teeth, so I’ve managed to dodge a decision about allowing my child to play football. But I’ve covered the Memphis Tiger football program for more than a dozen years, finding myself closer than most to young men devoted to a sport that delivers plenty of redeeming virtues . . . but threatens their very functionality the longer they play it.

When I’ve asked Tiger players about brain trauma, the answers have been virtually the same: “It’s part of the game.” There’s a component of bravery in taking the football field, knowing violence will ensue. Players clearly take such bravery up a deadly notch when (or if) they include CTE on the menu of potential damage. So I remain conflicted. I think I’ll start following up the standard question with a follow-up: “Is it an acceptable part of the game?”

• President Donald Trump has managed to redefine the expression “political football.” In choosing to describe an NFL player who chooses to kneel during the playing of our national anthem as a “son of a bitch” (the English language’s finest two-for-one insult), Trump has taken a nationwide debate into the metaphorical locker room where he’s known to speak freely on the female anatomy. This is unfortunate, as the right kind of leader — one capable of weighing and balancing conflicting opinions — might steer discussion in such a way both sides of the debate could better understand the other. Instead, he’s taken a side and chosen the language of high school freshmen in denigrating the other.

Let’s remember that Trump once ruined a professional football league (the USFL) by suing the NFL on its behalf. He’d tell you he “won” the antitrust lawsuit, but he wouldn’t remind you the amount of damages rewarded: a single dollar. The NFL has been Donald Trump’s daddy since Joe Montana and Dan Marino were in their primes. The president stands little chance of reducing the number of players kneeling for what they consider affronts to their definition of America (starting with equality among all men and women). More than likely, Trump has thrown gas on a fire of division this country needs like a living diagnosis of CTE.

Football! Enjoy your fantasy league, because the real thing ain’t much fun anymore.

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