Suddenly, I force my eyes open and sit up in my bed. It’s the middle of the night. Just a dream, I tell myself. It was just a dream.
Earlier that month, Al Lucas, a former Troy University defensive lineman who was playing for the AFL’s Los Angeles Avengers, died of a spinal cord injury sustained on a kickoff return. Two years earlier, Julian Yearwood, a lineman for the Arena team in Bakersfield, Calif., collapsed and died after a blocking a field goal attempt. Each time news like that would break, I would inevitably entertain the same selfish thought: What would I do in that situation? Could I maintain a level head? Would I have to be the one to call his wife? Or his parents? It was a scary thought, one I didn’t want to entertain in the day time. Occasionally my brain would force my hand at night.
After Lucas’ death in 2005, I got calls from sportswriters who wanted to know if I thought arena football was too dangerous. Being a good public relations man, I scoffed on behalf of my trade: Yes arena football is dangerous, but it’s no more dangerous than any other brand of football. And, although football is an inherently dangerous sport, it’s a controlled element. Why, there’s more technology in those helmets they’re wearing than there was in the Apple II! And, although two deaths on the field in two years is an alarming statistic, think of that number in context of how many players compete in arena football on a yearly basis. Hundreds of them! Too dangerous? I think not!
Football is an inherently dangerous game, more so than any major American sport with the exception of professional fighting. Anyone who has ever buckled a chin strap knows it, assumes the risks and plays on. It’s nothing new. Players back in the mid-1800s got hurt sporting far less equipment than today’s athletes wear. But where is the line that separates dangerous from too dangerous? The line that, when crossed, renders pads and helmets useless and makes rule changes and fines inconsequential. Is the NFL nearing that line? Has it already crossed it?
Before the current NFL season began, I happened upon Peter King’s preview column in Sports Illustrated. Somehow he had managed to corral five of the league’s top quarterbacks into a room for an hour-long, beer-fueled dialogue about the upcoming year. At some point during the conversation he questioned Cincinnati Bengals’ starter Carson Palmer about safety. Palmer’s answer brought a hush over the room.
“Guys are getting so big, so fast, so explosive,” Palmer said. “The game’s so violent... at some point, somebody’s going to die in football.
“The game has changed, the game is getting bigger, faster, stronger, and there needs to be more protection... If I were a safety or a defensive back, I would be mad about the new rule that you can’t hit your helmet above their shoulder pads or whatever it is because it does take some of the ferociousness out of the game, but somebody is going to get seriously hurt, possibly die.”
Now that’s a guy that’s played a hell of a lot more football than yours truly. A guy that’s a couple of years removed from having his knee torn apart (and subsequently rebuilt) after a brutal hit he sustained during a playoff game. He thinks the NFL is on the edge of that aforementioned line. And after several weeks of watching the NFL, focusing intently on the contact, he’s absolutely right.
I’ve never cringed as much watching football as I have through the first seven weeks of the NFL’s regular season. It’s brutal out there. That hit that Ray Lewis delivered on Chad Ochocinco several weeks ago was so violent and unnecessary that I actually felt bad for Chad Ochocinco. That’s never happened before. A lot of it is because the NFL has made it a player’s job to get bigger, faster and stronger. Get up in the morning. Workout. Eat lunch. Workout. Eat dinner. Workout. That system has wrought runningbacks that look like linebackers and linebackers that look like they were built by Raytheon. Linemen pushing 400 pounds colliding against other linemen pushing 400 pounds, a process that damn near produces fission.
But Matt, I can hear you begin to argue, the technology that they’re putting into those helmets and pads... it’s getting better by the day. That’s true. New technology has changed the game dramatically and enhanced player safety, but there are some things that padding just cannot do.
By now, everyone with at least one functioning eye has seen the Zapruder film of the 21st century: Video of Tim Tebow suffering a concussion during the Kentucky game several weeks ago. If you watch closely, you’ll see that he was wearing one of those awesome techno-future helmets at the time of the incident. The truth is a helmet is virtually powerless against a concussion, which occurs when the momentum of your body moving and abruptly stopping slams your brain against the inside of your skull and bruises it. Unless you can build a device inside that helmet that defies the laws of physics, then I’m afraid the awesome techno-future helmet just isn’t going to cut it.
Worse than King’s roundtable quotes is a recent piece in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell, pointing out in graphic detail the long-term effects of football on the brain. He has damning evidence to suggest that “little hits,” the ones sustained on virtually every play of the game by lineman and blocking backs, are contributing to an Alzheimer’s-like illness in retired NFL players called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or C.T.E. This condition, which slowly descends its victims into dementia, has been found in the autopsied brains of former football players as young as 40 and 50 years old. And these guys were playing back in the day when linebackers weren’t 260 pounds and larger. Just imagine what the cumulative effect of being hit in this day and age will be for the current crop of pro ballers?
The question of how to fix this problem is a lot more complex than the problem itself. There’s no good answer. I saw Gladwell on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption two weeks ago, and he didn’t have any answers. Not even Carson Palmer, the only player with enough guts to voice everyone else’s fears, knows what to do.
“I don’t think you can change it,” Palmer told King. “It’s the nature of the world. The ways that guys train now, the way that guys eat and take vitamins and take supplements and all these things, guys are getting more muscle mass, more explosiveness, faster.”
Could the NFL be banned in the future? Will parents allow their children to play a game that is destined to send their children to an early grave? Will there be limitations on players’ weights and body mass? Will there be bans on all supplements, not just steroids? Who knows? I do know that before we solve this problem, we all have to agree that one exists. I spent the better part of my life scoffing at the very idea of football being too dangerous. Now I just cringe.
Upon Further Review is the Birmingham Weekly sports page. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org