It is a splendid game. Or, to mimic the words of the late, great Lewis Grizzard, “The game of life is a lot like football. You have to tackle your problems, block your fears, and score your points when you get the opportunity.”
Today, the game supports two sides. They’re divergent. One is utopian: unrivaled popularity of the professional and college ranks, billion-dollar TV contracts, and multiple national championships for our beloved Southern teams. The other is troubled by the growing fears that the game, as it is played now, is damaging players’ brains.
Don’t roll your eyes. The fear is real, empirical and substantiated by facts.
That fear’s front line is being fought with the NFL, where more than 80 lawsuits have been filed against the league by more than 2,000 former players. Legally, the league is under siege. The former players allege that the NFL didn’t adequately warn them of the long-term concerns about concussions.
To put it in football terms, the players claim coaches didn’t teach them that repeated blows to their heads — even with the protection of modern helmets — could cause a host of problems, including recurring headaches, nausea, dementia, depression and, in some cases, death.
Earlier this summer, a master complaint filed in federal court minced no words in blaming the NFL for a litany of missteps about players’ health and safety. The complaint, as reported in USA Today, said, “The NFL’s response to the issue of brain injuries has been, until very recently, a concerted effort of deception and denial. The NFL actively tried to and did conceal the extent of the concussion and brain-trauma problem, the risk to the plaintiffs, and the risks to anyone else who played football.”
For the game’s worst critics, Dave Duerson is case No. 1 in any discussion of the damage modern-day football can cause. Duerson was an All-American defensive back at Notre Dame and played 11 seasons in the NFL. He hit people for a living. In February 2011, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He was 50.
The New York Times reported last year that Duerson had suffered from headaches, blurred vision and deteriorating memory before his death, and that his final note to his family finished with a handwritten request: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.’”
Last summer, a Boston University study determined that Duerson’s brain suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. That disease has been found recently in the brains of more than 20 other former professional players, as well.
For me, there are three vital points: (1.) the data is clear; concussions happen at all levels of football, in practice and in games; (2.) repeated concussions are dangerous; and (3.) there shouldn’t be a widespread effort to demonize the game.
Instead, there should be a widespread effort to improve it.
The NFL is off in the yonder, untouchable for most of us. But here, where youth and high school football rules our falls, we have to ask: Are we taking the necessary steps to teach kids how to play the game without leading with their heads? Instead of celebrating bone-jarring, head-on-head collisions, are we teaching them that helmets are not weapons? See who you tackle, wise coaches say.
On some levels, the message is getting through. Last year, Alabama became the 23rd state to pass legislation related to concussions and youth football. The bill, HB108, that Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law sets guidelines youth coaches must follow to protect injured players. Thirty-eight states have now passed similar legislation — which is altogether necessary, considering researchers say there are more than 3.5 million children playing youth football in the United States.
But this is Alabama, the land of the Bear and Toomer’s Corner. Football is revered, not feared. Kids can get hurt doing anything: riding bikes, climbing trees, falling off their skateboards. How popular — or painful — can it be to tell a teen he can’t play because his parents fret for his safety?
When I became a newspaper hack in Birmingham in the 1980s, one of my first assignments was to write about a prep player who was hospitalized with a brain injury. He had taken a helmet-to-helmet hit during practice; his mom saw it happen. I’ll never forget talking to those parents that morning in a hospital waiting room while their son was undergoing surgery upstairs.
Football, this splendid game, can be brutal.
It starts next week. Let’s pray it’s not a season we’d rather forget.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.