With each passing week, I hear from football fans saying that it's getting harder to like the game they love. They've spent years reveling in the intense competition and violent collisions so central to the sport, but this is the first time these NFL diehards feel conscious about what happens to players when they become unconscious.
In August, to much fanfare, NFL owners finally acknowledged that football-related concussions cause depression, dementia, memory loss and the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. Now that they've opened the door, this concussion discussion is starting to shape how we understand what were previously seen as the NFL's typical helping of off-field controversy and tragedy. When Denver Bronco wide receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide, the first questions were about whether football-related head injuries led to the depression that took his life. When the recently retired Junior Seau drove his car off of a cliff the day after being arrested for spousal abuse, questions about whether head injuries sustained during a twenty-year career affected his actions, soon followed. Such conjecture is not only legitimate; it's necessary and urgent.
This season a typical NFL game is starting to look like a triage center. On concussions alone, a reader at deadspin.com compiled the following list of players who have borne the brunt of a brain bruise in 2010:
Pre-Season: Ryan Grant, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Joseph Addai, Mark Clayton, Nick Sorensen, Aaron Curry, DJ Ware, Louis Murphy, Scott Sicko, Mike Furrey, Darnell Bing, Freddy Keiaho
Week 1: Kevin Kolb, Stewart Bradley, Matt Moore, Kevin Boss, Charly Martin
Week 2: Clifton Ryan, Jason Witten, Randall Gay, Craig Dahl, Zack Follett, Evan Moore
Week 3: Anthony Bryant, Cory Redding, Jason Trusnik
Week 4: Jordan Shipley, Willis McGahee, Jay Cutler, Asante Samuel, Riley Cooper, Sherrod Martin
Week 5: Aaron Rodgers, Darcy Johnson, Jacob Bell, Landon Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Rocky McIntosh
Week 6: Josh Cribbs, Desean Jackson, Mohamed Massaquoi, Zack Follett, Chris Cooley
In assessing the list, the most striking aspect is its randomness. There is a mix of star quarterbacks, shifty running backs, burly tight ends and anonymous linemen. All play different roles in the game, and all wear different kinds of equipment. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, after a weekend where he says he saw "six or eight shots where you wondered, ‘Is that guy getting up,' "proposed some solutions: "It's time to start ejecting and suspending players for flagrant hits…. Don't tell me this is the culture we want. It might be the culture kids are used to in video games, but the NFL has to draw a line in the sand right here, right now, and insist that the forearm shivers and leading with the helmet and launching into unprotected receivers will be dealt with severely. Six-figure fines. Suspensions. Ejections.
King's suggestions are not unlike those who told 1950s children to hide under their desks case of nuclear attack. The hits that cause concussions aren't just the kind of helmet-to-helmet collisions that make King shudder but often come from routine tackles. Frequently, brain bruises aren't even diagnosed until the game has ended. In other words the most devastating hits are often the most pedestrian. This was seen in utterly tragic fashion during Saturday's college contest between Rutgers University and Army. Rutgers linebacker Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the waste down on a play described as a "violent collision." But if you look at the replay, the only thing "violent" about the play is its horrific outcome.
It's also not, as King writes, "the culture" that celebrates this violence. It's the NFL itself. The video games that the NFL promotes and sponsors deliriously dramatize brutal tackles. Highlight shows on the NFL Network relish the moments when players get "jacked up." Anyone who saw HBO's Hard Knocks, their behind-the-scenes look at the New York Jets preseason, heard it loud and clear. Whenever a player would "jack-up" the opposition, Coach Rex Ryan would whoop and yell, "That's a guy who wants to make this team!"
Here's the reality check to Peter King and all who want their violence safely commoditized for Sunday: there is no making football safer. There is no amount of suspensions, fines or ejections that will change the fundamental nature of a sport built on violent collisions. It doesn't matter if players have better mouth guards, better helmets or better pads. Anytime you have a sport that turns the poor into millionaires and dangles violence as an incentive, well, you reap what you sow. It is what it is. I think it's a waste of time to feel "guilty" about being a football fan. If people are disgusted by the violence visited on these players, they should vote with their feet and stop watching.
If people are at peace with the fact that they are enjoying something that wrecks people's bodies, then that's their business as well. But for goodness sakes: if you are to remain a football fan, at least support the players in their upcoming negotiations with ownership. Reject the idea of an eighteen-game season as "good for the game." Reject the idea that players need to have their pay cut for the league's "financial health." Reject the idea that owners shouldn't have to contribute to the medical well-being of players after they retire. Recognize the humanity of the carnage on the field so you can do something to support the humanity of players when the pads come off. That's what I pledge to do… for now. But in the interests of full disclosure: I might be a Desean Jackson-Dunta Robinson moment away from ditching the game for good.