Thursday, May 3, 2012

Junior Seau, CTE, and Football's Obligation To Reinvent Itself.

Can we skip the recriminations for a moment?  If the NFL has willfully ignored evidence, dragged its feat, or engaged in cover-ups out of a misguided need for self-preservation, that will surely come out in one of the many class-action law suits currently filed by former players.  The courts will hear the cases, and damages will be paid.  Hopefully, to the extent that they can make reparations, the NFL will do its utmost without combat or complaint.  What (allegedly) happened as regards the league's reactions to mounting medical evidence linking Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy to football was reprehensible, but soap-boxing about it now surely won't change a damned thing.  The question is: where do we go from here?  Because I don't think any reasonable person can ignore any longer the litany of tragedies mounting at Roger Goodell's door. 

Junior Seau was found dead yesterday.  San Diego police are investigating the case as a suicide.  It doesn't take an enormous cognitive leap to put the increasingly disturbing pieces of this puzzle together.  Dave Duerson.  Ray Easterling.  We don't yet have access to the medical examiner's report, obviously, but I'll bet anything that when they autopsy Seau's brain, they're going to find the abnormally high buildup of tau protein consistent with CTE.*  We have to consider the scales sufficiently tipped at this point, right?  Attention must be paid.  And we can start with this: fines, suspensions, and other penalties handed out by the league for hard hits or bounty systems or what have you are entirely, pathetically insufficient to address the problem. 

*A list of CTE-related symptoms, per Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy: memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.  Sounds like a perfect cocktail of things that might cause someone to take their own life, doesn't it?  (If you scroll to the very bottom of the page in that above link, there's a jump to a PDF of the BUCSTE's comprehensive review of athlete-related CTE cases.  Admittedly, I didn't really comprehend most of the medical terminology, but suffice it to say: CTE sounds truly awful; it makes the most outlandish things you've ever seen on an episode of "House" look like a common cold.)

A few years ago, as the correlation between CTE and football was becoming more pronounced, equipment manufacturer Riddell, in conjunction with medical researchers investigating CTE, created HITS (Helmet Impact Telemetry System).  These are essentially normal football helmets equipped with a network of sensors that relay data on the force and concentration of impact.  A study conducted with those sensors found that many players sustained concussion-level impacts of 90 to 100g's, the equivalent of running head-first into a brick wall at 20 miles per hour.  (Though not every impact was at that level, each player AVERAGED 650 impacts per season.)  This study wasn't done on NFL players, by the way.  It wasn't even done on an elite college program.  High schoolers were the ones causing the damage.  If 17-year-old kids are capable of inflicting that magnitude of trauma, imagine what a 325-pounder with a sub-4.8 forty time can do.  You don't need a medical degree to understand the ramifications, just a basic grasp of physics.  Mass x Acceleration = Force.  You have a surfeit of all three in an NFL game.

And the concussions aren't even close to the entire story.  The increasingly apparent reality is that the big, vicious hits the league has been so public about eliminating from the NFL are a part, but by no means all, of the issue here.  Neuropathological findings show that repeated sub-concussive impacts can be every bit as detrimental to the human brain as a concussion-inducing, helmet-to-helmet hit. 

These lower-level impacts can't be regulated through rule changes or alleviated with safer equipment, either.  They are the type of thing sustained routinely on every play by linemen smashing into each other.  Snap after snap, season after season, brains are experiencing these impacts throughout the perfectly normal course of perfectly normal games.  CTE, in other words, is not a rare, anomalous condition brought about by involvement in a handful of overly-brutal plays over a career.  It is, and pardon the unfortunate accuracy of the phrase, the cost of doing business in the NFL.

I am not going to moralize about society's collective need to experience vicarious violence or how or why that feeds the several-billion-dollar industry that is the NFL.  I believe our love of football is more an occupation of negative space than anything else.  After all, something has to be our "National Pastime."  Basketball is "too black" for much of what is still a latently racist America.  Baseball never really recovered from the strike year and PEDs, and is "too slow" for the hyperspeed consumption age we now inhabit.  Hockey was never in the running.  The NFL seized upon the fast-waning appeal of baseball's sepia-toned nostalgia, increased televised football's production value by a rather large factorial, and stepped into the premier slot of America's entertainment affections.  I think the violence inherent in the game is a tertiary element, not the main draw, and I don't want to hear about our baser, barbaric natures or however the armchair sociology crowd is parsing this.  Even if they're right, It's simply not important right now.

I will, however, preach a little in an apologetic (and, I confess, totally hypocritical) fashion about something else.  I love football.  We all do.  And we don't want to see it change.  Shameful though that sentiment may be in light of everything we know about what it does to the players, we still feel that way because we've watched this game for the entirety of our lives.  But that's not important anymore, either.  How many more brains need to be autopsied?  How many more ex-players need to be found with self-inflicted gunshot wounds?  In the wake of Junior Seau's death, as has happened in the past, the NFL might trot out some league-appointed medical experts to say something along the lines of "there is as yet no definitive evidence linking CTE to football and blah blah blah etc."  While they may technically be sorta-kinda-right as regards the definition of empirical scientific proof, if those people are doctors, they will at least violate the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath with such claims.  Only a fool (or a well-compensated mouthpiece) could stand up and deny this stuff with a straight face anymore.

I know the NFL probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  Plenty of people will still watch the games no matter how often we see the awful consequences played out.  I am ashamed to say that I will probably be among them.  (Of course, we haven't even touched on what all this might mean for college football, but that's for another day).  The point is that we need to start a serious, all-encompassing reevaluation of how football is played at all levels.  I'm all for trying to salvage some iteration of the sport, and I believe there are enough smart, creative people out there to make that possible.  In any case the league will make infinite changes before they abandon the game altogether.  There's far too much money at stake.  But let's stop pretending that moving the kickoff lines, fining rough hits, and engineering new safety equipment is going to fix the problem.  We can still have football, but some fundamental aspects of the game need to be altered. 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Continuing to allow exceptionally large, ridiculously fast, impossibly strong men to run into one another at high velocity and ignoring or "wishing away" the damage done to their brains in the process falls pretty neatly into that category.  We can love football, but we need to be open to any and all necessary rule changes to ameliorate the ravages of CTE.  Otherwise we're a society full of wackjobs.  Otherwise, we are insane.  We may be slow on the uptake and resistant to change, especially where football is concerned, but I have to hope we're better than that.  

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