The former Joan Giger Walker and I have not been seeing too much of each other recently. She’s been in one room reading books and doing crossword puzzles; I’ve been in another gorging on the NFL playoffs.
And let’s get one thing straight from the get-go: Football is a dumb sport that probably deserves to be supplanted by books and crosswords. It’s indefensibly violent and, at the professional level at least, populated mostly by muscle-bound, overweight, tattooed millionaires. It often seems to be a sport wherein the outcome of games depends largely on the skills of the medical personnel who treat the legions of bone-crushing, brain-deadening injuries that result from every game. (Recently, in upstate New York, I saw an entire broadsheet newspaper column devoted to the “NFL Injury Report,” all in 7-point type. That’s a lot of injuries.)
And yet … And yet I remain a fan of the sport some 47 years after I walked away from it in college. Then, it wasn’t a case of rejecting the violence or the coaches’ obsession with winning. It was a question of not being good enough to make the team and of having discovered an alternative sport, rugby, where beer drinking on the sidelines was allowed — nay, encouraged. (Rugby was, you see, a club sport at my college, and thus not overseen by the intercollegiate athletic department.)
But I remain a football fan with reservations. Surely, the excitement, athleticism and, yes, the violence attract, but no longer is it possible to sit on the sidelines and observe this sport without acknowledging the mounting evidence about football-related head injuries.
Just last week there was a report about the suicide death at age 43 of Junior Seau, the former All-Pro linebacker with the San Diego Chargers. According to ABC News, “A team of independent researchers who did not know they were studying Seau’s brain all concluded he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease typically caused by multiple hits to the head.” And then he shot himself in the chest, leaving behind his wife and four children.
And it’s not an isolated case. More and more former football players are being diagnosed with CTE — and even the NFL has started to take notice, slowly adjusting its rules to forbid helmet-on-helmet collisions, below-the-knee cut blocks and other actions deemed likely to cause serious injury.
There’s even been talk of modifying or perhaps even eliminating punt and kick-off returns, the two football plays that result in the most serious injuries. And there’s another type of play that causes me to cringe every time I see it, whether it’s in a professional or college game, wherein a wide receiver runs over the middle of the field, keeping his eyes on the incoming pass, and is blindsided by a 220-pound free safety running at full speed in the opposite direction. It is precisely the sort of “hit” that turned New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley into a quadriplegic when he was tackled by Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum on Aug. 12, 1978.
Several years ago, I wrote in this space about my 9-year-old grandson’s decision, seconded by his parents, to give up Pee Wee football after two years. By the time he quit to concentrate on less violent sports like baseball, basketball and soccer, he’d already suffered a concussion that sidelined him for a game or two. And the only dissent expressed about his decision came from coaches and other parents associated with the youth league.
Assuming football — even in a modified, less violent form — is here to stay, I would advise parents to keep their children away from the sport at least until they’re in junior high school. By then, their bodies have matured to the point where they’re better able to withstand the punishment. And before then, they can learn the fundamentals of the game by playing touch or flag football, neither of which allows tackling.
So, OK, by this point you’re probably asking yourself how I can remain a football fan at the same time I’m decrying the violence and dangers of the sport.
That’s a very good question. Can I get back to you on that after the Super Bowl?