Some of us have a few interests outside of politics, hard as that may be to believe at times. Long time readers already know of the running, friendly rivalry between Ed and myself over his ill considered support of the Pittsburgh Steelers matched up with my soon to be rewarded loyalty to the New York Jets. (Hey… we’re DUE any day now.)
Unfortunately, one of my favorite writers of this generation, George Will, threw some cold water on everyone’s enthusiasm last week with a column which essentially pronounces the death of the NFL. I didn’t respond to it immediately, mostly because it was simply so depressing. But as I watched the first of the pre-season games rolling out this week I thought it was worth a look.
Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?
The opening of the NFL training camps coincided with the closing of the investigation into the April suicide by gunshot of Ray Easterling, 62, an eight-season NFL safety in the 1970s. The autopsy found moderately severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE was identified as a major cause of Mr. Easterling’s depression and dementia…
In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. In 2011, according to pro-football-reference.com, there were 352, including three 350-pounders. Thirty-one of the NFL’s 32 offensive lines averaged more than 300.
Various unsurprising studies indicate high early mortality rates among linemen resulting from cardiovascular disease. For all players who play five or more years, life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less.
While I don’t find myself calling for an end to football as being “too dangerous” I also wouldn’t ask anyone to shy away from Will’s column. There’s a lot of important information there regarding injury statistics and the damage sustained by today’s players. But is the simple fact that today’s players are, on average, much larger and more dangerous (in terms of raw, kinetic energy) than those of days of yore a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water?
Will highlights some valid concerns. Simply saying, “hey, this is football, not ballet, so tough it out” isn’t a good enough answer. If we’re seeing this many injuries of the magnitude described, we clearly can do better. But that’s the point. I’m quite sure that we can do better. We put people into space and on the bottom of the ocean. We send workers and soldiers into incredibly dangerous situations all the time and find ways to address the specific risks they face. Can’t we do the same for football?
There have been some serious advances in football equipment over the years, but many of them are largely sledgehammer fixes to problems requiring tweezers. It seems to me that player equipment could be made more protective from high momentum impact damage without turning it into a spacesuit unsuitable for game day. Let’s not give up on the greatest game in America. Let’s get some top minds to work on making it safer while retaining the legendary character of it that we know and love.