The New Yorker boasts a "signature mix of politics, culture and the arts." This time, it is the culture of football that faces analysis from writer Ben McGrath. This comprehensive piece covers the history of football, the evolution of the game - for better or worse - and every angle of the current debate about head injuries in the sport.
Caution: It is a long story, eloquently written, that should be read only if you have some time on your hands.
It begins with a personal anecdote:
I still remember my first football game. It was 1983. I was six. My father took me to our local high school, in northern New Jersey, and we sat on the home team’s side, but it wasn’t long before my allegiance began to waver. The opponents, from a town called Passaic, were clearly superior—or, rather, they had a superior player whose simple talents were easy to identify in a game so complex and jumbled-seeming that even lifelong fans do not fully understand it. He wasn’t the biggest person on the field, and probably not the fastest, but he was strangely fast for a big person and unusually big for a fast person. He played both sides of the ball: running back and linebacker. He was also the kicker, and he returned punts. In my memory, he scored a touchdown, kicked a field goal, and sacked the quarterback for a safety. 12–0. As my father and I searched for his name in the program, a man seated a couple of rows in front of us spun around and said, “They call him Ironhead.” I was smitten.
As it turns out, Craig Heyward, also known as Ironhead, died prematurely at the age of 39 and spurned in this writer a desire to cover head injury science as it relates to football, which led him to the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Injury committee's meeting last month. Various technologies are being developed that are shown there to better protect players, but not without controversy.
We’ve been here before, historians remind us, and we have the pictures to prove it: late-nineteenth-century newspaper and magazine illustrations with captions like “The Modern Gladiators” and “Out of the Game.”
The crisis surrounding football’s brutality at the turn of the twentieth century was so great that it eventually inspired Presidential intervention. Greg Aiello, the N.F.L.’s present-day spokesman, told me, “You should research Teddy Roosevelt’s involvement in changing the game in 1905.” Roosevelt, whose son was then a freshman football player at Harvard, summoned college coaches to the White House to discuss reforming the sport before public opinion turned too far against it.
Aiello’s point was that the game goes on; you reform it as needed.
The story's attention then turns to Alan Schwarz, a reporter for Time, and background on his extensive coverage of head injury science in football.
Credit for the public’s increased awareness of these issues must go to the Times, and to its reporter Alan Schwarz, whom Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers’ neurosurgeon and a longtime medical adviser to the league, calls “the Socratic gadfly in this whole mix.”
In the manner of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Dr. Maroon has delineated four stages in the N.F.L.’s reaction to the reality of brain damage: active resistance and passive resistance, shifting to passive acceptance and, finally, in the past few months, active acceptance. “What we’re seeing now is that major cultural shift, and I think Alan took a lot of barbs, and a lot of hits, initially, for his observations,” Maroon said.
Horrific injury and brain disease are not the only reasons cited as football's existence is debated.
The robust debate over how football should be played is further complicated by a contentious labor situation that threatens to result in the cancellation of the 2011 season. The league and the owners would prefer an eighteen-game schedule. The players, naturally, have tried to characterize this as hypocrisy: if the game has become disturbingly dangerous, why play more? They doubt that anyone has ever really had their long-term interests in mind, and maintain a deeply felt sense that fans and owners can’t begin to appreciate how hard football is, and how tenuous the line is between fearlessness and vulnerability.
Perhaps the most lamented section of the story that will resonate with readers are the parts mentioning the tragic victims left in football's wake.
Two weeks after Black and Blue Sunday, on October 28th, an honor student in Spring Hill, Kansas, returned to the sidelines after making an interception at his high school’s homecoming game and told his coach that his head was hurting. Soon afterward, he fell to the ground, suffered a subdural hematoma, and died. The next week, Jim McMahon, the ex-quarterback, confessed at a twenty-fifth reunion of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears that his memory is “pretty much gone,” and that he often walks into a room without knowing why. “It’s unfortunate what the game does to you,” he said.
A few days later, a Cleveland Browns linebacker collapsed at his locker-room stall, after practice, in the presence of reporters, and was taken to the hospital. Shortly after that, two high-school players died on the same day—one on the field, in Massachusetts, of a heart stoppage, and the other, in North Carolina, by suicide, five weeks after suffering a season-ending concussion. The same week, two Division I college players announced their retirement, out of concerns relating to concussions, and team doctors at the University of Utah “medically disqualified” a sophomore from continuing his career.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, C.T.E., is discussed.
C.T.E., as of now, can be observed only with an autopsy. The ability to detect it with brain scans of living people is at least a couple of years off ... “The reality is we’ve already got three per cent of the brains of people who have died in the last two years confirmed, and that’s not alarming enough to people. What number is going to be the tipping point? People are O.K. with three per cent. They may look sideways at ten per cent. Maybe it needs to be fifty per cent.”
Click on the link and read the entire story to find out more on the efforts of Alan Schwarz, who Chris Nowinski is, and what Black and Blue Sunday was.