— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) September 5, 2017
With the beginning of college and pro football upon us, I find myself once again confronted by mixed feelings. Having grown up playing quarterback, I’ve always loved the game…but I didn’t play it long enough for me to suffer multiple concussions. That would come later…while I was a goalkeeper on my college soccer team, but that’s another story for another time.
I’ve always loved football- the atmosphere, the rituals, the strategy, the skill and athleticism, the controlled violence. George Will once referred to football as “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” Anyone who’s played the game at any level can attest to the accuracy of that statement. For me, it was calm punctuated by moments of sheer terror as my offensive line, which couldn’t block an abstract concept, allowed large, malevolent sorts to chase me out of the pocket. My lack of foot speed (you could have timed me in a 40-yard dash with a sundial) meant I got pummelled with regularity. Fortunately, I survived relatively intact. Many other players haven’t been nearly so fortunate.
I had an acquaintance who played in the NFL for a few years, and he described the contact at that level as being equivalent to an automobile accident on every single play. Think about that for a moment. If you’ve ever experienced a car accident, you know how terrifying, painful, and disorienting it can be. Imagine experiencing that for 40, 50, 60, or more snaps over a three-hour period. Then imagine doing that for four preseason games, 16 regular season games, and- if your team is successful, three or four playoff games…and that’s just one season. Think about it long enough and you can begin to understand why the average NFL career is less than four years.
This doesn’t even take into account the only slightly less violent aspect of college football. Erin and I went to the Oregon State- Minnesota game in Corvallis last night, and the level of violence in major college football is almost as impressive and distressing as you’ll find in the NFL.
Once upon a time, President Theodore Roosevelt saved football from itself as it descended into ever grater brutality and thuggery. He’s arguably the reason the game continues to be played to this day.
Early in the 20th century, football, as played on college gridirons, was something close to a street fight. The rules were lax at best, and were routinely ignored. During the 1905 season alone, 18 college and amateur players died. And despite the growing violence (or, who knows, maybe because of the growing violence), fans were flocking to the games — the sport was gaining followers.
So, if the fans liked what they were seeing, what was the problem?
The problem was that a serious movement was afoot to ban the sport — to get rid of football.
Remember, the NFL did not exist — the college game was the top level of the sport. Harvard’s president, Charles W. Eliot, was leading the charge to abolish football, and it began to look as if he and his allies had a chance of doing just that. To give you an idea of just how seriously the get-rid-of-football movement was being taken, the New York Times ran an editorial expressing concern over “Two Curable Evils” in American life: lynchings and football.
At the time, football was a truly, distressingly brutal game. Players dying on the field was not a rare event. The call to ban the game was real…and Roosevelt helped bring interested parties together in an effort to save it.
In 1905 alone, at least 18 people died and more than 150 were injured playing football. According to the Washington Post, at least 45 football players died from 1900 to October 1905, many from internal injuries, broken necks, concussions or broken backs.
“Nearly every death may be traced to ‘unnecessary roughness.’ Picked up unconscious from beneath a mass of other players, it was generally found that the victim had been kicked in the head or stomach, so as to cause internal injuries or concussion of the brain, which, sooner or later, ended life,” The Post wrote on Oct. 15, 1905.
Today’s carnage may not be anywhere near what the early 20th century saw, but modern medicine has identified a long-term danger which was unknown the: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Recent history is full of former NFL players (Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Mike Webster leap immediately to mind) whose head injuries during their playing days led to depression, mental illness, and/or suicide. Webster is a particularly tragic story, but his case was also one of the first to raise alarm bells.
Will we at some point have to revisit the brutal nature of future a la Teddy Roosevelt? Players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever, which makes the “automobile accident on every play” scenario far more serious. I hear more parents saying they’ll never let their sons play football, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the game.
At some point, athletes will need to determine if playing football is worth the risk. Those in charge of high school, college, and professional football will need to figure out how the game can be played without delitating those involved.
Good luck with that, America.