Football: a moral dilemma

What the Super Bowl has morphed into almost defies understanding: more spectacle than sport, more Hollywood blockbuster than athletic competition. Taken as a whole, this event is incomparable: operatic in its opening moments as gladiators in full regalia charge across the field of play, our national anthem sung with full-throated enthusiasm, half-time a musical pageant (even the ads, at a cost of almost $4 million for 30 seconds, stand alone).

It is something to behold.

But for all of its glitz and glamor and intense physicality, we know now that there is a dark side to the game. Truth be told, fans and the leagues have been slow to come to grips with the full implications of what the controlled violence of football means for those who play the game.

Irrefutably, we have learned that a significant number of retired NFL players who have experienced countless concussions over decades of play suffer from what scientists and forensic pathologists refer to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Or, put another way, serial brain injuries (obvious and not), resulting in a cumulative degeneration of the brain, can affect cognitive skills and social functions.

Over a period of time players can exhibit a cluster of symptoms such as disorientation, confusion, tremors, staggered gait, deafness, headaches, unexplained personality changes, rage, depression and suicide (six NFL players have killed themselves in the past two years). Some studies have found that NFL players between the ages of 30 and 49, when compared with the general population, are 19 times more likely to experience the onset of Alzheimer's or dementia.

In the past such brain injuries have been shrugged off as simply getting "your bell rung"; now research tells us that it is something far more insidious. Absent scans or post-mortem biopsies, concussive events can easily escape detection (these are known as sub-concussions which can have a cumulative degenerative effect resulting in CTE and other serious neurological disorders).

Here is the essence of what has occurred over the past decade: Science has moved far ahead of the game in signaling the potential cost to the players. The story of football has become a cautionary tale. In other words, we as a culture remain deeply enamored of football — more than one-third of all who follow sports follow football, and the fan base is increasing. Simultaneously, we are learning about the inherent dangers that have the possibility of changing the lives of the players forever. And devising safer rules (restricting head-butting tackles) and more sophisticated equipment (better helmets and protective gear) have proven elusive. The game is what it is, predicated on hard-hitting contact.

And therein resides the moral dilemma: granted, professional football is played by adults who decide to participate in the game for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is financial. But it is also a game played by our children. And they are subjected to the same risks of neurodegenerative impairment as are college and pro players. Young players also adhere to the same unyielding code long embedded in the game: you play through an injury — a sprained ankle, a wrenched knee, or a concussion. Put simply, you "walk it off."

Youth athletes make up 70 percent of football players in the U.S.; many begin playing in youth leagues as early as 7 or 8. Studies have shown that only half will report symptoms to their coaches that indicate a concussion; instead they will return to the field though they may feel disoriented or suffer from vertigo. The results, unlike a wrenched shoulder or knee, can be catastrophic.

There is also the fact that the brains of young players are still developing. Repeated injuries, such as multiple concussions, can have immediate as well as life-long implications. Forensic pathologists have examined the brains of high school players who died from traumatic brain injury and found the chilling presence of the early onset of CTE, mirroring what has been found in deceased NFL players.

To repeat, science is ahead of the sport. So how do coaches and parents use what is now known to protect our children? Therein is the conundrum, for clearly the game of football is so deeply embedded in our culture as to seem all but impossible to alter in any significant way.

A high school football game is, in effect, a mini-Super Bowl. For the fans in the stadium, it's a thrill. For the players on the field it's a source of unequaled challenge and approbation — the band plays, the students (and parents) cheer as the game unfolds. For adolescents, it is an experience unlike any other.

To examine this sport dispassionately means acknowledging that the science should give us pause. The question raised is, do we have the collective will to at the very least debate its potential impact on our children.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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