Beechert: A Dangerous Game

by Michael Beechert | 1/12/16 7:00pm

I don’t exactly look forward to the beginning of the new year. The excitement of the Christmas season is over, classes and homework assignments start to make appearances on the daily agenda after a long period of absence, and Mother Nature promises at least three months of gray skies and freezing temperatures. One thing, however, brings a smile to my face and a spring to my step: the NFL playoffs. Even though God has apparently condemned my beloved New York Jets to eternal mediocrity, there’s nothing quite like tuning in every Saturday and Sunday to see football’s best slug it out on the path to the Super Bowl.

Football, and the playoffs in particular, has, for me and countless Americans, served as a valuable bonding experience and an important part of life as a sports fan. While baseball and basketball are great games in their own right, the do-or-die nature of the NFL – win, or go home – creates a unique tension that more or less captivates the entire nation come January and February. I remember how, as a child, I would spend my entire week waiting in anticipation for Sunday on the few occasions that the Jets made the postseason. Playoff games – those three hours that always seem to go by too fast – were invariably watched with family and friends, but the atmosphere in the bars and living rooms in which the faithful would gather was anything but light and relaxed. Football, for whatever reason, was and is especially serious business, and this country loves the sport because of that.

Football is also a particularly vicious game, where physical violence is not only the norm on the field but practically required by the rules of the game itself. Offensive and defensive linemen collide with tremendous force at the beginning of every play, ballcarriers are smashed to the ground with regularity, and quarterbacks are brought down by hulking freaks of nature if they are the slightest bit unlucky. Bones are snapped and ligaments are torn, and it’s all accepted as part of the game. Fans cheer injured players exiting the stadium on golf carts as heroic casualties of war. The high stakes of football – the degree of harm which can occur – only justifies the seriousness of our fandom, and it increases our fervor as followers of the sport.

But a sinister shadow has settled over the NFL, and America is just beginning to come to terms with the implications of its obsession. Brain injuries, and the devastating effects they have on players later in life, have reared their ugly head. Broken tibias and mangled ACLs, unpleasant as they may be, do not cause former players to shoot themselves in the chest, as All-Pro safety Dave Duerson did in 2011 and Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau did a year later. The list of retired NFL players who have committed suicide is tragically long, and autopsies have pointed to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological illness caused by repeated head trauma, as the cause in many cases . The jarring hits that fans have come to love, and on which the NFL has largely built its brand, have a tremendous human cost.

The NFL is largely at fault for the CTE epidemic; for years, the league ignored, downplayed, and even tried to suppress the mounting medical evidence that former players disproportionately suffered from the disease . And while players have every right to risk their bodies to pursue a career in football, the intentional absence of data on brain injuries in the sport up until now has prevented them from making an informed decision. Fans, however, must also share some of the blame. As uncomfortable as it may be, the truth is that decades of high TV viewership, ticket purchases and merchandise sales have created an environment so profitable that the NFL has been loath to risk spoiling the party by calling attention to brain injuries. A moral failure has occurred, but acknowledging and remedying that failure is extraordinarily difficult. Maybe the best way to do so would be to stop watching football altogether. When I am in front of a television for the divisional round this weekend, perhaps this thought will cross my mind.