My pickup, a red Mazda I’d had since college, died quickly, violently. The driver’s side of the engine was shoved back within a few inches of the cabin. The bottom railing of the tractor trailer’s bumper came through the windshield. I remember thinking my pickup might blow up like a scene from Diehard. I opened the door and fell into the grassy median.
I lived, obviously.
I cracked my wrist, severely bruised my collarbone and both hands, and bumped my right knee on the emergency-brake handle. I also banged my head against something, either the steering wheel or the shattered windshield.
To this day, I don’t remember if I was checked for a concussion at the Stringfellow ER, though it’s lunacy to think my brain hadn’t been jostled like a bowling ball dropped into a metal trash can.
Tuesday night while watching the PBS Frontline program on concussions in the NFL, “League of Denial,” that misty morning in February 1992 became a recurring thought. Though I’d played high school football, my wreck was the only way I could truly relate to having head trauma so severe that it might irreversibly alter your life.
I adore football: the strategy, the passion, the athletic elegance, the brute strength. But I’m also worried about football in light of the overwhelming and irrefutable medical evidence that proves America’s favorite sport causes brain damage in some of the boys and men who play it.
Put simply, repeatedly slamming your head into other players or into the ground is detrimental to your health. Only fools would disagree.
If you watched “League of Denial,” you heard sordid tales and heartbreaking stories. The NFL, its high-priced legal team and its hand-picked medical advisers spent years undermining scientific research and claiming that no link existed between playing professional football and a heightened risk of concussions. Only when the research became so overwhelming — and when faced with lawsuits from thousands of former players who said the league did not adequately warn them of the game’s concussion dangers — did the NFL reverse its course.
The NFL, as “League of Denial” illustrated, is sports’ version of Big Tobacco. It is a shameful, deceitful, immoral illustration of protecting profits over lives.
Where, then, do we go from here?
Football is inherently violent, a contact sport built around hitting, tackling and blocking. Taking that contact out of football is like wanting to skydive without the risk that comes with jumping out of a plane. And to think football’s rules-makers — at any level — can legislate new guidelines that greatly reduce the number of times players’ heads are hit, or are used to hit, is an exercise in futility.
Try this: On Saturday, when you’re watching Alabama or Auburn, keep a running tally of how many times you see a player take a direct hit to the head. Doesn’t matter if it’s a slobber-knocker or gentler bump; a hit to the head is a hit to the head. How often does a lineman’s helmet collide with the helmet of the player he’s trying to block? Technology, for all its advances, has not produced an ironclad way to protect the brain, long-term, from such repeated, year-after-year, violent collisions.
My concern isn’t the NFL. It is what it is. But in “League of Denial,” researchers involved in the NFL studies showed cases of brain trauma in an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old — high school and college players who, until now, scientists had felt were too young to exhibit signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The elephant in the room is youth and high school football: should parents let their children play? If their sons are college-worthy players, should parents be concerned that playing football for more than a decade — pee-wee through college — brings an elevated risk of causing dementia once their children become adults? How many times, in games and full-contact practices, do young players get hit in the head? Do we really want to know?
I don’t know the answer. It’s complicated, and it’s personal. Not all football players suffer brain damage. Not all football players who are concussed later suffer from dementia. But all football players get hit in the head, over and over again.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.