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George Will / Aug. 5, 2012

Football's Big Problem

The opening of the NFL training camps coincided with the closing of the investigation into the April suicide by gunshot of Ray Easterling, 62, an eight-season NFL safety in the 1970s. The autopsy found moderately severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE was identified as a major cause of Easterling's depression and dementia. In February 2011, Dave Duerson, 50, an 11-year NFL safety, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest to spare his brain tissue for research, which has found evidence of CTE. Brain tissue of 20-season linebacker Junior Seau, who was 43 when he killed himself the same way in May, is being studied. The NFL launched a mental health hotline developed and operated with the assistance of specialists in suicide prevention.

WASHINGTON – Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?

The opening of the NFL training camps coincided with the closing of the investigation into the April suicide by gunshot of Ray Easterling, 62, an eight-season NFL safety in the 1970s. The autopsy found moderately severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE was identified as a major cause of Easterling’s depression and dementia.

In February 2011, Dave Duerson, 50, an 11-year NFL safety, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest to spare his brain tissue for research, which has found evidence of CTE. Brain tissue of 20-season linebacker Junior Seau, who was 43 when he killed himself the same way in May, is being studied. The NFL launched a mental health hotline developed and operated with the assistance of specialists in suicide prevention.

Football is bigger than ever, in several senses. Bear Bryant’s 1966 undefeated Alabama team had only 19 players who weighed more than 200 pounds. The heaviest weighed 223. The linemen averaged 194. The quarterback weighed 177. Today, many high school teams are much bigger. In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. In 2011, according to pro-football-reference.com, there were 352, including three 350-pounders. Thirty-one of the NFL’s 32 offensive lines averaged more than 300.

Various unsurprising studies indicate high early mortality rates among linemen resulting from cardiovascular disease. For all players who play five or more years, life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less.

After 20 years of caring for her husband, Easterling’s widow is one of more than 3,000 plaintiffs – former players, spouses, relatives – in a lawsuit charging that the NFL inadequately acted on knowledge it had, or should have had, about hazards such as CTE. We are, however, rapidly reaching the point where playing football is like smoking cigarettes: The risks are well-known.

Not that this has prevented smokers from successfully suing tobacco companies. But, then, smoking is an addiction. Football is just an increasingly guilty pleasure. Might Americans someday feel as queasy enjoying it as sensible people now do watching boxing and wondering how the nation was once enamored of a sport the point of which is brain trauma?

That is unlikely. Degenerate prize fighting, or prize fighting for degenerates – called mixed martial arts or “ultimate fighting” – is booming.

Still, football has bigger long-term problems than lawsuits. Football is entertainment in which the audience is expected to delight in gladiatorial action that a growing portion of the audience knows may cause the players degenerative brain disease. Not even football fans, a tribe not known for savoring nuance, can forever block that fact from their excited brains.

Furthermore, in this age of bubble-wrapped children, when parents put helmets on wee tricycle riders, many children are going to be steered away from youth football, diverting the flow of talent to the benefit of other sports.

In the NFL, especially, football is increasingly a spectacle, a game surrounded by manufactured frenzy, on the grass and in the increasingly unpleasant ambiance of the fans in the stands. Football on the field is a three-hour adrenaline-and-testosterone bath. For all its occasional elegance and beauty, it is basically violence for, among other purposes, inflicting intimidating pain. (Seau said his job was “to inflict pain on my opponent and have him quit.”) The New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” system of cash payments to players who knocked opposing players out of games crossed a line distinguishing the essence of the game from the perversion of it. This is, however, an increasingly faint line.

Decades ago, this column lightheartedly called football a mistake because it combines two of the worst features of American life – violence, punctuated by committee meetings, which football calls huddles. Now, however, accumulating evidence about new understandings of the human body – the brain, especially, but not exclusively – compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected by equipment to absorb, the game’s kinetic energies.

After 18 people died playing football in 1905, even President Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and gore generally, flinched and forced some rules changes. Today, however, the problem is not the rules; it is the fiction that football can be fixed and still resemble the game fans relish.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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