A Year Without Kickoffs
For the first time in decades, I have no idea what the University of Michigan’s football team is doing this weekend. None. I suspect that they’re playing Notre Dame (or that they already have, or soon will), since it’s that time of season.
But I don’t know, because I’m trying to quit. Again.
I love football. I grew up on the stuff. My family had (has) season tickets to the Big House in Ann Arbor, and every fall I handed the keys to my emotions to the team’s captains. I told people that I planned to be Leroy Hoard when I grew up, or—later on—Tyrone Wheatley. I had no other substantive career aspirations beyond starting as a tailback for the Maize and Blue, though I generally supposed that I’d have a Hall of Fame career with the Bears. Until I was eight or nine, all of my favorite books were Matt Christopher‘s football stories. No exaggeration—in elementary school, I filled the margins of every single page of schoolwork with enormously complex diagrams of football formations and plays (years later I downloaded a free demo of Playmaker Football and was pretty much enraptured for a month).
In sixth grade, my class read parts of the Canterbury Tales (a kid-ified version). As a capstone project, we were asked to write our own morality tales. Naturally, I wrote a story where a skinny nerd with curly hair singlehandedly engineers a full-field two-minute drill to win the Super Bowl. The moral, as I saw it, was that adversity can be overcome. The teacher, unfortunately, recognized the real moral for what it was: football is awesome, and I loved it. She (justly) gave me a “Below Expectations” (as opposed to “Exceeds” or “Meets”).
Even after it became clear that skinny, curly-haired nerds have no future as starting tailbacks in junior high, let alone at the NCAA level, I fantasized that my vaguely passable punting skills might someday convince Gary Moeller to let me join the team as a walk-on.
I could go on, since self-deprecation comes naturally to Midwesterners discussing their overt passions for, well, anything. But I’ll spare you—suffice it to say that my football roots are deep.
Take the experience of a young defensive lineman for the University of North Carolina football team, who suffered two concussions during the 2004 season. His case is one of a number studied by Kevin Guskiewicz, who runs the university’s Sports Concussion Research Program. For the past five seasons, Guskiewicz and his team have tracked every one of the football team’s practices and games using a system called HITS, in which six sensors are placed inside the helmet of every player on the field, measuring the force and location of every blow he receives to the head. Using the HITS data, Guskiewicz was able to reconstruct precisely what happened each time the player was injured.
“The first concussion was during preseason. The team was doing two-a-days,” he said, referring to the habit of practicing in both the morning and the evening in the preseason. “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning. He survived both without incident. “In the evening session, he experiences this 64-g hit to the same spot, the front of the head. Still not reporting anything. And then this happens.” On his laptop, Guskiewicz ran the video from the practice session. It was a simple drill: the lineman squaring off against an offensive player who wore the number 76. The other player ran toward the lineman and brushed past him, while delivering a glancing blow to the defender’s helmet. “Seventy-six does a little quick elbow. It’s 63 gs, the lowest of the four, but he sustains a concussion.”
Everyone knows that concussions can have deleterious long-term health consequences. Everyone knows that football can paralyze a player in an instant. That’s why stadiums fall silent after hits like the one that felled Eric LeGrand. That’s why the NFL is cracking down on so-called “headhunting.”
“There’s one last thing,” [Researcher Ann McKee] said. She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”
This is what’s most chilling about the new research: what if the quotidian hits are also part of the problem? What if playing football IS approximately analogous to participating in demolition derbies? What if there’s no way to “fix” the violence without abandoning the core of the sport? (Freddie DeBoer is characteristically honest and uncharacteristically hard-hearted about this.)
And then I had a son—a growth-chart busting son, at that. At least twice a week someone tells me that he’s “built like a linebacker.” And everything about violence changed—football-based or otherwise. You need not be an effete, bi-coastal, left-wing elitist to want a full, healthy life for your kid. When I watched last season, I saw teams made up of sons. Where I once saw glittering, glorious dreams, I now saw futures in danger.
The worst part of it, though, was that I was a real Midwestern fan. I was convinced that the noblest football triumphs came on defense (something which I can’t really square with my obsession with playing tailback). I loved huge hits, but I also loved the grinding, willful pressure of Big Ten trench-warfare defense. To hell with “3 yards and a cloud of dust.” I wanted games that were literally fought over inches. That’s why Michigan’s 1997 National Championship was so gratifying—the defense took the lion’s share of the glamour.
That’s also why I had to quit. My favorite parts are precisely those that irreparably damage my heroes’ lives. I didn’t—and don’t—like what that said about me. Maybe that makes me a weak-kneed cosmopolitan. Maybe that reveals my lack of manhood. I don’t know. I hope not.
Some clarifications: No, I’m not asking someone (some thing?) to ban football. I doubt that we have the political will to do so. As a matter of political theory, I’m not even sure that we’d be right to do so. In particular that’s because players choose to play, despite sometimes knowing the attendant risks. It’s as much their prerogative to play the game as it is mine to choose to stop consuming.
Yes, for many, football offers an unrivaled path out of poverty. Of course, that success comes at a cost to their long-term health—and the overwhelming majority of football players will reap the health costs without seeing anything of the material rewards. I’m also loath to accept that the escape from poverty offers a sufficient balance to self-destruction in any serious moral calculus.
Yes, I’ll also acknowledge that many, even most, sports can damage participants for life (e.g. Tony Conigliaro, Taylor Twellman, et al). But very few sports—boxing? MMA?—are as systematically destructive to athletes’ brains as football…and I don’t watch those either.
Finally: I’m not (mostly) an evangelist about this. I don’t begrudge anyone their choice to spend their time and money on the game (my brother, a sports stats analyst, still loves it). But I’m done.
So why announce it at all? Why bother to write it publicly—especially given my documented disdain for writing that serves only to consciously self-display? I’m not saying much here that hasn’t been said by others. I suppose there are two reasons: 1) like many people who are trying to kick a habit, I suspect that I’ll be more accountable to my choice if I know that others know, and 2) thus far, many people have found my choice threatening.
So—as far as the latter goes, I’ll cop to a bit of proselytizing. I submit the foregoing considerations as a list of things that football fans ought to at least consider. If fans get defensive when asked to think about the sport’s consequences, surely that matters. Yes, I know that it’s a fool’s errand to ask for reflection from a sport which speaks in primal Bermanian grunts and honors unthinking toughness. As I see it, though, that’s precisely the point.