7 Quick Takes (2/4/11)


It’s Superbowl weekend, and this will be a series of Superbowl-related takes, but, to clarify, I’m decidedly anti-football.  And I’m not opposed to football the same lazy, uninterested way I’m opposed to watching baseball or basketball.  Football, because of its high concussion and traumatic brain injury rate is uniquely awful and destructive.



If you want a quick overview to the problem of concussions in football, start with Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Offensive Play: How Different are Dogfighting and Football?”  Gladwell lays out the medical evidence for the danger of frequent concussions clearly and the data are frightening.  Repeatedly concussed players develop a build-up of tau proteins, just like Alzheimer’s patients.  They can suffer all the symptoms of Alzheimers – disorientation, dementia, loss of identity, and violent anger, but, instead of deteriorating in their sixties or seventies, these men start to fade away in their forties.  Or even earlier.

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.”



The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by the NFL, but their response, as chronicled by Jeanne Marie Laskas for Gentlemen’s Quarterly has been deliberately unhelpful.  Their actions resemble nothing so much as the lies of the tobacco industry, insisting their was no persuasive link between smoking and cancer.  (This is the best article of all the one’s I’m linking.  If you only have time for one, read this, and send it on).

Fitzsimmons filed the disability claim with the NFL. There are several levels of disability with the NFL, and Mike Webster was awarded the lowest one: partial, about $3,000 a month.

Fitzsimmons said, “Oh, please.” He said if ever there was a guy who qualified for the highest, it was Mike Webster. The highest level was “total disability, football-related,” reserved for those who were disabled as a result of playing the game. It would yield Webster as much as $12,000 a month. Fitzsimmons said to the NFL, “Four doctors—all with the same diagnosis!”

The NFL said no. Four doctors were not enough. They wanted Webster seen by their own doctor. So their own doctor examined Webster… and concurred with the other four: closed-head injury. Football-related.

The NFL pension board voted unanimously for partial disability anyway.

Fitzsimmons said, “You have got to be kidding me.” He filed an appeal with the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where the pension board is headquartered. The judge reversed the decision of the NFL pension board—the first time in history any such action had been taken against the NFL.

And yet still the NFL fought. They took the case to federal court. They said Mike Webster—who had endured probably 25,000 violent collisions during his career and now was living on Pringles and Little Debbie pecan rolls, who was occasionally catatonic, in a fetal position for days—they said Mike Webster didn’t qualify for full disability.

Any money spent on football tickets or paraphernalia is spent, in part, on lawsuits trying to avoid compensating players for their life-destroying injuries and spent on efforts to smear the doctors defending their patients.  Don’t help them.


The concussion problem trickles down to high school and college teams.  Even practice scrimmages put students at risk of concussion or injury, and not all coaches are attentive enough to screen for damage.  Here’s what NYT sportswriter Alan Schwarts had to say:

On Sunday afternoon, more than 28 million people were watching Fox’s national broadcast when the Philadelphia Eagles’ Stewart Bradley rose woozily, stumbled and then collapsed onto the turf. The Fox announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman expressed concern and even horror.

Players waved frantically for medical assistance.

Less than four minutes later, Bradley, a linebacker, was sent back into the game.

Only at halftime was his injury diagnosed as a concussion.

The Eagles said afterward that they did not permanently remove Bradley at the time of his injury — per new N.F.L.rules — because their sideline exam revealed no concussion and also because no medical person saw either the hit Bradley took or his collapse to the turf.

Considering that doctors and trainers are well represented on N.F.L. sidelines and that the league has made concussion awareness an issue this season, the Eagles’ handling of Bradley’s injury raises a stark question: If a concussion this glaring can be missed, how many go unnoticed every fall weekend on high school and youth fields, where the consequences can be more serious, even fatal?

Further reading: Gretchen Reynolds looks at the statistics on kids in concussion heavy sports.


This year at Yale, the problem struck close to home when a student was brutally tackled in the annual Harvard-Yale game.  It was the second serious head to head collision of the game, and the boy had to be taken by hospital to the trauma center at the nearest hospital.  By December, the last time the Yale Daily News checked in, he could no longer move his entire right arm.  He can only wiggle his fingers, the rest is unresponsive.  He may never recover.

My dad was lucky.  When he played high school football, he was tackled so hard that his kidney ruptured and that injury took him out of the sport permanently.  He never had the chance to accumulate concussions in college.  When my parents were choosing a home and a school district, they made sure to pick one without a football team, so that my brother would never take up the sport.


I’ve heard it argued that all sports are about the distortion of the body, and that the damage and grotesqueries are the sacrifices that athletes make for glory or their team or their art.  I’m open to to that argument for women’s gymnastics (which can stunt growth and disrupt endocrinology permanently) but I can’t accept it as a defense for football.  I can accept mortification of the body, but I’m horrified by damage to the mind.  This comes down in part to my dualist/gnostic tendencies and general disdain for the body, but I think everyone actually ought to be on my side on this one.

Here’s a thought-experiment: Would you rather…

  1. Lose your arm
  2. Lose the ability to control your anger and prevent your arm from striking your spouse/child

Everyone picks the physical injury over the inability to make decisions and be responsible to the people you love.  Most football players don’t understand (because of NFL deception) that that is the risk they are taking. That’s a completely different kind of danger than a blown knee or even paralysis.  It’s an unjustifiable risk to ask people to take for our entertainment.



So, sorry to be a buzzkill, but there are some serious ethical problems with embracing NFL-style football.  But don’t think I’m depriving you of all Superbowl fun!  There are still perfectly licit ways to enjoy the day; just look to xkcd for inspiration!



[Seven Quick Takes is a blog carnival run by Jen of Conversion Diary]

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  • I'm not sure why one would feel superior about watching the ads. Sure, they're funny and works of art, but the ideologies they sell are as uniquely awful as this sport seems to be.

  • I got a concussion playing non-contact lacrosse in high school. 🙂 We're not really a football family either, even though my grandfather was an all-American in college and now my little brother plays (although he'll row in high school; he's too lean to play football long term fortunately), but I definitely see your cons to the pros. Thanks for sharing!

  • Solution 1 (The 'Liberal' one): Ban Football for the good of the players.Solution 2 (The libertarian one): Give people the facts and let them choose what they do to their bodies.Solution 3 (The Economists one): Ban helmets.Seriously, banning helmets would lead to a sharp increase in head trauma and severe neck and spinal injuries in the VERY short term.However, as soon as players learn that they can be injured severely by flying in head first they will be more circumspect about tackling and there will be fewer head knocks, hence fewer concussions and fewer brain injuries (long AND short term ones).As an example look at rugby where the players are not quite so big as in Football, but they're not small!, but as they have no protection they tackle much more skilfully and big tackles are always shoulder first rather than head first.I have a similar problem with boxing where I'd like to ban it, but I also don't see what right I have to tell two informed, consenting adults what they can and cannot do…