Football, big hits, and dualism

Football, big hits, and dualism September 17, 2014
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A portrait of the author as a young football player

In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on his decision two years ago to boycott football in the wake of the suicides of two prominent former NFLers. One of them, Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears, shot himself in the chest and left a note expressing his wish that his brain tissue be used for research on head trauma.

Writes Coates:

I regret losing a common language and a common culture. The NFL allowed for a bridge to other people with whom I had virtually nothing else in common. […] But everything I’ve seen since has served to confirm the suspicions that led me to stop watching.

I still follow the news around the game, the way one might follow the doings an ex-spouse. […] A few weeks ago, I saw that John Abraham was retiring because he had been suffering from “severe memory loss” for over a year. It now appears that Abraham will return to the team.


It’s very hard for me to imagine myself watching a game in which John Abraham was playing, and I can’t help but wonder how Abraham’s coaches and teammates feel.

The fact that a player who obviously suffers from severe brain trauma is even allowed to return to the game should be troubling to anyone. While it’s true that most employers leave the cost/benefit analysis of risk to their employees, professional athletic leagues should hold themselves to a higher standard. The NFL sends a signal by not taking head trauma seriously, and it’s picked up loud and clear by young athletes across the world.

For as long as I can remember, the NFL has cultivated football’s gladiatorial nature as an important part of its branding. Sure, we’re impressed by the athletes’ speed and agility, and we love intricate plays that leave the defense scratching their heads. But we also love big hits.

Although Coates insists that football players don’t speak gleefully about inflicting pain on others anymore, that doesn’t ring true to my experience. As young and impressionable football players, my friends and I definitely sought to get “big hits” whenever we could. We were obsessed with big hits. When we reviewed game tapes, we would rewind them just to watch the hardest tackles over again.

My football tapes from the 2007 season even have a separate section for “Really Really Ridiculously Big Hits.” Many of the hits that made the compilation ended in injury.

At 5’8″ and weighing in short of 150lbs, I never had enough mass to run people down the way some of my friends did. At the time, I envied them, but looking back, I am grateful. I never suffered from a severe concussion, but several of my friends did. Some repeatedly.

So why did we keep playing? In short, we were shockingly nonchalant about the dangers of brain trauma.

Coates ties the failure to take brain trauma seriously back to the idea of a separation between body and mind, concluding that “The philosophy that undergirds John Abraham’s return to the field is a kind of mysticism that does not quite regard the brain as an organic part of the body.”

He contrasts this with the scientific (and Atheistic) view of personhood as a product of processes going on in the brain.

It’s an interesting angle worth considering. Particularly because the person left with the aftermath of brain trauma might not even be the same person who accepted the risk of brain injury in the first place. Coates writes:

Somehow in my time away, I missed that they’ve exhumed the body of Jovan Belcher—the pro football player who murdered his girlfriend and then himself.They are looking for signs of brain injury. In college, Belcher was a member of a group called Male Athletes Against Violence

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