The N.F.L.’s Next Play: Address Brain Trauma or Fade Away
IN late 1982, I was watching the heavyweight championship fight between Larry Holmes and Randall Cobb, known as Tex, on television. Even though I was a longtime fan of pretty much every sport, I was appalled by the ceaseless violence that the referee permitted to be inflicted on Cobb. As a pathologist who had autopsied hundreds of people, I knew the kind of damage the fight could be causing. I wasn’t the only one horrified by the spectacle: Howard Cosell, who was calling the fight, asked, “I wonder if that referee understands that he is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he’s a part of?”
I decided to do something. At the time, I was the editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, and on Jan. 14, 1983, we ran my editorial, “Boxing Should Be Banned in Civilized Countries.” The column garnered attention from around the world, and over the next few years, organized medicine, including the A.M.A. itself, rallied to the cause of abolishing the sport. Congress held hearings, some state laws were changed, championship fights were shortened, efforts were made to empower ringside doctors to stop fights and pre-fight examinations of boxers became more stringent.
But mostly, parents, children and the public were put on notice that boxing was dangerous. The sport gradually lost its exalted status, becoming a marginal activity in this country.
On Jan. 9, I had a similar feeling watching the National Football League wild-card game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. An outrageous helmet-to-helmet hit by the Steeler Ryan Shazier gave Giovani Bernard a concussion, but astonishingly, it didn’t result in a penalty — the hit was apparently within the rules. The Bengals’s Vontaze Burfict’s savage shoulder-to-helmet hit on the defenseless wide receiver Antonio Brown caused another concussion (he couldn’t play in the next week’s divisional playoff), but at least Burfict’s recklessness drew a three-game suspension.
The negative publicity surrounding the game was more evidence that, despite its colossal cultural and economic success, the N.F.L. is in deep trouble, and can’t seem to find a way out. The still accumulating evidence of brain-damaged former players — Ken Stabler, who died in July, is the most recent one to show evidence of brain trauma — is a huge legal liability. The failure of the league to take effective actions to protect the brains of current players puts it into willful-negligence territory. Other than increasing some on-field penalties, the league has done almost nothing to protect players now or in the future. And the sports media are mostly shills paid by the networks to entertain audiences and please the league, with little interest in using their pulpit for the cause of player safety.
If the N.F.L. can’t effectively deal with the concussion issue, it may follow the same arc as boxing. That would be a shame. I have had a love affair with American football, especially Alabama football, since 1944, the legendary Harry Gilmer’s first year. The only thing I love more than football is the human brain. Blows to the head damage the brain, period. It need not be a full concussion. We learned from decades of studying boxing that multiple sub-concussive blows result in aggregate widespread tearing of nerve fibers and small blood vessels, and possibly to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
At a bare minimum, the N.F.L. should publicly admit that there is a real problem with the risk of player brain damage (as it has in court documents). It should follow the lead of college football, which now punishes offending players with immediate expulsions from the game. (For pro football players, many of them multimillionaires, fines and suspensions assessed days after the game seem to have little impact.) For years, the league has experimented with ways to make the games faster and more exciting, so it could certainly consider changing rules to make the game safer by, for example, making the field larger or imposing weight restrictions on players
Why don’t I call for football’s abolition, as I did with boxing? In part, I admit, because of my own bias toward football, but also because I believe that violence is a byproduct of football — one that can be reduced — not the intended result, as was the case for boxing. But the motivations of reformers like me are irrelevant. Parents are being made aware of the dangers of football and the potential for long-term disability, so they can (or not) give informed consent for their children. If large numbers of young people stop playing the game, as they stopped boxing, the talent pool will begin to dry up and the N.F.L. will have a smaller reservoir of talent and fans to tap.
That may seem inconceivable for football now, when more than 100 million Americans will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, but no more so than it once was for boxing. In 1982, I wrote: “Some have argued that boxing has a redeeming social value in that it allows a few disadvantaged or minority individuals an opportunity to rise to spectacular wealth and fame. This does occur, but at what price? The price in this country includes chronic brain damage for them and the thousands of others who do not achieve wealth, fame, or even a decent living from the ring.”
One could easily make the same observation about football today, at all levels. The future of the sport hinges on whether any serious rule changes can ameliorate the brain damage. Professional boxing in the United States couldn’t be rescued. Given the inaction by the owners and commissioner of the N.F.L., I don’t know that football can, either