Is NFL brain damage crisis reviving suffering as a spectator sport?

I continue to watch, for now. But the evidence that players are beating one another senseless is accumulating at a disheartening pace.

The Supreme Court has rejected challenges to the estimated $1 billion plan by the NFL to settle thousands of concussion lawsuits filed by former players.
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Is watching football immoral, given the risk of brain injury?(Photo: Photo illustration with photos from Getty Images)

Death and suffering are the lot of all living creatures, but we’ve come to disdain them as spectator sports. It has been nearly a century since most civilized countries executed condemned prisoners in public. In the United States, even cockfighting is now considered barbaric, not to mention illegal.

Yet tens of millions of Americans will spend at least part of this Thanksgiving weekend transfixed by the spectacle of grown men bashing one another’s brains out. We call it professional football, but it’s getting harder and harder to pretend that those of us watching are much more civilized  than the ancient Romans who thrilled to the spectacle of Christians being dismembered by wild beasts.

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Deaths on the gridiron remain extremely rare. But the evidence that players are literally beating one another senseless is accumulating at a disheartening pace.

In a study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association this past summer, researchers reported that more than 99% of the deceased National Football League players whose brains they examined — 110 out of 111 — showed evidence of a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head.

The brains studied were not a random sample; many had been donated by family members who suspected that their loved ones had sustained serious neurological damage. But even if not one of the 1,200 other players who died during the course of the study was similarly afflicted — a near impossibility — the JAMA study would demonstrate that one in nine deceased players suffered catastrophic brain impairments, a rate dwarfing that found in the general population.

The National Football League, which for decades denied the mounting data pointing to a link between acute head injuries and long-term brain damage, now concedes that one in three retired players will develop long-term cognitive problems, and that they are likely to do so at a far earlier age than most people who encounter such difficulties.

Just this month, researchers who examined the brain of  the late New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez said it revealed the most severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, they had ever encountered in a someone under 46. Hernandez was 27 when he hanged himself last April while serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of another football player. He joined a growing list of NFL stars who took their lives after developing symptoms of CTE.

Like a lot of fans for whom football is more a casual entertainment than a passion, I had paid only peripheral attention to the CTE plague engulfing the game until quite recently. Then, just before the NFL season began last August, I read that one of the game’s leading broadcast analysts, ESPN’s Ed Cunningham, had decided that he could no longer be a “cheerleader” for a sport he believes is killing some of its best players.

“I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain,” Cunningham told an interviewer from the New York Times. “To me, it’s unacceptable.”

Cunningham is the most prominent broadcaster to sever ties with the sport, but many share his angst.

“I could hardly disagree with anything he said,” Mike Patrick, Cunningham’s play-by-play partner on ESPN, told the Times. “I love football — college football, pro football, any kind of football. It’s a wonderful sport. But now that I realize what it can do to people, that it can turn 40-, 50-year-old men into walking vegetables, how do you stay silent?”

Hearing broadcasters like Cunningham and Patrick confess such deep misgivings about a game that has delighted and enriched them makes me wonder about the role fans like me play in supporting it. What’s our share of the responsibility for spawning the walking vegetables they describe?

Complicity is the anxiety of our time. Every day, we learn that another elected official we voted for, another entertainer whose show we enjoyed, or another journalist we admired has confessed to, or been accused of, conduct that is illegal, immoral or otherwise cringe-worthy.

Many of those accused are paying a high price — but what about us? Can we continue to watch “House of Cards,” follow Louis C.K.’s on Twitter, or cheer Sen. Al Franken as he interrogates some hapless Trump cabinet member in a Senate hearing? Or are we obligated to sever ties, to shun them as the Amish shun even family members who violate the code of their community?

If you are like me, your patience for such introspection is limited. I am tired of being called to account for other people’s sins, intolerant of those who insist I’m promoting child molestation every time I watch an old Woody Allen movie on cable. Draw too many lines in the sand and you risk quarantining yourself in a mirthless sanctuary of perfect virtue.

But reconciling our continuing enthusiasm for a game that poses such a serious, ongoing threat to its participants strikes me as a thornier problem. 

We know that people who consume child pornography sustain the livelihoods of the people who create it — and our laws impose criminal sanctions on both. So how is the relationship between fans who patronize football and those who profit from it fundamentally different?

The easy answer is that, unlike the children exploited by pornographers — minors whom the law defines as incapable of consenting to participation, whatever the inducement — those who risk brain injury on the gridiron are adults who incur those risks knowingly, and are enriched for doing so. 

Or at least they knowingly incur them today, now that the sport’s professional and collegiate overseers have at last acknowledged the danger of long-term brain damage football players face. But those same authorities ignored or downplayed that risk for many years, and in the face of persuasive evidence that many players were paying a horrific price for their brief careers. In April 2015, in a court-approved agreement settling a class-action lawsuit, the NFL agreed to pay up to $5 million per retired player for medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma. Other concussion related claims are still pending.

But even if the NFL and collegiate football conferences are being more candid about the risks (they are) and making adjustments in rules and equipment to reduce the incidence of head trauma (they have), the fact remains that those of us who watch are paying to see a game that shortens many of its participants’ lives and leaves an even greater number permanently crippled. How many of us would gamble on such a loss, especially if we had other, less dangerous options for making a comfortable living?

At the very least, those of us who can’t resist watching should demand that the NFL and the collegiate conferences that incubate its talent prove that the steps they’re taking are dramatically changing the odds for today’s players. And we should be prepared to respond if the evidence continues to demonstrate that the risks of long-term brain damage remain unacceptably high.

As for me, I continue to watch — for now. But more and more I find myself imagining what it would be like to sit before my big-screen TV in a cognitive fog, unable to figure out who’s winning, or maybe even who’s playing. And it makes me more than a little uncomfortable to know that some of the players I’m watching may face precisely that fate.

Contact Brian Dickerson: bdickerson@freepress.com.

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