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Fifty Months into NFL Abstention, Another Tragic On-Field Moment Pierces the Bubble

It’s difficult for me to profess, definitively, that I ever came to dislike the National Football League or football in general. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: I quite like it, as exhibited by 40-plus years of fandom — starting with the Sam Bam/Mike Haynes/John Hannah Patriots — and three decades as a working sportswriter, a role one cannot assume in America without paying attention to gridiron (see examples here and here). The arguments for opting out of the NFL, however, just kept stacking up, like the arguments against industrially farmed meat products, or cocaine. The smoking example remains the most apt: Active NFL fandom was something that undeniably amused me, for decades, but was pretty obviously bad for me.

I have abstained from the game since September 2018. I first composed the meat of this essay 15 months later, when yet another former player had killed himself but preserved his brain — so researchers might posthumously assess the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Thirty-eight months later, it takes an event like the cardiac arrest and collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, on Jan. 2, 2023, to remind myself of why I’ve refrained from reading anything on the subject, and why I’m not watching NFL games or college games.

Yet the NFL is so dominant in our culture that one need not actively follow the nation’s most popular sport in order to know who has died on the field, who’s been accused of sexual assault, and which guys you should probably activate in your fantasy league this week. Football games are on TV everywhere: in bars and restaurants, at parties and poker games. One is effectively buffeted by news of all this stuff, non-stop, via the dribs and drabs of interpersonal conversations, social environments, advertising of all kinds and serial web impressions. Love it or hate it, such is the NFL’s omnipresence in 2023. Americans routinely absorb its competitive results and attendant news/outrages almost by osmosis.

This essay was never conceived as an exercise in virtue signaling. Like someone who stops drinking for the month of January, or perhaps indefinitely, I found it edifying to write down my own reasons for opting out — to better process and perhaps defend (to myself) the quality of the decision-making. Still, let it be known that I’ve sworn off the NFL because:

1) It can kill you apparently. Not everyone who plays NFL football (or college football, or high school football) develops CTE-induced aphasia and dies, of course. But enough of them have, and enough exhibit these debilitating cognitive effects in the long term to make a compelling adverse case. Roman gladiators may have been the alpha, all-pro middle linebackers of their time, but eventually they were all borne from the arena in pieces. Free will allows anyone the license to play that game, but we are similarly free to opt out of that sort of spectacle… How parents can allow their children to play the game, knowing what we now know, I truly do not understand. Create for yourself a Google alert for “High School Football Spinal Cord and Head Injuries” and witness the sickening news trickle in each Friday night, often via the live-Tweets of sportswriters who witness yet another ambulance on the field, under the klieg lights of small town America. It’s no shock to learn participation is falling across the country. I predict that, in 20 years, no public high school in the nation will have 11-man, tackle football teams, because no public school system will have the money to cover the liability insurance. Kids will continue to play football, or course, but only via private clubs. Like Rollerball.

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Long Story: Why Rugby’s Distant Cousin has Replaced Tackling with Hitting

What’s wrong with this picture? Stefon Diggs (14) scored a winning, last-second touchdown on Sunday because Marcus Williams (43) went for the hit, not the traditional tackle…

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Jan. 17, 2018) — Minnesota Vikings wide-out Stefon Diggs may go on to do many more spectacular things during his career but, for now, his miraculous walk-off touchdown to win last weekend’s playoff game vs. the New Orleans Saints remains his claim to fame. However, let’s widen the scope on this play and connect a few dots. In so doing we link the signature moment of the 2018 playoffs to the league’s most pressing issue.

Look at the picture that accompanies this essay (or watch the video of the play here) and examine with me what New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams (43 in white) was thinking as time expired.

We should first take a moment to pity Mr. Williams, a rookie, whose coaches consigned him to a god-awful position — “on an island,” as they say, by obliging him to defend half the field when the situation clearly called for the Mother of All Prevent Defenses. Even in this highly vulnerable position, however, all Williams needed to do was play center field on this play, keep Mr. Diggs in front of him, eventually wrap him up and wait for help, or bring him to the ground, ideally in the field of play, though even an eventual shove out of bounds would have sufficed.

Instead, Williams did what most American footballers tend to do in the 21st century: He went for the “spectacle hit.” Head first.

Competitively, as we’ve seen, the results were disastrous. Williams even managed to compound his misfortune, somewhat comically, by whiffing on Diggs entirely then taking out his own teammate — the only guy in a viable position to chase down the wide receiver when the ball was caught. What’s more, according to rules taking effect for the 2018 regular season, even the headfirst attempt should/would draw a 15-yard personal foul penalty. However, if we step back, we see here yet another consequence of football’s troubling evolution on the defensive side of scrimmage. Despite a litany of league-wide initiatives to curb headfirst tackling — the result of mounting evidence linking repeated football-related head trauma to brain injury (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) — the NFL’s hit culture remains firmly in place. Even in a situation like Williams’, where old fashioned, rugby-style tackling was called for, the defender acted on the instinct that football today engenders.

NFL football in the here and now is plenty good fun, the most popular and culturally dominant game in 21st century North America. Minnesota’s unlikely victory (indeed, three of the four games contested over the weekend) showcased exactly why this is so. NFL games can be spectacularly entertaining.

Yet it would be a stretch to consider the game of professional football “perfected”. Any sport played at the elite level exists as a moving target, a work in evolutionary progress because the salient factors affecting that evolution — rules, tactics, equipment, geography, fashion, even the size and skill of the players involved — also shift and evolve. All this transforms the way a game is played over the course of time, sometimes by design, sometimes organically without much guidance at all.

In 2018, we can add “culture” and “the legal process” to this list of salient change-agents. People took notice when former NFL player Ed Cunningham resigned from his position of ESPN football analyst — on account of the game’s growing concussion dilemma — but, in truth, we’ve become somewhat inured to stories like this because nearly every week brings a new one: be it evidence that concussions sustained in pee wee football can lead to adult brain trauma, or steps the Canadian Football League has taken to reduce the volume of dangerous hits.

The idea that former Patriots tight end and convicted murder suspect Aaron Hernandez might have committed his violent crimes while experiencing advanced-stage CTE adds to this potent mix the elements of irony and the macabre. Did you know that a class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of current and former NCAA student-athletes, remains pending before Judge John Z. Lee of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois? Me neither. Class actions have their own online portals these days, naturally. Visit this one and be prepared for the following greeting: “Welcome to the NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation Website.”

Bit by bit, the forces of change would appear to be gathering over football, as they have intermittently but more or less continuously for more than a century. No game, it seems to me, has evolved so far, so quickly or so dangerously.

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