by Irvin Muchnick
Earlier this week I was interviewed about football’s fraught future, as I am from time to time, by Jim Richards, the fine afternoon host at Toronto’s NewsTalk1010. Our chat was cut short by breaking local news, but you can hear the brief dialogue, starting around the 14:45 mark, on Jim’s March 15 blog entry, http://www.newstalk1010.com/Hosts/JimRichards.aspx.
The hook, of course, was a National Football League executive’s concession on Monday that playing their sport is, indeed, scientifically linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Jeff Miller, senior vice president for health and safety, rushed over and told the House Energy and Commerce Committee all about his Eureka! moment. (No, he just mumbled “certainly” to a question commissioner Roger Goodell and others have been denying or dodging for years in similar forums. The implications hung in the air as long as a Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers.)
Jim Richards asked me if this was a game-changer. It’s a little like asking if Pope Francis is a game-changer because, from time to time and at only the most calculated institutional inconvenience, he suggests that when we talk about sexual abuse, maybe we should start emphasizing a little more of this and a little less of that.
All we can say with certainty is that Miller’s statement was not a wildcat move but, rather, part of some next phase of corporate war-gaming. Miller said what he said after the no-discovery settlement of retired players’ class actions was achieved and before other ex-athletes in the future might be able to complain that the league didn’t do its due diligence in informing them of their risk.
When it comes to game-changers, journalists are always quick to scribble “yes” — but they do so in pencil, just in case they wind up needing to amend that to “maybe” in ink. Historians, the rewrite folks, are a visionary bunch; they start in pencil with the “maybe” before going to their erasers.
And here’s the thing. All the erasers get hogged by history’s winners.
In retrospect, game-changers … tipping points, Rubicon crossings, paradigm shifts … are easy to identify. In real time, they’re like eating soup with a fork.
At ChaneysBlog.com, author and historian Matt Chaney continues to document to a redundant fare-thee-well — the late Bill Safire would have named him quarterback of the Squad Squad — the fact that Football America has long had all the evidence anyone with common sense would require in order to appreciate that this particular form of extreme entertainment, masquerading as physical fitness, is not for the young of brain. At a low level, the public has known as much for decades, possibly centuries. There’s a difference, however, between knowing and knowing.
Recently, with the assistance of Hollywood narcissists and sycophants, Dr. Bennet Omalu did a noble job of selling the general public on the idea that it was he and he alone, the day before yesterday, who not only discovered a form of structural brain damage but also gave it the name CTE. But guess what? Even Omalu (who, vanity aside, did do tremendous work in driving this conversation into field goal range) self-published a book entitled A Historical Foundation of CTE in Football Players.
Now it’s time for our public school systems, in particular, to get out of the youth football racket — but for my money, this is not even because of CTE per se. It’s also because of spinal cord injuries. Gradual and often undetected internal organ devastation. A pandemic of orthopedic deficits that take from the national quality of life far more than they give back. I refer to more than the financial tab, but if you have to get all bean-counter on me, I could pull out the numbers establishing that in the give and take of our national health care system, football only takes.
So whisper it at the water cooler and shout it from the rooftop: Public football is a dead man walking. The image of CTE victims at too-young ages completes the metaphor. Brain trauma, carnage inflicted on the body part that defines us as human, is a decent place to start a debate. No debate is perfect. The question is how much benefit of the doubt we will continue to extend those who are in the specific business of abusing it.
Positive identification of CTE in the living, said to be imminent, is another hyped game-changer, but count me among the skeptics who believe, at the end of the day, that it will aggrandize the medical-research complex far more than it changes hearts and minds. These holy grails are fantasies of the quantifying class. CTE imaging will lead to classifications and gradations, definitions still closely held by experts, and still followed by more debate with such can-kicking prompts as, “Is Stage 1 CTE an acceptable risk? What if Stage 1 CTE is neither Stage 1 nor CTE? Discuss.”
Football will sensibly downsize whenever football sensibly downsizes. And I use the word advisedly — football will not die. From the vacuum of its absurd dominance of American society will emerge something different, perhaps even something arguably worse — just as mixed martial arts is arguably worse than boxing. But in the argument to bring football down multiple notches from contemporary levels of mania, science isn’t the raison d’être. It’s the pretext of a plea to save our culture from itself.
While we’re nominating game-changers, let me submit another. Two weeks before Cardinal Jeff Miller issued Goodell Papal Bull 4.06, the parent organization of the little leagues, Pop Warner Football, settled the lawsuit by the family of Joseph Chernach, the 25-year-old ex-player who committed suicide. Never mind whether the several million dollars that got doled out constituted a “good” or a “bad” deal. More lawsuits will follow, inflicting pain on immoral pipsqueak programs; on schools, principals, coaches; on the ImPACT concussion management system and its sister mitigators and fraudulent solutions.
Tomorrow, we will be unchained. Today, we still wallow. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is supposed to be one of those “sophisticated” markets. Yet in the coverage of the NFL’s CTE admission, the San Francisco Chronicle covered only itself — in embarrassment. The sports section gave the story four paragraphs in the potpourri column, just above a line about the Bengals’ re-signing of Pacman Jones.
The day before (actually the very day the Jeff Miller story broke, though most outlets were slow on the draw), the Chronicle had been all over a report headlined “Football a big draw for American kids.” The most cursory reading exposes this as a nearly word-for-word handout from USA Football. Tackle football among children ages 6 to 14 “increased by 1.9 percent … more than any sport other than baseball.”
There was no critical examination of this newest set of lies, damned lies, and statistics — which at minimum fly in the face of both intuition and anecdotal evidence that parents are beginning to withhold consent for their sons to play football. No counterpoint. No context.
For, you see, the science isn’t good enough yet.