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Memo to Waxman, Udall, Blumenthal: An Agenda for Hearings on the National Concussion Crisis
March 11, 2011
WWE Faces Home-State Regulation Heat
March 14, 2011

[originally published on September 20, 2010, at Beyond Chron, http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=8513]


by Irvin Muchnick

I am rooting for a players’ strike or owners’ lockout to shut down the 2011 National Football League season, and I want to emphasize right away that I am not motivated by cookie-cutter schadenfreude. I’m a sports fan. I do think sports, starting with college football (which is far worse than pro football) and going all the way down to pro wrestling, are completely out of whack in the bread-and-circuses historical spiral of the American empire. But this is no screed about the link between the militarism of football, and the casual carnage of remote wars in Asia fought mostly by our non-draft dead-enders.

I’m talking about the frightening public health issue of brain trauma in sports, which is where the pornography of cartoon violence collides not with cultural decay, but with a real-life decline in the gross national quality of life.

On the first Sunday of the NFL season, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley suffered an obvious concussion during a sequence replayed time and again on Fox television. Yet a few minutes later Bradley was right back in the game, in blatant violation of what were supposed to be new concussion-management protocols adopted by the league this year in response to withering criticism last year at hearings of the House Judiciary Committee.

Alan Schwarz, who has taken on the inspired new New York Times beat of following every angle of the sports concussion story, blasted the NFL in a news analysis last week. Schwarz noted that also in Philadelphia, in April, a Penn lineman had hanged himself.

“Owen Thomas was found to have died with the same progressive brain disease found in more than 20 NFL players. Playing since age 9, Thomas never had a reported concussion; his disease silently developed either through injuries he did not report or by thousands of subconcussive blows that accumulated over time. Research suggests that 10 percent to 50 percent of high school football players will sustain a concussion each season, with as many as 75 percent of those injuries going unreported and unnoticed.”

The Times reporter said the league’s efforts to raise national concussion awareness were nullified by the lax follow-through of its own promises of on-field reform: “[W]hen the entire football world saw the Eagles put Bradley at significant safety risk by not properly diagnosing his concussion, it only emphasized the crisis that exists in high school and youth football, where almost no one is watching at all.”

But here’s the thing: does anyone really care? Sports fans understand, intellectually, that football in particular is unsafe, even life-threatening or –shortening. But the game, the TV show, goes on, as does the rest of the NFL season.

That’s why it occurs to me that an enforced year of no pro football – brought on entirely, and ironically, by the market forces of millionaire players and billionaire owners at loggerheads over how to divide the pie – might be a stroke of civic hygiene. (The idea grows out of an astute season preview column by the Chronicle’s Scott Ostler, who was not writing about whether a prolonged labor dispute would be a good thing, but simply observing that 2010 could be the last year of “pro football as we know it.”)

Without games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday from September through early February, fans would have an indispensable interlude for processing, with full attention, the growing list of studies of brain trauma. Instead of drooling in anticipation over the next exciting match-up, they would be stewing over having been deprived of their scheduled entertainment. It is only with such fresh perspective that we will acquire fresh awareness – plus the political will to do something about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that some of the brain research is hyped or flawed. And some of it is not: a peer-reviewed medical journal is openly speculating over whether Lou Gehrig himself had “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” or a brain injury that mimicked the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Disproportionate clusters of football players’ cases of ALS, including those of a group of former San Francisco 49ers, are caught up in the implications of this finding.

I also know that nothing, including mass entertainment, is cost-free, and that there are limits to how much sports rules and regulations can do in terms of protecting participants from themselves.

But football is where the rubber of American kitsch meets the road of disrespect for life. The path from youth leagues to high school to college to the NFL has become so callous and industrialized that it has skewed, warped, and distorted every other value. Even if people cannot be persuaded to worry about what is happening with their institutions of higher learning or with the tulip-mania of sports apparel and merchandise, they should be able to pause for a moment and consider what is happening to the neurons and cerebra of their children.

So tonight I’ll be watching the 49ers play the Saints on ESPN. I’ll also be hoping that this time next year we all will have nothing similar to watch

Irvin Muchnick, author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, blogs at http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com and is @irvmuch at Twitter.

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