Muchnick to Sports Columnist: Is Football Sustainable? Sports Columnist to Muchnick: Yes! … Wait, Let Me Think About It

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Below is an edited exchange I had the other day with a sports columnist for a major newspaper. I am not identifying the columnist except to say that he had written something in opposition to a new rule in the National Football League this year – moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line to facilitate more touchbacks instead of runbacks; the latter type of play has been shown to lead to a high incidence of concussions. I’ll continue to hope he gives the subject additional thought and eventually comments more profoundly in his column.

(At the bottom of this post is a note on why I did identify George Vecsey of The New York Times after my June exchange with him.)
Muchnick to columnist

The new kickoff rule is, indeed, intellectually dishonest. You articulate very well the case against it.

I want to ask you a different question, about the very viability of football. To my knowledge, you have not addressed it.

Yes, head-on collisions and the thrill of lethal violence — either the survival or the skillful avoidance of it — are fundamental to the game. Again, good of you to so define it.

But has this become unsustainable? Once upon a time boxing was the most popular sport in the country. But middle-class kids, by and large, no longer aspire to become boxers. I think something like that is evolving here. What say you? As fans, do we just sit around and wait until, say, Tom Brady murders his family and himself on the 50-yard line on national television? (Of course, it doesn’t count if it’s 10 years after he retires.)

The argument that multimillion-dollar professionals do what they do for our entertainment is OK, so far as it goes, but the reach of pro football in our society goes much further, as we are seeing. Do you have any suggestions? Or is it just not your problem?

 

Columnist to Muchnick

I wouldn’t align with the boxing comparison because the sports are so different. Kids play football because it’s glamorous, sexy, because they “get the girl,” as they say. It’s a chance to excel in the coolest sport in town, and in some cases, it has only to do with pure love of the game. There’s seldom much general outcry from the public about football violence at any level. There are individual cases that deservedly draw a ton of attention, but football is the most popular sport in the country because people LOVE to watch such intense conflict. I don’t see the sport changing, in essence. In fact, I’d expect to see another change in the kickoff rule within a couple of years, making returns more possible.

 

Muchnick to columnist

The boxing analogy is, obviously, imprecise. The facts about brain damage and death, however, are not. The question is whether such information with respect to football’s systematic (not random) delivery of traumatic brain injury trumps the popular romance about getting the girl.

Whether there is or will be a public outcry against football’s violence — with “public outcry” defined as defensively as possible by the sport’s followers — doesn’t really answer the question. We have moved to an era of plausible multibillion-dollar tobacco-style litigation, for both wrongful death and restitution of public-health costs. Without resorting to things like cheap lawyer jokes, can you explain how you think football will remain medically, legally, and educationally viable? Will it be simply by force of bread-and-circuses will?

 

Columnist to Muchnick

If I were to make a public comment on the issue, I’d give it considerably more thought.

 

***************

On June 15, Vecsey emailed me to complain about the post here, “Columnist George Vecsey Defends New York Times Concussion Scandal Coverage: ‘What Are You Talking About?’”

Vecsey wrote, “Muchnick: My quick note to you was personal. I have no respect for your sending it out like that.”

I wrote back in a letter the next day, “Dear George: I am a transparent critic of Times coverage of sports concussions. I received an unsolicited email from a Times columnist. I can understand your embarrassment at being exposed for huffing about my work without even reading it, but get real and stop whining.”

 

Irv Muchnick

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