Are You Ready for Some … Flag Football? Stay Tuned. Plus: The Great Debates

Dustin Fink’s Concussion Blog: ‘Are Our Kids Guinea Pigs?… Irv Is Logistically Correct Here’
May 9, 2012
‘Let Elite Athletes Destroy Their Own Brains – But Stop Turning High School Players Into Tackling Dummies’ (full text)
May 11, 2012

This has been an important week in the devolution of the football phenomenon.  Junior Seau killed himself – who knows why at this point, but the tributaries of new public perception  often spring from ironic sources. And ESPN’s Outside the Lines is giving major, sustained, thoughtful attention to the future shape of the sport.

There is time to process all this. Or at least there will be unless another high-profile tragedy intervenes, ratcheting up a new round of media hysteria. As a long-time observer  of death in pro wrestling, which has the identical money-trumps-sanity algorithm, I know how fraught predictions are.

The main thing I want to do today is lay the foundation for what I’m seeing as the first glimmer of consensus out of all this. For the moment, let’s forget the far-reaching timelines for The Death Of Football, and take up something I’m often accused of ignoring: incrementalism. This week I glean that reasonable people on all sides of the debate will soon start agreeing that very young kids shouldn’t be playing tackle football, and that wide-scale alternative models of touch and flag football will emerge.

More on this soon as I gather field reports from such ear-to-the-ground sources as Dustin Fink, the Concussion Blog guru, and Matt Chaney, the author, journalist, and hellraiser-in-arms.

On Tuesday’s OTL on ESPN, Chaney, a good friend of this blog, debated Merril Hoge, the network commentator whose own NFL career was aborted by concussions.

Hoge’s setup was boilerplate apologia, though I must say somewhat more coherently articulated than his despicable attack a few days earlier on Kurt Warner for the corporate sin of thinking out loud in public about whether football was really a desirable activity for his own kids.

In his OTL confrontation with Hoge, Chaney lucidly cited the views on brain trauma by such distinguished doctor-researchers as Ann McKee and Bennet Omalu, and forcefully made the case that promises of future prevention and reform are the same-old same-old in football history, and this time doomed by both a public-health tipping point and sheer marketplace economics.

Hoge thereupon called Chaney “uneducated” and “ignorant” – two of the more inaccurate epithets one could pull out of one’s anus to defame this courageous heat-seeking loose cannon. A cable talk shoutfest broke out.

I’ve also had a chance to view the ballyhooed Intelligence Squared debate over whether college football should be banned. (Sorry, dear readers, I don’t know how to do the keyboard trick to make “Squared” a superscripted 2, denoting Intelligence to the second power.) It pitted writers Buzz Bissinger and Malcolm Gladwell against former players and current media types Tim Green and Jason Whitlock.

The debate was a hash, first and foremost, because this overbroad prompt, with its specter of prohibition, sucked everything but the kitchen sink into its vortex: not only the concussion crisis but also general sports and higher education corruption, the challenge of American competitiveness in the global economy, and, from the proponents of the measure, some fierce moralizing that might not have taken its own prescriptions entirely seriously. But, what the hell, that’s the polarized format of these things.

Green and Whitlock, for their part, were reduced to simply citing football’s powerful mystique, over and over and over, like subconcussive blows. Whitlock, in particular, kept returning to the theme that you had to be there, in the trenches, in the locker room, and in the great bootstrapping experience of the American melting pot, which had handsomely rewarded him. He appeared to have done no preparation beyond rehearsing this burly persona and wishing everyone else would lighten up and indulge the excesses of our cherished freedom – which he parsed as “free-dumb,” the right to choose consumption of tobacco, pornography, football, what have you. This blaze of intellectualism nearly blinded me.

Green touted the ritual of playing the national anthem as evidence that spectacled sports entertainment fosters community and nation-building. Playing defense with a more amiable, yet somehow even more shocking, dose of denial than even Merril Hoge, Green pooh-poohed the drumbeat of the last decade of TBI findings as hyperbolic neurosis, analogous to the concern that cell phone usage might cause brain cancer.

I don’t know whether college football should be “banned.” But if Green is the best his side can produce, football at all levels is in big trouble. Compared to him, Dave Duerson was Stephen Hawking.


Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick