According to ESPN, more than 108 million people watched Super Bowl XLVII.
I know two people who didn’t watch the game. Two old friends of mine, husband and wife, who for years were enthusiastic fans of both the college and professional game, gave it up at the beginning of the season.
They haven’t watched a down since.
Why? These are principled people, devoted to trying to do the right thing regardless of the consequences or the effectiveness of the gesture. Their problem with the game is concussions, as well as the many other life-changing injuries that are connected to football at all levels.
Intuitively, we know that if you hit nearly anything hard enough and often enough, you damage it. That includes the brain. The evidence – anecdotal and empirical – became too overwhelming for my friends. In fact, it’s irresistibly clear that our favorite game is possible only at the expense of the health (and the occasional paralysis or death) of thousands of athletes.
If you’re a football fan, you probably know some of these former National Football League players and their fates: Andre Waters (suicide at 44), Mike Webster (dead at 50), Terry Long (suicide at 45), Chris Henry (dead at 26), Ray Easterling (suicide at 62), Dave Duerson (suicide at 50).
Before they died, all of them showed symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which include depression, forgetfulness, insomnia, dementia, self-destructive behavior, impaired judgment and so on. After their deaths, their brains showed clear empirical evidence of the insidious brain deterioration.
So my friends – longtime fans – gave up the game. Their decision was reinforced last May by the death of Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler and popular linebacker for the San Diego Chargers. After displaying some of the symptoms of CTE, Seau killed himself with a gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43. An autopsy clearly revealed physical evidence of CTE in Seau’s brain.
My football-eschewing friends aren’t crusaders, and they have no illusions about the effect that their small private gesture will have on the game. In fact, if you saw the Super Bowl on Sunday – and all of the pre- and postgame hype – you can have little doubt that football is in little danger of being abandoned or reformed, despite the damage at every level of the game.
No, my friends are following one of the existentialist principles of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the idea (in my lay understanding) that when you act, you act for everyone. And that the only honest way to live is to do the best you can and hope for the best from everyone else.
But mass denial and apathy are likely to prevent most of us from following my friends’ worthy example, so the games will go on, and thousands of players, men and boys, will remain at risk.
In fact, if football is ever reformed in any meaningful way, the process will probably have to be trickle-up, rather than trickle-down. The NFL has little incentive to reform the game from the top. And as the NFL goes, so goes college football.
So, if there’s to be any reform, it will have to start from the bottom and work its way up. Certainly, kids can’t grow up in a riskless bubble. But the only way to stop the physical damage of football is if parents refuse early to allow their sons to systematically bang their brains hard against other boys’ brains, thereby preventing the beginning of a degenerative process that is cumulative and irreversible.