Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley accidentally told the truth recently when he said of football: “It’s a violent game that I personally don’t think humans are supposed to play.” He, of course, had to retract such blasphemy because football has developed deep significance for many people and big bucks for others.
In my clan, for instance, participating in the sport has been a rite of passage for males. My grandfather played for Santa Maria’s town team at the turn of the last century. My dad played at UCLA; I played for Sacramento State.
By the mid-1970s, my dad – whose 1933 All-America certificate hangs on our wall – was suffering from creeping dementia. He had played football from the mid-1920s until the mid-1930s – high school and college – at a time when helmets were fragile and optional.
“We’d tease the guys who wore them … until we got knocked silly ourselves, then we might wear one,” he said.
My sons (and daughters) didn’t play football – soccer, track and cross country occupied them – which upset some of the family’s older generation. Now two grandsons have expressed interest in trying out for their school football teams, and I find myself opposed because former teammates and ex-opponents of mine have developed a condition that was unrecognized until recently: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a concussion-related dementia.
Language about head injuries has long influenced attitudes toward them. Twice during my senior season as a high school football player, I was forced to sit out games following concussions. One teammate said I was soft and should “suck it up.”
In the years I played, few kept track of episodes of disorientation or unconsciousness. They were called “dings” or “getting your bell rung” or “knocked out,” etc., as opposed to “concussed.”
In my era – the 1950s – we were coached to tackle with our shoulders, heads averted, and to wrap opponents with our arms. Tackling head-first – spearing – became common only as helmets improved and common sense didn’t. Still, some athletes in my era developed cumulative head injuries.
Our team’s most famous head-tackler became a noted athletic trainer after graduation, but today he wanders dazed by dementia, possibly caused by his tackling and blocking style.
Another old pal, successful, indeed, as a Super Bowl quarterback, telephoned last year to tell me that he is sliding into dementia, ostensibly caused by too many concussions. He sounded wounded, but he declared that he wouldn’t change the past.
As some fans shout the language of mayhem – “Drill him!” “Decleat him!” “Hurt somebody!” – it’s easy to forget that football’s rules are arbitrary, that its players have grown huge, and that it is at least as much business as sport: A few people are growing rich, indeed. Meanwhile, the bodies we see bounced about on television are in fact being damaged.
Football, of course, remains quasi-religious, a blood rite for some, and as such it seems to require a modicum of danger, but not abject foolishness. Insisting on safer blocking and tackling techniques from coaches could start a correction, and restricting full-contact football from elementary school kids might help.
Says Whaley: “Injuries are part of the game.” Cumulative head injuries are not required, though.
Of course, the rebuttals are predictable: “Don’t be a wuss. Football is character-building.” Yes, and dementia-building, too.
Would I trade the ability to recognize my grandchildren for a few more football wins? Are you nuts?
Gerald Haslam is a California author. His 2006 novel, “Grace Period,” published by University of Nevada Press, won this year’s Legacy Fiction Eric Hoffer Award. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.