Passing on the Super Bowl. . . Again

During last year’s Super Bowl, the Good Wife and I had friends over for dinner. An enjoyable, television-free evening, one guest peaked at her phone late in the game. Despite learning a historic comeback/collapse was underway, we still weren’t motivated enough to turn on the game. I didn’t see a single play.

It helped that I didn’t care about either team, but like a lot of people apparently, I’m watching far, far less football than in years past. Of course, I’m still weaning myself from UCLA football. That’s been made easier by my team’s apparent decision to quit tackling, which looking at the data, makes sense.

Before you watch this year’s game, read “I’m the Wife of a Former NFL Player. Football Destroyed His Mind,” by Emily Kelly. About her husband, Rob.

“Over time, I had started to notice changes. But this was different. And things became increasingly frightening.

He lost weight. It seemed like one day, out of the blue, he stopped being hungry. And often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal forgotten around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel. The more friends and family commented on his gaunt frame, the more panicked I became. By 2016, he had shrunk to 157 pounds. That’s right, my 6-foot-2 football-player husband weighed 157 pounds (down from around 200 when he was in the N.F.L.). People were visibly shocked when we told them he had played the game professionally.

Besides damage resulting from football-related concussions, my husband has never had a diagnosed brain injury. He’s never been in a car accident or fallen off a roof. He never did steroids and, after struggling with alcohol abuse for about six years, off and on, after retirement, hasn’t had a drink in eight years. And he’s only 43.”

And:

“He went from being a devoted and loving father and husband to someone who felt like a ghost in our home. For a couple of months one winter he was so depressed and detached, he couldn’t muster up the energy to speak. My questions went unanswered until I simply stopped asking them. The silence was unnerving.”

Lastly:

“After years of little to no sleep, he alternated between sleeping either three hours a night or 20. I’d wake up to find every blind and curtain in the house closed and Rob sitting on the sofa with a blank expression on his face. He no longer felt comfortable driving, refused to leave the house and cut off contact with everyone.

Specific details about how he wanted his funeral to be, and his demand that he be cremated, were brought up with excruciating frequency. One particularly dark time, he went five days without eating anything; he drank only water and a few swigs of chocolate milk. He was suffering deeply and barely surviving. My love and affection seemed to offer no comfort or solace. I felt helpless.”

Winter has taken a toll. This Sunday evening, I think it’s high time to squeegee and sweep the garage floor.

Quitting Football

Like my dermatologists are so fond of doing to my basal cell skin cancers, I’d like to cut football out of my life. Literally throw a switch and not follow it anymore, high school, college, pro.

Now that we know about CTE’s devastating effects on players, it feels too much like watching Christians and lions in an ancient Roman Coliseum. Except in this case, both sides lose.

The title of this post is too optimistic. I’m not sure I can throw the “no football” switch. “I Want To Quit Football” would’ve been too wordy. I grew up playing football so I’m talking about severing a childhood root. And I enjoy following sports more generally and it’s impossible to watch SportsCenter or listen to Dan Patrick without half of the content, half of the year, being football-related.

In 2016, in the Pacific Northwest, you can be disappeared for not being a “12”, the name given to Seattle Seahawk fanatics. Lots of (oddly elderly) people have taken to wearing Russell Wilson jerseys to church in an apparent effort to curry God’s favor. To my Canadian friends to the north, imagine how ostracized you’d be if you gave up hockey.

I didn’t care about either team, but still watched about 50 minutes of the SupBowl, 20 live and 30 at enhanced Tivo-speeds. Besides the brain injuries, I can’t take the pace of play with the incessant challenges, television timeouts, injury time, and commercials. Hey Roger, I have a dog that needs walking, a work project that I’m behind on, a house that needs packing up. Here’s an idea that only someone suffering from CTE might propose, let’s take 10 minutes from the billion viewers to determine if the receiver had possession. That’s a well spent 10 billion minutes.

There were no concussions at halftime despite an angry dance-off between Bruno’s boys and Bey’s girls. They can dance some, but if they ever play one-on-one basketball, I’m going with the Queen. She can just back him down. And of course it’s the one time of year that the commercials are actually worth watching. I’m going to buy a jeep and then the GalPal is going to throw herself on me. Or I’m asking for my money back.

That pgraph right there highlights the challenge. You can’t be culturally literate without knowing somethin’ somethin’ about football. If I somehow find it within myself to stop watching, I’ll continue to see headlines and read boxscores. Will even that make me complicit in the violence?

I’m confident I can go about eight months without watching a single snap. Here’s hoping even longer.

 

 

 

 

Why the Seahawks are 3-4

Maybe it’s because the teams they’ve played have a combined record of 19-3.

Or maybe it’s because the offensive line is making minimum wage.

Or because the receivers can’t get any separation.

Or because Marshawn Lynch’s mom has put a curse on the O Coordinator.

Or because the Legion of Doom suddenly can’t stop anybody down the stretch.

Or maybe the Seahawks mediocre record is the result of key defensive players—Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in particular—getting PAID.

Sherman and Thomas grew up with little and are highly intelligent. Now they’re making tens of million a year, meaning their portfolios are probably generating more passive income than they earned on their rookie contracts. Even if they have a career ending injury tonight (when they get to 3-4), their families are independently wealthy.

Both spent the off-season rehabbing serious injuries and earned their eight figure contracts by sacrificing their bodies for the good of the team. Also, and here’s the key to my hypothesis, Sherman is a Stanford graduate meaning he has to be reading all of the incredibly depressing CTE literature being produced by medical docs studying retired players’ brains.

So two years ago, knowing the NFL stands for “Not For Long”, they were making 5-10% of what they’re making now and had never been to a Superbowl. They were motivated, they were physical, they were focused.

Now, they’re watching their wealth surge every thirty days regardless of what the stock market does, they’ve been to the Superbowl twice, have one ring to show their grandchildren, and they’re learning more all the time about the long-term damage they’re likely doing to their brains. If Thomas and Sherman are not playing quite like their families futures depend upon it, it’s because their families aren’t anymore. If they’re not playing every game like it’s the most important thing in the world, it’s because it isn’t anymore. It makes perfect sense if they’re wondering if sacrificing their long-term health still makes as much sense, because it doesn’t.

The cult-like 12’s only think about what it would be like to make Thomas and Sherman money. They’re not reading the scientific studies that detail the brutal costs of Not For Long glory. I don’t blame Thomas, Sherman, or anyone else in the Seahawk backfield for having lost their edge. If one or more of them are having an existential crisis that’s affecting their play, it’s perfectly rational.

What’s the Educative Effect of High School Sports?

If my neighbors read this ESPN Grantland story about the scientist doing most of the brain research on deceased professional football players, boxers, other athletes, and war veterans, would they allow their sons to play football this fall?

Based on what dermatologists know now, my parents shouldn’t have let me play outside all summer without any protection from the sun. Burn. Peel. Repeat. Skin cancer.

Are public high school principals and athletic directors explaining the research findings to student-athelte parents so they can make informed choices about their children’s long-term health? No. Because if schools did think of football as a public safety issue, like absestos riddled buildings, and were on top of the research, they’d have a very hard time justifying fielding football teams at all.

Many citizens, like global warming skeptics who don’t want to change their lifestyles, will refute the research without carefully considering it. Culturally, there’s too much at stake. Exhibit A. This new $60m Texas high school stadium that seats 18,500. Friday Night Lights. Saturday tailgating. Sunday television. Maybe ignorance is bliss.

Most athletic directors are also boosters of sorts so I doubt they’re doing much to educate parents about the known risks of playing football. Principals would probably say they have too much on their plates and have to depend upon their A.D.’s. Hence the silence.

Principals get away with saying they have too much to do to oversee sports because we don’t think of the primary mission of schools—to enhance the life prospects of young people—and the primary mission of football as it’s played by most schools—to outscore the opponent as many times as possible for the sake of school spirit and community pride—as having much to do with one another. Coaches focus on the physical, and wins, losses, league standings, and state titles. Educators focus on students’ intellectual and social growth and future life prospects.

Everyone once in awhile a coach comes along with an educator’s mentality. And sometimes educator coached teams experience on-field success even though they don’t have a win-at-all-cost mindset. They think of their sport as a means towards an end, or ends rather, including the building of character, an insistence on integrity and fair play, and appreciation for teamwork. These coaches are beloved because they have perspective and are far and few between. They think of themselves as educators first, they manage their frustration, and they’re preoccupied with what type of citizens their teen-age athletes will be at age 26 or 36.

Instead of being integral to a school’s mission, high school football is almost always thought of as an add-on. A high status add-on that escapes critical inquiry. Given what we’re learning about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it’s time that changes.

The newest Texas high school stadium. Deadspin, “It looks like a gorgeous place to watch boys’ lives peak before they’re old enough to vote.”