I remember Coach wafting a cracked ammonia stick under my nose and moving his finger in front of my eyes. I’d been tackled hard and, apparently, had been slow getting up. I insisted I was okay. “Who’s the president?” he asked me. Despite being woozy, I was desperate to get back in the game. When I answered the question — it was Ike — Coach slapped my shoulder pads and sent me in on the next play. That something was, in fact, quite wrong in my head only added to the pride I felt. Even as a high school kid, I knew that more honor was to be had in playing through an injury than in the few passes I actually ever caught.
As I learned when my parents later took me to the doctor, I had suffered a concussion. That was nothing to the embarrassment I felt when they made me tell Coach I’d be sitting out practice for a week. His sneer flooded me with shame. That simply, I’d been plunged into the macho heart of football — a gladiator ethos which has lately drawn scrutiny because, indeed, of brain concussions.
Numerous studies have established in recent years that brain trauma routinely occurs at every level of football. NFL veterans show vastly disproportionate rates of neurological disease, like Alzheimer’s, as well as depression that can lead to suicide. Bulked-up professionals throw far more weight at one another than ever before, but researchers have found also that tens of thousands of high school football players — in excess, perhaps, of 100,000 — sustain concussions every year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention sponsors a “Heads Up” campaign, drawing attention to the dangers of concussion in youth sports. Medical journals and the popular press are highlighting the issue . The NFL commissioned its own study of concussions, which prompted a hearing in Congress, where questions are unresolved. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell himself, speaking at the Harvard School of Public Health in November, called for a change in the culture of football — and drew particular attention to the “warrior mentality” of players who shrug off injury.
But American football is sublimated combat, and its regulated violence is key to the sport’s appeal. The NFL sits at the sports peak, but the pyramid reaches all the way down to the Pop Warner League. The January playoff festivities that culminate in the Super Bowl are the truest ritual of national identity — and essential to it all is the spectacle of hitting, which inevitably involves hurting. Violence is the point. Listen to the stadium roar at the brutal sack, and watch it lovingly replayed in slow motion again and again. “Warrior mentality” is a fan phenomenon, too.
Football is not only America’s definitive mass entertainment and a huge economic force, filling coffers of media conglomerates and universities large and small. It also provides the main measure of American masculinity, the pathologies of which are manifest in misogynistic beer ads that run during every time-out. Goodell’s goal of changing the culture of football would require, in fact, a change in the national culture itself.
That is why, despite the mounting evidence of football brain injury, so little actual change has been implemented. Instead of eliminating the high-risk kick-off, outlawing the three-point stance from which linemen explode, or forbidding runners to lead with lowered heads, the nation merely wrings its hands. The rule makers know what the game and its fans truly require: the hit, and the hurt; the sucking it up. In the present climate, therefore, a deeper reckoning with the sport’s dangers is impossible.
My personal story turned on the intervention of my parents. Perhaps that’s the key more broadly, since the whole football enterprise still rests on an endless supply of children. Surprisingly, no one has raised the issue more pointedly than Goodell, who asked what he called tough questions. “When there is risk associated with playing tackle football, why do people continue to play? And for parents, should I let my kids play tackle football?” Goodell continued, “These are valid, important questions.”
It’s not for the NFL commissioner to say so, but football concussions have confronted America with an epic moral dilemma, which, despite the talk, remains unaddressed. What are moms and dads for if not this?
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.