L arry Fedora isn’t sure that football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE), but the University of North Carolina head coach is adamant that the game, and perhaps the whole gall dang country, is in peril if the game is made much safer.
“I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know,” Fedora said during the recent Atlantic Coast Conference media day, “that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now.”
Fedora, 55, added, “and if it does, our country will go down, too.”
Yep, that’s where we are in the summer of 2018, folks. Set aside what influence you may think Washington politics and international nuclear ping pong might have on the good ol’ US of A. It’s the prosperity of pigskin that provides America’s true litmus test. To which I say, snap the ball now and everyone run for them thar hills.
I’ll go way out on a limb here and bet, Fedora’s fears, bluster, and self-absorbed hyperbole aside, football will still be doing business as football as we know it in the summer of 2028, and the Patriots no doubt again will be favored to win the Super Bowl, poised to be staged for a fifth year in a row at its permanent site in Las Vegas.
Like tobacco, football is big business. Even if it’s proven to be bad for those who engage in it, like, say, smoking a pack a day, people are still going to play it, and there is still going to be a rabid audience to watch it.
Who knows, maybe even more people will watch (is that even possible?) if it’s proven that football’s risks to brain health are lethal. The UFC seems to be doing OK with its marketing of full-on blood and gore, so I wouldn’t underestimate what the American viewer’s appetite might be for tuning in to certified brain damage.
Truth is, if football goes away, it’s far more likely that it will be because the science of CTE caught up to it and hauled it down by a clean open-field tackle. And that could happen whether the game is made safer of not, be it by rule change or improved equipment. It simply might be that a sport built around men banging heads over and over and over, down after down after down, just cannot be made safe, fairly safe, or the least bit safe.
Despite what Fedora had to say (to wit: “I don’t think it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE.”), the evidence keeps mounting. The ongoing CTE research here in Boston last year reported evidence of CTE in the brains of 110 out of 111 deceased NFL football players.
Now, that’s not to say that a 99.099 positive finding proves anything, because in this era of “fake news,” who the heck knows, right? Maybe it would. Maybe it wouldn’t. Let’s just say the odds aren’t looking good for football any time soon getting a note from the family doctor that says anything other than “I wouldn’t let my kid play it.” More likely it will be a note to schedule a CT scan.
“We don’t really know that,” said Fedora. “Are there chances for concussions? Of course. There are collisions. But the game is safer that it’s ever been.”
True. Football and the health of its players have been in far worse field position. Way worse. In the early-1900s, before the forward pass was written into the rulebook, American football was essentially a hybrid form of rugby. More to the point, it was an organized game of kill the man with the ball. That’s not a joke. Players were dying. Frequently.
In the years 1900-1905, 45 players died from an array of injuries that included such things as broken necks, broken backs, concussions and what amounted to gang-like ground beatings. It was mostly a running game and play didn’t stop when the ball was initially down. Large full-squad scrums, pigpiles, contested for possession long after a runner was brought to the ground.
Thus this paragraph from the Washington Post, dated Oct 15, 1905:
“Picked up unconscious from beneath a mass of other players, it was generally found that the victim had been kicked in the head or stomach so as to have internal injuries or concussion of the brain, which, sooner or later, ended life.”
Sooner. Or later. Just football.
The NCAA, by the way, didn’t mandate the wearing of helmets until 1939. The NFL, founded in 1920, followed the college lead and made helmets mandatory in 1943. Larry Fedora no doubt would have had a conniption. Such pampering.
President Teddy Roosevelt, compelled in part by a son who suffered a deep facial gash while playing freshman football at Harvard, helped start the conversation to make the game safer. Another significant catalyst was the death of Harold Moore, a 19-year-old Union College halfback, who succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage when he was struck under the chin by an opponent running at full speed while tackling an NYU player in November 1905.
Roosevelt summoned coaches from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to the White House, and soon three fundamental, and life-saving, changes were made: 1. Implementation of the forward pass; 2. Play ceased when a player fell on the ball; 3. The ball could be kicked downfield.
And a mere 34 years later, everyone agreed that, hey, it was a good idea to wear a helmet. A V-8 moment, or what?
More than a century after that Roosevelt summit, football has never been more entertaining. If, as Fedora so dreadfully fears, some of the hurt and violence are dialed back, if the game is made safer, it’s a certainty that the rule book will be appropriately altered to favor more playmaking and more scoring. Just the way they did it in 1905.
So cool your jets there, Larry, it’s not healthier and more able-bodied players or a dadgum PC rule book that will do in your sport any time soon. Your bigger threat ultimately could be from the docs and lab technicians who prove beyond a shadow of a wideout that football is bad for the brain. But then, you seem to have proven that already.
Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.