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The future of football

September 6, 2017

While it is easily the most popular spectator sport in the country, cracks have begun to appear in football’s facade.  It if it’s not football players behaving badly, it’s the long-term medical effect that playing football has on the young men who play it.  Meanwhile, fewer parents are letting their young sons play the game.  And a number of people are openly questioning whether football can continue on its current trajectory.

Add conservative columnist George Will to that list.

In this recent op-ed piece, Will (who is admittedly, a huge baseball fan) opines that, while football will never die, “it will never again be, as it was until recently, the subject of uncomplicated national enthusiasm.”

Will’s primary focus is on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that is often caused by repeated blows to the head that knock the brain against the skull. Medical research has concluded that the cumulative impacts of hundreds of supposedly minor blows can have the same effect as many concussions. He points to a recent Stanford University study showing “that one college offensive lineman sustained 62 of these hits in a single game. Each one came with an average force on the player’s head equivalent to what you would see if he had driven his car into a brick wall at 30 mph.” A Boston University researcher says that a 10-year NFL linebacker could receive more than 15,000 sub-concussive blows.

CTE can only be diagnosed in a post-mortem autopsy. A Boston University study found CTE in 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players, and in 53 other brains from college players, 48 had CTE. Admittedly, these brains did not constitute a representative sample, since they were donated by families that had observed CTE symptoms, including mood disorders and dementia. And we have all seen and heard, on the sidelines or in the studios, any number of retired football players who appear as cognitively intact as anyone else. And some even more so; Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel recently retired at the age of 26 to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics from MIT.

I have to confess that I continue to love football, and watch it at the high school, college and pro level.  My son played in 4th, 5th and 6th grade (and would have continued on, with my blessing, had it been available to him in middle school).  And the fact that concussions are being taken much more seriously today is very promising (remember the days when the announcer in the booth would chuckle about a player “seeing stars” after a big hit?). At the same time, though, there is something slightly unsettling about observing an admittedly magnificent spectacle while dealing with the nagging sense in the back of one’s mind that some of the participants may be paying for their participation with permanent injuries to their brains that won’t manifest themselves for many years.

I’m not sure I know the answer.  For that matter, I don’t even think I can identify the proper question.  And, this coming Saturday, I will be cheering madly for my beloved Michigan Wolverines in their home opener.

But, at some point, my enthusiasm for this spectacle may begin to wane.

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