Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Of concussions and cruelty

In the end, I guess I was one of the lucky ones. I left the game of football with a touch of arthritis, a few battle scars, a bruised ego and memories that get all the more grand and outlandish with each passing year. Did I ever tell you all about that time I scored four touchdowns in a single game?

Now, maybe it seems odd to say that I was lucky. I played football in high school and not-so-much in college, leaving behind mostly a legacy of mediocrity. I never got even the faintest whiff of the dream of every kid who puts on the pads - the NFL. It took me about two practices at TCU in my sophomore year to figure out that LaDainian Tomlinson had a future in the game, and that I had a future writing about it.

So, what makes me lucky? Here, try some Malcolm Gladwell:
The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”
That's pretty bad. And then I begin to think, maybe I wasn't so lucky. I had one diagnosed concussion in my abbreviated football career, in my first week of college football practice. Looking back over the course of my playing days, I'm almost certain that I had another during a game in my senior year of high school - I was blindsided by a defender, went to the sideline to throw up and I don't remember much more about that night. I kept playing, though. It was a bad night.

But what I'm not tallying are all the other little collisions that might have bruised my brain in some way. I started playing the game when I was a mere child, in the streets and backyards of my neighborhood, and started playing organized tackle football when I was 10.

What do all those thuds and thumps over the years mean? Gladwell, again:

Yet the HITS data suggest that practice—the routine part of the sport—can be as dangerous as the games themselves. ... In one column, the HITS software listed the top hits of the practice up to that point, and every few moments the screen would refresh, reflecting the plays that had just been run on the field. Forty-five minutes into practice, the top eight head blows on the field measured 82 gs, 79 gs, 75 gs, 79 gs, 67 gs, 60 gs, 57 gs, and 53 gs. One player, a running back, had received both the 79 gs and the 60 gs, as well as another hit, measuring 27.9 gs. This wasn’t a full-contact practice. It was “shells.” The players wore only helmets and shoulder pads, and still there were mini car crashes happening all over the field.
I had my fair share of car crashes. And, believe it or not, this was the part of the game that I enjoyed the most. I could hardly get my heart rate up for a game that didn't involve some collisions. To this day, I still long for the chance to randomly stiff-arm someone, or to bury my head into someone's sternum. Yes, I understand this makes me a Neanderthal.

But it's this yearning that makes me object to the premise of Gladwell's piece: that football and dogfighting are more or less the same. Gladwell points out that one of his interview subjects, former NFL lineman Kyle Turley, said "he loved playing football so much that he would do it all again." You'll find that most ex-players feel the same way. Nothing feels quite like playing under those lights, on that gridiron.

I don't pretend to know much about dogs or dogfighting but, to me, the major difference is the element of choice. I - and thousands of others - willingly submitted ourselves to the brutal theater that is football. But dogs, on the other hand, are maniacally conditioned by their owners to "please (their) master," said Carl Semencic in “The World of Fighting Dogs”. This is coercion, this is abuse, this is sick.

Honestly, I can't have a serious debate about whether football and dogfighting share any traits other than violence. But Gladwell's piece is compelling in that we see how players can drive themselves to ruin in much the same way as a "game" canine. The toll seems to be tremendous, man or beast.

Beyond that, I'm much more interested in how dogfighting is juxtaposed against a culture of sport hunting or some of the uglier practices of our industrial food complex. Michael Vick is condemned; Sarah Palin is celebrated. But why?

Because in the end, football can be brutal. But at least everyone knows they're getting played.


bitchphd said...

As a mama, I feel about my kid playing football about the same as I feel about his joining the military: no way, don't even ask.

I get the appeal of the contact sport, though. I'd let Hindi wrestling.

blackink said...

Aw, man. You can't do that (actually, to think of it, you really can). But you can't deny your son the experience of fighting it out on that football field.

You just can't.

With the exception of a few more adult activities, some of my best memories have come from my time playing the game.

I've already got the blueprint for my unborn (and as far as I know, unconceived) son: I'm painting the ceiling of his nursery with Xs and Os.

You can never start too early.

bitchphd said...

Luckily PK isn't really a jock, but seriously, football is terrible for kids. I read a study once
about Pop Warner teams & neck/head injuries--apparently before kids are fully grown, neck injuries are way too common. At least keep him playing touch until he's full grown :)

Freckles said...

that is very scary but I understand. In high school I was statician. I watched and heard alot of the cracks from right ther eon the sidelines. my god brother played for UCLA and it wa s abig deal that he was fast but he was thin, they needed them to gain a lot of weight to enter the draft. He did but then wasnt focused enough. It is scary.