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Keeping Score: The Death of Football

Football has long since surpassed both baseball and basketball as America’s pastime. With it’s ability to produce Olympic-level speed, dashes of twinkle-toe execution reminiscent of Baryshnikov and savage brutality normally reserved for pugilistic endeavors, it’s truly a game that offers up heaping teaspoons of various flavors depending on that particular viewers appetite for somber creation or blissful destruction. There’s absolutely no doubt that football has become a cultural phenomenon and even bigger business because of the sheer violence that makes up the 60-minutes of bell-ringing. Like most things “American,” we yearn for bigger, faster and stronger in almost everything we consume. In the wake of evidence that suggests the result of a playing career in the NFL puts players at risk for potentially life-altering brain injuries, the question remains: will added safety measures lead to the eventual disappearance of the game we’ve all come to pine for on Saturday, Sunday and Monday? Are you ready for some football – the catastrophic brain injuries certainly are.

One in three retired football players will suffer from some type of cognitive impairment – making life after impact one filled with little freedom like running backs with an ineffective offensive line. While players from the ‘60s-‘90s encountered concussion-like symptoms much in the same way contemporary players do, “seeing stars” and getting your “bell rung” was every bit a part of the sport as goal line stands and touchdown passes were. They simply didn’t know the risks of football outside of breaking bones and tearing up muscles. The same can’t be said for the crop of players who have entered the league since the NFL blew up their previous study of concussions in 2009. They know the risks – but the financial gain seems to outweigh the loss of one’s mind. Age-old wisdom used to dictate that a person “shouldn’t write checks with their mouth that their ass couldn’t cash” – you better believe that the brain is the one who has to pick up the tab no matter what happens.

In a less civilized time, sporting exhibitions were simply life or death contests that pitted man vs. man or man vs. hulking beast. People packed amphitheaters much like they jam pack quaint stadiums named for Fortune 500 companies or non-threatening food products to witness pain. In the 1st-5th century that pain meant “death” – while the 21st century provides a less definitive, but just as gruesome ending for those who wear the NFL Shield on their chests like gladiators protected their jugulars with similarly shaped pieces of steel. It seems ludicrous that a civilized society ever allowed such a display given that the decided outcomes came with risks everyone was aware of. Yet, it wasn’t until Theodosius adopted Christianity as the Roman state religion that people really started to recognize the moral quandary of both participating and watching the gladiators. Brain injuries are the new gospel – pleading for players, parents and businesses to put an end to something we accept as an American ritual – and an activity hundreds of years down the line that will seem just as barbaric as cutting off another man’s head with a battle axe.

The biggest problem with trying to change football is that those adjustments are precisely what make the game such a thrill to watch. Taking ruthless hits out of football is as crazy a thought as removing dunking from basketball. We’ve come way too far down one road to ever turn back around. Sure, Roger Goodell can penalize and fine players like James Harrison and Dunta Robinson for repeat offenses, but what people fail to remember is that these guys are trying to hit guys capable of running sub 4.5 40’s, and not stationary tackling dummies. There’s a very fine line between playing dirty and playing the right way. That’s what makes football… well… football.

You know what football becomes without vicious corner blitzes that makes a quarterback’s head turn into Jello and linebackers out for blood like veteran homicide detectives? The Pro Bowl.

Lord, no.

Yes, the game of football would be reduced to glorified passing drills seen during the dog days of mini-camp without that tiny fear in the back of a player’s mind that going over the middle might not be the best idea in the world. And one thing is clear, everyone hates the Pro Bowl. We don’t want athletes to perform easy tasks. We want athletes to perform miracles and make them look easy. With enough widespread rule changes and scientific studies that make hitting less instinctual and more about ridged thinking, football is facing an uncertain future.

The brain injuries in football have seen a perfect storm develop – with the suicides of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, coupled with the New Orleans Saint’s bounty program that was discovered during a tense period when safety was already being placed under the microscope. There was something eerie about hearing the news that Seau and Duerson had killed themselves in the very same manner – in Duerson’s case requesting that his brain be studied for scientific purposes and many speculating that Seau’s method had similar implications for medical discovery.  Were concussions the culprit? Former Chargers teammate Gary Plummer estimated that over Seau’s 20 year career, the middle linebacker suffered at least 1,500 concussions. It’s hard to ignore the role that football excellence had on the soon-to-be Hall of Famer’s untimely end.

Football is like a buffet for head trauma. One concussion is too many, and two inevitably leads a person down a dangerous path. The only way to really avoid that type of injury isn’t to hang ‘em up – it’s never lacing them up in the first place. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner has gone on record as saying that he would prefer that his sons didn’t follow in his footsteps and play.

“I am constantly concerned about my kids and the violence of the game of football. I worry about them suffering head trauma and developing any long-term issues as a result of that injury. So yes, I love this game and all the things that it taught me and afforded me along the way, but regardless of all that I have a responsibility to my kids. I cannot be oblivious to the risks of the game of football simply because it was good to me. I love the X’s and O’s of the game. I love the strategy of the game of football. I love the discipline and hard work that is required to succeed in any sport, especially the game of football. Yet, at the same time I am fully aware of the one aspect that I do not love: the violence.”

Given the opportunity to hold a job for 3.5 years and make several millions of dollars participating in a knowingly dangerous sport, does the reward outweigh the risk? Right now, as the NFL flourishes (each NFL team is valued at $1.04 billon), that answer is “yes” – both for the parties supplying the product and the actual players that are competing. It’s America’s pastime after all – the bloodier the better.

Illustration: Sam Rodriguez for HYPEBEAST

Every other Thursday HYPEBEAST’s Keeping Score will span the world of sports, ranging from thoughts about the state of the NBA to whether or not the United States National Soccer Team will ever challenge for a World Cup. Handled with words from Senior Editor L. Ruano and North American Staff Writer Alec Banks, both life-long sports enthusiasts and dedicated writers, no sport will go unrepresented.

Alec Banks is a Los-Angeles based writer by way of Chicago which means he doesn’t put ketchup on his prose. He currently serves as the North American staff writer for HYPEBEAST and contributes regularly for the likes of Complex, Playboy and Maxim. He was a 2x Quarterfinalist for the prestigious Academy of Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting. You can read more of his work at alecbanks.com or @smart_alec_.

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