Football is dead. Long live football.
J.R. Moehringer [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
April 14, 2013
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hero in the eyes of my cousin Jim.

16. I'll begin by admitting the problem. Admitting there's a problem is the first step in ignoring it, right? Clearly, football faces threats from every direction, but among them are three major ones, three new ones, the first of which is science. In the past few years researchers have developed vivid new methods of quantifying and illustrating football's barbarism. Granted, no one ever said football wasn't barbaric. On the contrary, barbarism was always part of its charm. The sight of men mauling one another was viscerally satisfying, and Americans freely, breezily acknowledged this. Baseball "breaks your heart," Bart Giamatti famously said. "It is designed to break your heart." Fine -- football was designed to break everything else. That's why we used to chuckle wryly when football players carried their barbarous attitude off the field. How droll, we said, when Ernie Holmes led the Steelers to the title in 1975, just two years after going berserk on the Ohio Turnpike, firing shots at a police helicopter.

17. No one ever confused football with croquet. No one ever denied the physical toll it exacts. Ex-quarterbacks who can't raise their arms. Ex-linebackers who can't lace their shoes. Ex-fullbacks who can no longer get out of bed without help from their wives. We know, we know, we've always known, and we've appeased our conscience thusly: Hey, they played by choice. They knew the risks. No one put a gun to their head.

18. And yet suddenly, study after study finds that football's ethos of violence, its inverted doctor oath (First Do Much Harm) leads to unknown tiers of consequences, insidious injuries we never suspected. We're talking about more than concussions. We're talking about "subconcussive injuries," a phrase that will soon be everywhere and may become this generation's "secondhand smoke." It means smaller, repeated head blows that often go unnoticed and untreated but cumulatively can be more dangerous than having your "bell rung," a euphemism that needs to go away, now.

19. The second threat is litigation. Roughly 3,000 former players and surviving family members are suing the league for distorting and squelching and cold-shouldering data about concussions. If history teaches anything about massive societal change, it's that nothing causes it faster than straight cash. Politics, public opinion, they sometimes move the needle. But money kicks inertia's lard ass out of the way. The No. 1 reason people think football is invulnerable? Money. There's too much at stake, the argument goes, for the NFL to die. But that cuts both ways. Of the 50 most valuable sports franchises on the planet, 32 are NFL teams. It's hard to imagine this still being true if judges and juries begin levying Big Tobacco-esque, Catholic Church-ish, Erin Brockovich-y settlements against the league.

20. Third threat, death. When O.J. Murdock, wide receiver for the Titans, killed himself on July 30, he became the sixth former or current professional football player to commit suicide in the past two years. Kurt Crain, Mike Current, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Junior Seau, each reportedly suffered some combination of the classic symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE (headaches, slurred speech, psychosis, depression, dementia, memory loss, etc.). Duerson, a former Bear and a member of a panel investigating disability claims of ex-players, left his wife a note, "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank," then shot himself in the heart.

21. Seau didn't leave a note in the spring, but he did shoot himself in the chest, and his brain tissue is now being studied at the National Institutes of Health. Whatever the findings, they can't be more telling, more damning, than Seau's mother wailing at the sky: "Take me, leave my son!"

22. Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which got $1 million from the NFL in 2010, is studying the brains of 60 deceased football players. Thus far, the center has released the test results for a third of those brains; all but one have shown signs of CTE. Another 500 athletes have signed waivers, willing their brains to the center. Matt Birk, a Harvard grad and 15-year NFL center for the Ravens, says signing the waiver was his way of giving back to the game, helping future players. But after a lifetime of concussions, "it's too late for me."

23. No one can say definitively that CTE is the cause of football's recent spate of suicides. Cricket players, after all, don't present with CTE, and yet 100 cricketers have killed themselves over the years, an epidemic for which no one has an explanation. Still, one thing can be said definitively. Cricket players don't shoot themselves in the chests to preserve the battered evidence of their torment.

24. As if suicides weren't haunting enough, chilling new questions have cropped up about links between concussions and aberrant sexuality. Two recent studies find a possible correlation between childhood head injuries and a range of deviant sexual behaviors. Suddenly, you have to wonder about Lawrence Taylor, arrested in 2010 for having sex with an underage girl. (He later pleaded to a lesser charge.) You have to wonder about former Bengals linebacker Nate Webster, who was sentenced in June to 12 years in prison for having sex with the underage teen daughter of a former coach on his own team. You don't want to wonder, but you have to.

25. Even if football eludes these threats, the accretive damage might already be done. Ominous headlines, frowning scientists, addled Hall of Famers, the whole slowly unfolding buzzkill can't help but have a suppressive effect on parents. Since parents are the first owners, agents, coaches and GMs of future athletes, they might already be steering their charges toward other sports. That exodus might soon become a stampede as the latest bad news becomes more widely known -- concussions are far, far more dangerous for children than adults.

26. Emergency rooms now treat 175,000 kids each year for sports-related brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among high schoolers, the majority of such injuries are football-related. When parents get better at spotting concussions, when parents more fully appreciate the downstream effects of concussions, that number will spike, which will lead to more bad publicity, which will translate to fewer players.

27. At some point in every human problem, math takes over. When the player pool shrinks, so does the fan base. When the player pool and fan base shrink, the game atrophies. When the game atrophies, it dies.

28. It will be years before the science is conclusive, before the litigation is settled, before the body count becomes high enough for Congress to step in. Which may be why you hear an airy optimism from so many NFL fans....
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