Another year and another season. But will you be watching football and other sports this time with more opened eyes…and an open intellect?
We’re exactly one week away from the start of another high school football campaign – that is, fall camps, two-a-days, or whatever you choose to call it.
Another opening, another show, wrote songwriter Cole Porter 70 years ago.
But this year’s opening comes on the heels of last season’s anticipated film entitled Concussion, the story of the National Football League’s attempted coverup of research and the subsequent naming of traumatic brain disorder by Dr. Bennet Omalu…known now as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
The film itself was a box office bust, predictably. And frankly, I only recently watched it myself in its entirety on HBO. I neither recommend, or condemn it. It is what it is, a documentary.
But it was interesting, and enlightening, and it brought to mind a couple of issues that I wrote about as far back as 2013, a few months after Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau took his own life, thought to be as a result of the onset of CTE.
Not surprising, Bennet Omalu’s research was not welcomed by the National Football League.
It was not welcomed in the city of Pittsburgh, where the story line of the movie was centered. It opens with the death of Steeler legend and center Mike Webster, and even those working in the coroner’s office sought to look past the mysterious and irrefutable fact of Webster’s mental demise. Football was, and is, king in Pittsburgh, and they wanted no part of Omalu’s research, or conclusion that football contributed to Webster’s early death. They turned their heads, the way many still do to protect the tradition and the legacy of football as a spectator sport in the United States.
Back in ’13 I published a column entitled “Discussion Around The Dining Room Table”, about the conversations between parents and young athletes and their decision to either play or not play high school football. It sparked a lot of response from friends and people I’ve known for years…and from some I’ve never met.
Some claimed that I hated football, and that I wrote to create controversy and doubt about its safety.
In a subsequent column a year or so later, I wrote to clarify the position…that I DO NOT HATE FOOTBALL, only, like with other diseases and disorders, mindful parents should seek to know as much about the ongoing research pertaining to head trauma as possible. Even that wasn’t good enough.
In that same post I asked if knowledge about head injuries was any less important than knowledge about cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; and if we were suspect or actually diagnosed with any of the above we’d move heaven and earth to learn as much about our prospects as possible. Knowledge is power…liberating…we like to say.
Ironically, one of the most enlightening scenes from the movie is that in which one of Omalu’s microscopic slides shows the actual hemorrhaging of blood vessels in the brain as a result of a blow to the skull. And in another scene in the film it was deduced by the team doctor that Mike Webster had probably sustained as many as 70,000 such knocks to his head. Omalu’s question was…does it take that many?
Which is one of the questions I raised in earlier posts. If…If…there is a correlation between head traumas and CTE shouldn’t we want to know just how many it does take? Like, how much alcohol does it take to initiate the cell transformation that leads to cirrhosis; or how many cigarettes does it take to trigger lung cancer?
And just as important, the message in the movie, although centered around football, is that head injury and future suspected susceptibility to brain disorder IS NOT limited to football. As my friends and critics were quick to point out then – and they will again – it can happen if you fall and hit your head in the shower!
A friend and associate who had a great career as a collegiate soccer player recently shared that she could not be sure as to the number of concussions she suffered…from contact with other players, the ground, or from simply striking the ball with her head.
It’s quite obvious that baseball players are suspect from collisions associated with normal play, as was the case with former Minnesota Twins star Justin Morneau, and current first baseman Joe Mauer.
My own son received at least three such head traumas from playing rec league hockey as a teenager. Who knew? He loved the sport and insisted that getting knocked woozy was simply part of the fun.
Look, football IS a GREAT game. I’ve watched and enjoyed it for years. It’s done a lot for a lot of people, adolescent and adult alike. It teaches great life lessons about hard work, commitment, team, and perseverance. But there was a time when I was attracted by the violence of the hits. Today, I simply look at them differently.
I’m obliged to say that every area high school coach that I personally know goes the extra mile to teach the game properly, and safely. They’re consistent in their disdain for reckless play and unnecessary risk.
But it is, still, a violent sport. Which is why so many of us like it (for the same reason we stare at car wrecks) and seek to protect it from the now-revealed by-products of football’s very precepts, blocking and tackling.
And I will add this: there was no trailer at the end of “Concussion” from the surgeon general saying that football is a serious risk to your health, like the ones seen on a pack of cigarettes.
Look, I’ve rewritten this particular essay several times, seeking to get it right – for those who would say that I’m anti-this, or anti-that. To the contrary, I’ve always been “pro-play” about life lessons learned through hard knocks.
But the message I took from the movie was the same as that which I wrote about in 2013. Play while understanding the risks. Be open-minded. Be concerned and committed to knowing about the ongoing research, including, “how many knocks does it take?”
At present we don’t know. We just know that too many are unwilling to ask while conceding that it’s important to know as much as possible about cancer and cigarettes…liver disease and alcohol…red meat and heart disease.
But now that we suspect, after our eyes have been opened…should sports (and not just football) being any different?