Another Super Bowl is drawing near on the horizon, with the Kansas City Chiefs butting heads with the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 2.
Hardcore fans, casual fans, gamblers, people who can’t wait to see the onslaught of new television commercials, and music lovers dying to hear Jennifer Lopez and Shakira perform at halftime are all gaga over the Super Sunday Extravaganza.
The players can’t wait to go for the brass ring of being world champions. Actually, Super Bowl rings hardly are brass. They’re spectacularly ornate – stuffed with diamonds and big enough to land a plane on.
Oh, by the way. The Chiefs and Niners will be scrambling a few more brain cells on Super Sunday.
Nobody, including the players, will be paying much attention to that sobering fact. After all, that would put a real kink in our National Holiday of Excess.
Kids across America idolize those players and many of them will try to emulate them on the football field next fall.
Their parents should ask themselves: Should they be?
Before I continue, I must confess that I absolutely love football.
My dad played semi-pro football and I grew up playing it and watching it.
I played through high school and later spent years as a sports columnist covering NFL, college and high school football. Indeed, the sports still enchants me.
It’s a wonderful game. A 100-yard turf war … but it is much more than pure brutality. It is a ballet of quickness, strength and patterned movement. The schematic science of offenses and defenses at the highest level could have been hatched at NASA and MIT.
Which is why there is a widespread fixation on the game, one that has a hypnotic hold on millions.
But now when I watch football I ache with contradiction.
I once was disappointed that my two sons didn’t play football, instead opting for soccer, basketball and baseball. Now I rejoice that they didn’t play football. I hope that my three young grandsons never play football.
Football batters brains. Even with safer helmets and more of an emphasis of leading with your shoulder instead of your head when tackling, it still is a collision sport.
Brains were not made for collisions. I’ve stood on NFL sidelines and heard hits that sounded like a safe dropping from the 14th floor.
Back in the dark ages when I played, head injuries were considered no big deal. Just break open the smelling salts and have a coach hold up two fingers in front of your face. It was always two fingers, so even if you were concussed and saw three fingers, you said two and were back in the game.
If a teammate had eyes as glazed as a Krispy Kreme, we thought it was funny.
How dumb. But what did we know? We valued our knees and ankles, not our heads.
Strip away the mumbo-jumbo and it’s a simple game: advance the ball no matter what the physical cost. It’s a body-splattering, meat-wagon game.
Now many former football players are succumbing to the terrible toll of the game they once cherished, sentenced to the thinnest shadow of a life. And even death – some by their own hand.
Football has been unquestionably linked to head trauma and a degenerative disease called CTE, an acronym for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
CTE has been linked to symptoms that include depression, dementia and memory loss.
Consider the science behind CTE. Repeated blows to the head cause the buildup of an abnormal protein that degenerates brain tissue. Areas of the brain vulnerable to CTE include those that govern cognition, working memory, abstract reasoning, planning, emotional control and aggression. CTEs also has been linked to the onset of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, later in life.
Not surprisingly, fewer kids play football these days. Still, about 3 million kids ages 6 to 18 play organized tackle football in the U.S.
Someday they too could face the inexorable attrition of brain damage. Do the math and you can see that CTE could manifest itself like some manic multiplication table.
In 1924 the immortal Grantland Rice dipped his typewriter in hyperbole when describing Notre Dame’s fabled backfield in an epic victory over Army:
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”
Sadly and unfortunately, the Four Horsemen of football today are CTE, Depression, Dementia and Memory Loss.