The Degenerate and Degenerative Sport of American Football

Last Sunday night, the Pandora Chanukah channel blared festive tunes into the living room as the Chanukah candles burned bright and wrapping paper lay crumpled in a bag after revealing the evening’s bounty. And I sat alone writing a post for VillageQ while the boys stole away to play with their new toys, and my wife snuck away to watch football. I am not a fan.

When I was growing up, I watched football with my father. I was not a fan then, either. But Dad always had the chips and salsa. If I wanted chips and salsa before he polished them off, I had to eat my share while watching football with him. I am a fan of chips and salsa.

Our children have never been into team sports. Asher attempted Kiddie Soccer when he was in preschool, which was disastrous. I had to bribe him with treats to get him on the field at all, and I had absolutely no expectations for his performance once he got there. Since then, the boys have opted for individualized sports like swimming, Tae Kwon Do, and fencing. I am a fan of indoor sports that do not require sitting outdoors in inclement weather, and I am especially a fan of not having to buy special chairs to sit on the sidelines in inclement weather.

It is admittedly easy for me to turn my nose up at American football because my children have no interest in it. It used to be even easier because my wife never seemed to have any interest in it, either. But something happened after over 20 years together for which I have no explanation. She now watches Sunday Night Football. I am not a fan of this new development.

I think I’ve become more sensitive to it as our nation becomes more numb to violence. The increase numbers of shootings has ripped off a scab that never healed since Newtown. I am not trying to make any kind of attenuated connections between shootings and football. Honestly. I’m saying that violence in this country and the world has made me question how evolved humans really are. Football is a violent sport. It just is. And people love to watch the violence. People love watching a game that is all about hitting hard, tackling, sustaining blows, and doing serious damage to each other – like brain damage kind of damage. I am not a fan.

Photo courtesy: Phoenix Art Museum
Photo courtesy: Phoenix Art Museum

We need less violence in the world right about now. I am not a fan of gladiator sports that expose our bloodlust rather than celebrate athleticism. Once I became a mother, it became even more difficult for me to understand how parents justify putting their kids in harm’s way. Dr. Omalu said in a recent New York Times article said we have a responsibility to keep children out of high-impact sports while their brains are still developing.

If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms. If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage, which we know now by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a disease that I first diagnosed in 2002.

Depending on the severity of the condition, the child now has a risk of manifesting symptoms of C.T.E. like major depression, memory loss, suicidal thought and actions, loss of intelligence as well as dementia later in life. C.T.E. has also been linked to drug and alcohol abuse as the child enters his 20s, 30s and 40s.

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Dave Meggyesy played for Syracuse and then for the Cardinals for 7 years. Here he is on the Dick Cavett show talking about how football (“Middle America’s theater”) glorifies violence. “The raison d’etre of football is violence.” Check out Gentle Giant Dave talking to Dick Cavett and Janis Joplin about football.

Here are some fun interviews where Malcolm Gladwell says the NFL is socializing young men into a culture of violence and that football is a moral abomination. Moral abomination? That’s pretty hard-hitting there, Mr. Gladwell! Then he compares American football to dogfighting, where vulnerable animals attack each other in the name of loyalty to their owners. Charming.

Here is the Dr. Bennet Omalu interview on Frontline. He believed that the truth will set you free. Apparently, the NFL doesn’t want to set anyone free because no one wanted Dr. Omalu to mess with America’s national pastime. Whistle blowers are just not the heroes that addle-brained sports figures with early onset dementia are.

CTE brain scan comparison

From the Frontline Interview:

From your analysis, from what you’ve seen, what would your estimate be of how many NFL players that are playing the game right now probably have CTE?

OK. Based on my experience, there has not been any NFL player I’ve examined that did not have CTE.

Now, the degrees of advancement of the disease will be different, and they have different types. So my opinion is, based on my experience, is all of them.

Did you say all of them?

All of them. All the NFL players I have examined pathologically, I have not seen one that did not have changes in their brain system with brain damage.

Photo credit: New York Times
Photo credit: New York Times

And now for something completely, but not entirely, different for those of you who would rather have a laugh before Sunday’s game:

Gabriella and I have had more than a few conversations about whether or not I should tolerate American football in our house. I have not yet succeeded in outlawing it completely. But while someone was watching game was on last week, I did find the time to compose this post. And this afternoon, someone is watching football – as in soccer. Baby steps…with helmets fastened tightly.

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