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The Necessity of Football

America’s game is a fun-house mirror for our national character.

One of my earliest assignments as an associate producer at NFL Films, the cinematic and mythmaking arm of professional football, was to splice together montages of the best plays, catches, bloopers, and hits from the week’s games, and synchronize them to the stirring orchestral themes for which the league’s film house is renowned. Sitting alone in an editing room on the postproduction wing of our New Jersey corporate campus, I shuffled through the clipped footage looking for the biggest, best collisions. Watching the hits in rapid, random succession, I’d use a keyboard to replay, pause, and fast-forward the frames of heavily padded players launching themselves at one another—the louder the crack, the better. As long as the player who had been blasted, annihilated, or jacked up didn’t crumple to the turf, unconscious, or writhe in obvious pain, I was in the clear. No dirty hits, no spearing, no headhunting, and no going for the knees; I looked for good, heads-up shoulder tackles.

Satisfied, I lined up the hit, punctuated it with a forceful note of music, and then lined up another, carefully judging hundreds of collisions, until I had enough hits to fill the minute of time required to delight my video-on-demand audience. I loved every millisecond of it.

I began working for the NFL in the late summer of 2004, less than a year before Nigerian-born pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu published his controversial paper in the journal Neurosurgery on the brain of Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, who died in 2002. Omalu is the subject of both a recent book and film that share the same blunt title: Concussion. The book, by Jeanne Marie Laskas, expands on her reporting in the 2009 GQ exposé “Game Brain.” (The film, which stars Will Smith as Omalu, will be released by Sony Pictures this Christmas.) Omalu’s article described in detail his discovery that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an impact-based head trauma, was killing football players and other athletes who suffered repeated blows to the head. Three doctors with the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee wrote a letter to the editors of Neuroscience alleging Omalu had misunderstood his own findings. But even as the NFL tried to bury his breakthrough, the doctor continued to accumulate data on what head trauma did to the brains of athletes until a former neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers who had known Webster called Omalu to tell him he believed him. As Laskas wrote in GQ, “It was the first time anyone who ever had anything to do with the NFL had validated Omalu’s work.”

In Concussion, Laskas tells the story thoroughly, though not completely, of an immigrant who suddenly found himself in a unique position to tell America about itself. Omalu’s life, as well as his discovery, is at the center of Concussion, and rightfully sohis story allows us to understand that American football is both a sport and a mirror, one which reflects both glorious and grotesque truths about our national character. 

Mike Webster was the keystone of the first pro football team I ever loved, the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing the sport I still love the most. My mother and her family are from Pittsburgh, and even though I was born in their rival city of Cleveland, many of my baby clothes were black and gold. (I did eventually switch to my hometown Browns, committing myself to a lifetime of football disappointment that has built up more cholesterol than it has character.) Given that I’d grow up to become one of the sport’s mythmakers for a spell, it makes sense that some of the first numbers I could recite as a three-year-old in 1978 were not just one through ten, but also 12, 32, 82, 88, 58, 76, the jersey numbers of my favorite Steelers, who were then in the middle of a historic run of four Super Bowl championships.

“Iron Mike” wore number 52 during his time with the Steelers, and whenever he removed his black helmet, he revealed a shock of receding blond hair and a pair of sunken eyes. To a young boy in the 1980s in love with football, Webster recalled Darth Vader in the denouement of Return of the Jedi, his life-giving black helmet removed to reveal the broken man beneath. It was understandable; football players, after all, endure a lot of collisions; offensive linemen suffer them on virtually every play, and per a 2014 study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, they stay on the field with more undiagnosed concussions than any other players in the game.

 “Football was one aspect of American life that Bennet had not keyed into particularly,” Laskas writes of Omalu, who had dreamed of America’s promise. A native of Nigeria’s Igbo tribe, Omalu had immigrated to the United States in 1994 at the age of 26 to study epidemiology at the University of Washington: “‘What an odd and inelegant game,’ he thought, to the extent he ever thought about it at all. ‘Guinea pigs bashing.’” I couldn’t put it betterbashing for the sake of a civic religion that swallows our faith and spits out the broken bones, torn ACLs, and bruised brains of its players.

Webster died in Pittsburgh on September 24, 2002, less than twelve years after playing his final game in the National Football League and nearly five years after being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the time, Webster was known more for the awful way he was living out his retirement: He was often homeless or sleeping in his truck with a garbage bag in place of one of the windows; he’d put Super Glue on his decaying teeth to keep them in his mouth, and felt he needed a Taser used on him just so he could sleep. Webster was often angry, confused, and deranged; his wife divorced him less than a year before he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 50.

Omalu, who learned of Webster’s death on the news, requested access to his body through Webster’s lawyer, who had fought in vain for years to get his client a full disability allowance from the NFL. During the autopsy, Omalu discovered what he termed “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” a degenerative disease brought on by repetitive head trauma that could result in the kind of mental and physical decline apparent in the final years of Mike Webster’s life. CTE sufferers become confused, endure memory loss—the “punch-drunk” description often given to boxers throughout the twentieth century—and develop dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. In September 2015, researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University released horrific findings: Out of the 91 NFL players they examined, 87 tested positive for CTE. Overall, they tested 165 players from every level, high school to the pros, and 79 percent of them tested positive.

Not all those retirees who die from it do so quietly. I’d argue it was the often violent nature of their deaths that helped shock America into a realization of the disease’s dangers. CTE was found in the brain of former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters after he shot himself in the head in 2006. The brain tissue had been sent to Omalu, who said it looked like that of an octogenarian Alzheimer’s patient—Waters was 44. Dave Duerson played safety on the Chicago Bears’ legendary defense that rolled to a Super Bowl XX title. In 2011, at age 50, he shot and killed himself in such a way that his brain could be preserved for research. “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,” he wrote in a note to his family; he had the CTE he suspected. Junior Seau, one of the greatest linebackers who ever played in the NFL, also shot himself in the chest, preserving his brain for a later diagnosis of CTE. He was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

CTE also may be linked to another major off-field issue for the NFL: domestic violence. In 2012, Jovan Belcher, linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his daughter’s mother at their home before shooting himself in front of both his head coach and general manager at Arrowhead Stadium. Belcher’s body was exhumed two weeks after burial, and his brain contained neurofibrillary tangles of tau protein, which is correlated with CTE. Per the report, the tangles were distributed throughout Belcher’s hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with memory, learning, and emotion.

It’s been more than a decade since Omalu identified the disease killing scores of football players and endangering those who are in their orbit. Omalu clearly thought the league would be concerned, but as Laskas makes clear in her book, he was being naïve. (Relying on emails disclosed in the 2014 Sony hack, The New York Times reported film executives in charge of Concussion discussed “altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.”) But thanks to the surge in investigative journalism following Omalu’s discovery, beginning with Laskas’s GQ exposé, including the landmark 2013 documentary and book League of Denial, and culminating now with both the book and film of Concussion, the risks of head trauma are widely known. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of children under 14 playing tackle football declined by 13 percent. But CTE isn’t the only way football is killing its players; since the start of the 2015 high school football season, at least five high school players have died on the playing field, some due to fatal head trauma.

Week eight of the 2015 NFL season was host to a particularly horrific display of carnage: Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. tore his Achilles tendon, running backs Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers and Reggie Bush of the San Francisco 49ers each went down for the season with torn knee ligaments. (Bush’s injury wasn’t even caused on the field; he slipped on a stretch of cement bordering the sideline of St. Louis’s Edward Jones Dome after running out of bounds.) There was also the typical slew of concussions, including that of Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette, who sustained season-ending ligament damage in his neck after a hit from a Dallas Cowboys defender that was technically clean: no spearing with the helmet, nothing clearly done with intent to injure. While writing this, I came across an ESPN report on Buffalo Bills rookie back Karlos Williams, who despite suffering a concussion that kept him out of four games this season, was eager to get back. “It’s not going to change the way I run the football. It hasn’t changed the way I run the football,” said Williams. “I run the football with attitude, and I think that’s what the coaches expect from me coming back.” Between his collegiate career at Florida State and his stunted rookie year in Buffalo, he’s suffered at least three concussions.

We are animals, so we play: This was the conclusion of Dutch historian and cultural critic Johan Huizinga, who designated the human race as not simply one that makes things (Homo faber), nor primarily a race of reason (Homo sapiens), but as Homo ludens, which served as the title of Huizinga’s seminal 1938 text on game studies, classifying our species as “man the player.” Play is a genetic hand-me down from our earlier bestial incarnations; it is something all animals do, Huizinga writes, primarily because it’s fun.

Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.

No profit? Huizinga’s philosophical definition of play runs headlong into nearly every organized sport that someone pays to see, particularly professional athletics. But the history of sport, in particular football, is one of economic survival in changing times: from muddy fields filled with 1920s leatherheads to a league with billion-dollar television contracts and millionaire players; from a box of Cracker Jacks to the purchase of a stadium’s $15 beer. What doesn’t change, we’re told, is the game itself.

In his new book The Game’s Not Over, sportswriter Gregg Easterbrook offers a defense that football’s gridiron culture is one of America’s uniquely great achievements—a success story that exemplifies American success overall. The professional incarnation of the sport has grown from 4,000-capacity crowds viewing the Akron Pros in the 1920s to the 80,000-plus crowds that swarm NFL coliseums. Tied in with that, though, is Easterbrook’s argument that the game reflects American power most clearly in its financial impact: “In the football mirror, the United States sees a reflection of its rising affluence.” He cites the recent spike in spending for football stadiums, most of which are paid by a city’s taxpayers and not the billionaire owners who threaten to move their teams elsewhere. When compared with Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL, the technically not-for-profit NFL still lords over all financially: In 2015, the league was projected to make more than $12 billion for its 32 member clubs. Easterbrook, to his credit, recognizes how the NFL’s overflowing profits reflect the American winner-take-all economy.

While Easterbrook doesn’t mask the flaws of the game, he barely confronts them either, coating his book so thickly in an unearned sentimentality that his argument borders on willful ignorance. “As America became the most muscular nation the world has known, it bestowed more attention on the most muscular of sports, football.” The growth of the United States into a military-industrial Goliath began in the 1940s, just as pro football began asserting itself in the theater of American entertainment. “With the end of World War II,” Easterbrook writes, “the United States became the strongest country in the worldand began paying more attention to a sport that celebrates strength.” The National Football League itself is also uniquely American, he writes, as “a superpower with mixed emotions about its own might.”

But I disagree with Easterbrook’s conception of the NFL being a mirror for America’s “rising affluence,” one we can’t look away from. Following Huizinga’s definition, football is a game of rules, but little about the game, and what happens to the boys and men who play it, is orderly. American football evolved out of rugby, a sport built on the systematic physical destruction of one’s opponent, an annihilation that compliments America’s revolutionary roots as well as its centuries of enslavement and systemic racism.

The national spirit that football can elicit is virtually unequaled; no other sport makes as much profit from the complete physical destruction of an opponent in order to keep him from advancing the ball a few mere yards. Football is a game that best emulates formal military battlewith the armor, the lineup, the charge, the man-to-man combat, and the inch-by-inch taking of territory, often with enormous casualties. And it is in the game’s faultsits excessive violence, inflation of manhood, and an all-but-indifferent approach to injury on and off the fieldthat we can see some of America’s deepest flaws. If, as Easterbrook suggests, we only celebrate the violence without fully considering the full implications of it, then we are only seeing what we want to see.

In the twenty-first century, a civic religion like the National Football League may be too big to fail, even as Commissioner Roger Goodell mismanages scandals such as the Ray Rice domestic abuse incident and the New England Patriots’ alleged deflating of footballs used by quarterback Tom Brady. Then again, the big business of football as we know it may be on the decline. In a study conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth participation in football fell more steeply in 2014 than almost any other sport, and former high school football star LeBron James recently told an ESPN reporter that his sons would not play the game. “My kids don’t need a way out [of poverty]. They’re all right,” the Cleveland Cavaliers forward explained. “I needed a way out when I was a kid. I tried to do whatever it took to get out. That’s my excuse.”

I have no excuse, really. Every time I’ve thought about leaving the sport behind, I remember my favorite photograph: a black-and-white shot my mother took of me in my football uniform in the eighth grade, standing next to my father and smiling after a win. But nostalgia is a reason to love the game, not a reason to need it. Perhaps, then, this is where I should tell you whyeven in the wake of Omalu’s revelationsI feel we still need football. Not to rescue the NFL’s largely black labor force from its humble origins, or to entertain the masses that refuse to let it go in the wake of mounting tragedies. We need it partially because football serves as a kind of fun-house mirror for our national character.

The writer with his father in the autumn of 1988, after a victory for the Hawken Lower School football team in Lyndhurst, Ohio.
Rosalyn Howard, Ph.D.

The reflection comes in various forms: social movements, national tragedy, political spectacle, and yes, our sports. And we are a dramatic country, so much so that the volume of theatrics we see in every corner of our lives dulls our senses. We need more, and we need it louder. And in spectator sports, we want to see the best versions of ourselves reflected back at us, or else why would we consider it entertainment? We want to believe that inside that arena, everything will be all right because our men are the strongest, and our fight is the hardest. This is why between 2012 and 2015 the Department of Defense paid 18 NFL teams a total of more than $5.6 million for marketing and advertising, including flying military bombers over stadiums at taxpayers’ expense. It’s also why we watch hit montages week after week, delighting in the crack of the pads or the punch of the music without wondering whether that player just got pushed a bit further toward CTE. Football marries artfulness to brutality, providing the most honest interpretation of American character that we have available, and I enjoy football despite its horrors because I have learned to do the same in my life in America.

The problem is that too few of us recognize ourselves in the beauty and the carnage the NFL presents each Sunday. The game won’t change because we’re not changing. I hope a new audience will be exposed to Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story and understand that the only way to get football to change is to present its faults in an uncompromising fashion, pressuring the NFL and those who love the sport to face themselves and do better. Omalu exemplifies a model of America in which its citizens, in virtually every political context, work to change this nation for the better. Abandoning football won’t fix the sportAmericans need it so that, one day, we might learn to see ourselves for who we truly are.