Following Wednesday's publication of Jeremy Collins' gutting, aching The Reckoning, on Paul Oliver's death and our love of football, allow me to share small thoughts instead. Gotta start somewhere.
* * *
Football will survive. It's become a common throwaway statement, almost a way for acknowledging big changes are on the way without us having to actually think about what those changes might be. We'll say, "Football's going to be gone in 50 years anyway" or "In 20 years, when football's gone away ..." or things of that nature.
We're not completely serious when we say it, but we know it is a possibility. We'll talk about football going the way of boxing ... but boxing's still around. And I would venture to say that our love of boxing wasn't diminished by Muhammad Ali's tremors or the issues of so many other boxers.
Boxing as a major sport was done in by corruption and the rise of other sports. But it still exists, and in rare moments, it still sucks up all of the oxygen, reminding us of both why the sport can be so gripping and why it can be so gross. For all of the awful headlines the NFL has dealt with, it is more profitable than ever.
We don't like to think long-term. We've been talking about a tipping point for years when it comes to climate change. Hurricane Katrina? Okay, now we're going to have a serious conversation about this. Superstorm Sandy? Okay ... now! Any minute now! Record temperatures and increasingly extreme weather? Here comes that conversation! And it never happens.
It feels like it's the same with football. We acknowledge there are dangers, and we really need to get a handle on it! and ... wow, did you see that one-handed catch? Did you see that wacky bounce? Did you see that hit?
And I do mean we, by the way. I get just as wrapped up in football's great moments as anyone else. Because it's a really fun sport. That is its savior and its downfall.
* * *
From The Reckoning:
You know this story, even if you don't know Paul's story. From years of football, Paul had sustained repeated blows to the head. Season after season, the avalanche of these hits cascaded into microscopic neurological protein deposits known as tau. These proteins wrapped and tangled around brain vessels and cells as part of the progressive, neurological disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive trauma. Robbing reason, stealing the keys to mood, ransacking memory, CTE erases the very essence of what allows for a human being.
I know tau because of my grandmother, who lost a unanimous decision to Alzheimer's 15 years ago. The disease is in my gene pool, so I've tried to know it well. Alzheimer's and its cousin Parkinson's are cruel in the way they tease you while they change you. You're the same you just enough of the time that the plodding changes catch you off-guard every time.
Well, they catch you off-guard as an observer, anyway. To someone suffering from Alzheimer's or CTE, the reminders are frequent. They know what's coming, and they have no idea how to stop it. And doctors have only so much of a handle.
You can prevent football-related CTE by not playing football. Seems like a pretty good deal.
But while participation rates might slow down as parents decide it's not worth the risk, a lot of children are still going to play. And a lot more parents will still see immense opportunity in allowing their kids to play.
* * *
We do not need Pee Wee tackle football.
When I was growing up, my football-obsessed, Western Oklahoma hometown didn't offer organized football until seventh grade. That was a pretty frustrating deal because the neighboring town, our big rival, began in sixth grade.
Not quite 25 years later, Pee Wee football is ubiquitous. Your child can play organized tackle football in first grade! Hooray! He's going to be so sound when he reaches junior high! These kids coming up are going to be so much more polished! And they'll have already taken quite a few sub-concussive hits by the time he hits puberty!
We can talk about equipment and rules changes. They are important to the health of those playing this dangerous sport. But ... goddamn, we do not need Pee Wee tackle football. Flag football is fine.
* * *
The right road is still a long road. We have only begun to move beyond the "rub some dirt on it and grit your teeth" mentality. Coaches are more aware of dangers. Equipment is better (though perhaps too good in terms of guys feeling comfortable enough to use their helmets as weapons). And rules are changing in ways that can prevent a few of the uglier hits.
Of course, rule changes require changes in fundamentals, and we're in the middle of an awkward transition. And every one of us has railed against targeting rules when one of our players was unjustly! ejected for a totally unintentional! helmet-to-helmet blow. Many of us have grumbled along the lines of "turning this into damn flag football" or "wussification."
But tackling fundamentals will change over time. Better concussion protocols will assure that we're sending fewer players back onto the field after a traumatic blow. (Protocol won't help much with sub-concussive shots, but one problem at a time, I guess.) And over time, I'm comfortable saying there will be fewer long-term effects. Fewer is not "none," but this will always be a relatively unsafe sport.
The problem is that we won't have any data on this for a long time. In the meantime, more and more studies will show just how damaging the sport has been in recent decades. And then we will say we need to have a serious conversation about this.
* * *
The last 15 years have seen an information boom. Rivals rankings are archived back to 2002. Phil Steele previews began to catch on in the early part of the last decade. Information and widespread coverage have converted college football from a regional sport into a national sport.
Paul Oliver was a five-star recruit, the No. 9 player in Rivals' class of 2003. Reggie Bush was No. 2 in that class. LaMarr Woodley was No. 14. Chris Leak was No. 26. Antonio Cromartie was No. 40. We know these names. These stories will continue to hit closer and closer to home. We will inch closer to the serious conversation. And one day, it might actually happen.
* * *
Sports are intoxicating. They give us such a break from real life that we want to make them part of our real life. The high is such that we forgive violence. From football to bullfighting, we risk others' lives so that we might celebrate their accomplishments. And take these sports far too seriously.
If we could stop this from happening, we would have a long time ago. But we haven't and we won't.
Football produces bad people and promotes bad people. It makes bad people rich and puts them in a position to make important decisions. And it does bad things to good people.
It also gives us Warrick Dunn and the Kick Six and Myron Rolle and hugging strangers and Odell Beckham's catches and Michael Sam's sack dance. No matter where we live or who we root for, it makes us part of a countrywide family. It gives all of us crippling lows and euphoric highs.
Football has become what it is because it offers us a combination of tactical complexity and visceral physicality that no other sport has approached. MMA's got the hits. Lacrosse has the bruises. Basketball has the strategy. Soccer has the sudden bursts of emotion. Football's got all of it.
And before football was any of this to any of us, before it was a professional sport, it survived worst-case, instant, constant brutality.
The death of Harold Moore and the involvement of Teddy Roosevelt forced massive rules changes on the sport, which people were still growing to love in 1905. It was a local thrill, and it was deemed worth saving. Fans rebelled against the rules changes, and then the sport thrived.
That probably qualified as a serious conversation. And maybe we'll have another one. I can't imagine what kind of event it would take, and I hope we can do it without that event.
That would mean the NFL actually acknowledging how serious CTE is and not asking friends with medical credentials to call the threat "exaggerated." That means actually being willing to stop watching/attending NFL games until they do.
That means demanding that, in an era of record-setting college football revenue, football institutions work to provide strong health insurance options for players and making sure families aren't losing money because of the sport.
That means not throwing a fit when players attempt to unionize to accomplish that.
That means celebrating that athletes better understand the risks and want them accounted for. And that means celebrating the Chris Borlands, who get out before the toll is too expensive.
What Junior Seau means to Polynesians
Junior Seau inspired hundreds of young players on the Pacific Islands to try and make it through football.
That means making sure college football players finish with degrees that actually hold value and that they are equipped with the tools to help them move past football, both physically and mentally. As referenced in The Reckoning, Georgia head coach Mark Richt created The PO Network with this in mind. But he's not equipped to handle CTE. Somebody needs to be.
That means making sure we aren't having 7-year-olds playing organized damn tackle football.
That means accepting that rules changes are going to make for frustrating calls, that further changes might be on the way, that this might make the sport more "like flag football," that the when-men-were-men sport your father loved might not be with us much longer, and that this is okay. We will still watch it. Also not with us as much these days: diners, cigarette ads and skating rinks. The world changes. Sometimes that's frustrating.
That means applauding the coaches who not only acknowledge the physical risks but are trying to creatively address them -- Pete Carroll's rugby tackling techniques, for instance. Maybe they only make a small difference, but any difference is good.
That means aggressively attempting to protect players before, while and after they play this sport we love. It will always be dangerous. It doesn't have to be as dangerous.
This sport will survive. We might as well make sure we can like both it and ourselves.