About the series
Over the next three Sundays, The Times sports staff will examine issues surrounding head
injuries in football, including a look at the state and local reaction to concussion prevention
and treatment and what the future holds for America’s most popular sport.
Football faces an uncertain future as more is learned about head injuries in the sport.
How do fans react to the dangers of football?
We love football. Everything about it.
The gladiatorial physicality. The chess match played out with 22 pieces of moving flesh and bone. The foxhole camaraderie it engenders among teammates like few other sports can.
The blood. The sweat.
And especially the tears.
But for those who love the game, the developments of the last few years should be troubling. As the long-term effects of head injuries become clearer, it’s time to start asking some difficult questions.
Former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006. He was 44. He had the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.
Former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011. Prior to his death he requested that his brain be studied as well. Ensuing studies found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same trauma-induced brain affliction found in at least 20 other deceased players.
Earlier this year, former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau died. Like Duerson, his cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. His brain tissue was released for study earlier this week.
It should be noted that suicide is a complicated, tragic phenomenon rarely borne of a single cause. And for every mentally crippled former player, there are scores living normal, relatively healthy lives.
But this is scary stuff. And one has to wonder, is it going to get worse?
Isn’t the game only going to get more and more violent as each successive generation of players grows bigger, faster and stronger?
As anecdotal evidence of what we already know, consider that an average offensive lineman for the 1969 NCAA national champion Texas Longhorns was roughly the same size as a defensive back for the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide.
So as the bodies become bigger and the speed and force at which they crash into each other increases, how can we make the game safer?
And where do we draw the line — both on the in-game violence that’s inherent to the sport, and on the changes that would morph it into something we no longer recognize as the game we grew up with?
Maybe the answer lies in technology. Maybe new and better equipment can prevent massive head injuries. It’s happened before.
Between 1965 and 1969, more than 100 players at all levels of football died as a direct result of head injuries sustained on the field. After advancements in helmets and tweaks to the rule books, fatalities tapered off steadily until rising again in the late 90s.
The bad news is that while the helmets we use today can prevent skull fractures, they can’t prevent the concussions which occur in football with alarming frequency.
Have we now reached the point that all the pads and hard-shell helmets allow players to weaponize themselves, turning a free safety into a 225-pound heat-seeking missile?
Is the sport that we Americans — and especially we Southerners — love above all others fatally flawed?
We hope not.
We’re not Romans cheering for beasts and blood, after all. What we want is a balance, a harmony between hard hits and sportsmanship, a marriage of on-field violence and long, happy lives for those gladiators when they leave it.
But because we love the sport — and for the sake of its long-term health — it’s time for the difficult questions to be asked.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbholloway.