Might As Well Get This One Out Of The Way Early in the Superbowl Hype Fortnight

Consider this a diversion from real life.  Still a downer, a bit, (or perhaps just a PGO).  But at least it’s guaranteed Bachman-free.  Give me that….

As a born-and-raised Bay Area kid, I grew up on Brodie, Stabler, Lamonica, Plunkett — and then the glorious experience of watching Joe Montana.  Steve Young was the lagniappe.  With all that, it took me a decade or two after arriving in Boston to start actually caring about the Pats, and we all know how that has turned out.  All in all, I’ve had a sunlit time as a fan of the NFL, Franco F***K*** Harris and his maculate reception notwithstanding.


But over the last few years — and this year more — I’ve found it harder and harder to stick with the games.  I used to joke about how pro football was just 22 supremely fit young men, all taller, faster, stronger and just flat out more wonderful physically that I ever could have been pounding on each other themselves for my entertainment.  It wasn’t funny then, and it is less so now.


How not funny?   It happens that yesterday I was at the doctor’s office, waiting for one of those indignities visited up on those of us on the far side of fifty, when I came upon that eternal resource of the waiting room:  old issues of Sports Illustrated.

I picked up one from last September, and came across this piece by Selena Roberts.  Here’s her lede:

This couldn’t be the right room. It was only a clinic door, but when he swung it open, Wesley Walls passed through a portal to his future. He stood among bingo-hall sharks with their sock-hop memories, their early-bird dinner plans and their new ceramic hips. Just 41 in December 2007—four years removed from a career as a Pro Bowl tight end—Walls found himself stretching with the oldies after hip-replacement surgery at a facility in Charlotte. “I was doing physical therapy with some of my parents’ friends,” he told me six months after his surgery. “It was like, Hey, you’re that Walls kid, right? I thought, Man, I am too young to be in here. This can’t be happening, not this soon.

Roberts trades in the controversial number that each year playing in the NFL costs the player one – three years of life expectancy.  On a quick search I haven’t been able to turn up any real primary data — it may be out there (consider this a bleg), but we already know plenty about what an NFL career does to the living. Reading Roberts reminded me of the first story to really erode my ability to watch the game with unalloyed eagerness:  the Boston Globe’s 2007 story about Ted Johnson’s descent into dementia.  (In some ways, this story is even more depressing, given the age of player studied.)


The dementia reports are heartbreaking of course, but at least there does seem to have been some coherent response from the league and the players association — a push for better helmets, new rules, all that.  But the central message of Roberts’ piece is obvious, really:   the game played properly is a meat grinder.


That said, all the familiar arguments apply:  professional football players are well compensated adults who choose and (most of them) love what they do.  The facts here aren’t hard to track down:  any professional player knows, or should, that careers are short and injuries are an inescable part of the game.


I’d bet it is true that most rookies coming into the league can’t or don’t begin to imagine lives at forty constrained by multiple knee operations or what have you — but twenty something males (and women too, of course — but that’s for some other post) in lots of lines of work get to make decisions that to their older selves will seem dumb as hell.  Why should football players be singled out for enforced wisdom?


They shouldn’t — and Roberts wasn’t and I am not arguing that the game should die to protect young men who’ve made the calculation (whether they know they’ve done so or not).


Rather, the issue in that article was the proposed shift to an eighteen game regular season in the NFL.  Roberts pointed out that such a shift adds the equivalent of a year of play every eight…and it would ensure shorter careers and less time for fans to watch any great players whose prime should properly by measured in hits endured rather than seasons completed.


So the only affirmative claim I’m going to make in this post is that Roberts, and Peter King and the lots of others who have argued this are absolutely right:  leave the game alone.  Roger Goodell and the owners have laid the proposed shift on the fans; it is said we want more real contests and fewer exhibitions.  To be as charitable as possible in the face of the obvious, that justificaton omits the fact that two more games means an equivalent boost in the cash the owners get to pull off the game.

So, despite the fact that no one who gets to decide here cares what this fan thinks, I’m saying no. Don’t lay that sh*t on me.  Sixteen contests per season (plus up to four more for the good teams) are enough.  I want the players whose remarkable skills have given me so much excitement over a lot of years to last.  Even more:  I’d like to think that they will have better than a puncher’s chance of being able to lift a grandkid over their shoulders later on.


That’s all — but for this: I make no claim for anyone else, and I have no wish to tell the next supremely gifted and smart young athlete how to live his life.  But I get to decide how I want to live mine.  I’m 52 now, certainly not wise,  but I hope more mindful of taking my pleasures at no one else’s expense.


I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to watch the game.

Images:  Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899.

François Boucher (1703-1770), after Paolo Veronese, Allegory of Wisdom and Strength: The Choice of Hercules or Hercules and Omphale, c. 1750.

77 replies
  1. 1
    stuckinred says:

    I assume you realize this issue is not limited to players in the NFL? I have many close friends that played football in the Big Ten in the early 70’s and most, if not all, suffered long term physical problems from playing.

  2. 2
    gnomedad says:

    I can barely decode this painting. It looks like a transporter accident.

  3. 3
    JPL says:

    Tom, Thanks for the post. The owners are already crying foul over the impending strike and pointing out that the players are overpaid whiners without mentioning how much money they are pocketing. Unfortunately, the sports channels spend to little time on the real issues.

  4. 4
    Linkmeister says:

    Apparently the NFL owners are willing to lock out the players if they don’t accede to this 18-game monstrosity, too.

    Yes, it’s another millionaires vs. billionaires argument (except for all those taxi squad players making the NFL minimum), but it’s annoyingly similar to working life before labor laws. “You don’t wanna work 12-hour days? Fine, there’s lots of men who do!”

  5. 5
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    This is O/T as all get-out, Tom, but thought you might like to know I ordered your *Measure for Measure* today. Great title, intriguing topic. I’ll bet you’re a fascinating dinner guest.

  6. 6
    Roger Moore says:

    Another possible solution would be to extend the season enough that it simply isn’t possible to play the game the same way anymore. Part of the problem is that players are playing recklessly hard because the season is only 16 games long. Every game is critical, and players know they’ll have a full week to recover before the next one, so they take incredible risks. If the season were 40 or 50 games instead of 16, individual games would be less critical and staying healthy and ready for the next game would be more important, forcing the players to pace themselves. It would also place a bigger premium on endurance-type fitness over raw strength, so you’d see fewer of the super-heavy players who deal out the most punishing hits.

    For those who think this is unreasonable, look a hockey. They’re playing over 80 games a season, and it’s a very tough, physically punishing game. But the need for speed and endurance pushes teams to go for more reasonably sized players than the monsters who dominate football.

  7. 7
    Linkmeister says:

    @Roger Moore: Year-round football? Aside from Fox and ESPN, nobody would pay attention after the first six weeks!

  8. 8
    J.W. Hamner says:

    They just had an article on Slate about how there’s some new evidence that even the regular impacts that don’t count as concussions are causing brain damage. I agree that young people damage their bodies in any number of ways and are far less well compensated for it, but it’s still pretty messed up.

    We are starting to do more traumatic brain injury research in my lab, and I wonder how it will affect my football fandom. Of course I just helped the head of our department on a review article on sports related TBI and he’s a HUGE Steelers fan, so it’s not like it can’t be done… but it does seem harder and harder to cheer for the big hits.

  9. 9
    PurpleGirl says:

    This is also an issue in boxing. The current condition of Muhammad Ali is especially sad to any one who watched him early in his career and found his wit fun to hear, his speed and agility a joy to watch. You have to wonder how much being punched contributed to his Parkinson’s condition.

    I wasn’t really interested in boxing, but he was something else to watch and follow. And when he joined the Nation of Islam and refused induction into the Army and to fight in Vietnam, well, that was incredible for the time period, I think.

  10. 10
    MikeJ says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Is there an Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble link somewhere for this fine tome? I still have gift card value from B&N. I hope it’s available in some ebook format.

    Someone needs to teach the hosts here how to properly whore themselves.

  11. 11
    MikeBoyScout says:

    FYI, Steeler owner, Ambassador Dan Rooney, is against the expansion of the season to 18 games.

    Find another?

  12. 12
    Roger Moore says:


    Year-round football?

    No, no. The season would stay the same length, but you’ve have two or three games a week. I think that would also be helpful because it would mean teams wouldn’t have so much time to prepare for each opponent. So instead of rewriting their play book every week, they’d have to come up with a more general plan and limit the amount of tweaking. It would put more emphasis on execution than planning, i.e. on players rather than coaches.

  13. 13
    MattR says:

    @Roger Moore: This is an intriguing idea. I am not sure how the NFL is gonna do it, but they are going to have to fundamentally alter the way the game is played over the next 10-20 years if they want it to continue. It needs to eliminate the huge collision and emphasize good tackling. Ironically, improvements in safety over the past 20 years are part of the problem. I think the league will end up going with a soft shelled helmet with a much smaller (if any) facemask which would protect player’s heads without allowing them to carelessly throw it around

  14. 14
    Comrade Colette Collaboratrice says:

    Monsieur Colette and I are struggling with the same issue. We love watching football (49ers for him, Chargers for me). We’ve especially enjoyed sharing that with our 7-year-old son and seeing his growing interest in the sport. But we feel pretty damned hypocritical when we agree that we’d try hard to talk him out of ever playing at any level for fear of head and other injuries and the long-term consequences.

    I had to stop watching boxing long ago for the same reason. My decision was made the moment I realized that it was (before the rise of UFC, etc.) the only mainstream sport in which the primary objective is to injure your opponent. Smashmouth football is different only in degree, not in kind.

  15. 15
    kdaug says:

    Bread and circuses.

    There have been gladiators since most of recorded history. Today they are well-compensated, and don’t usually die on the field, but they still battle for our amusement.

    Same as it ever was.

  16. 16
    Midnight Marauder says:

    @Roger Moore:

    Part of the problem is that players are playing recklessly hard because the season is only 16 games long. Every game is critical, and players know they’ll have a full week to recover before the next one, so they take incredible risks. If the season were 40 or 50 games instead of 16, individual games would be less critical and staying healthy and ready for the next game would be more important, forcing the players to pace themselves.

    For those who think this is unreasonable, look a hockey. They’re playing over 80 games a season, and it’s a very tough, physically punishing game. But the need for speed and endurance pushes teams to go for more reasonably sized players than the monsters who dominate football.

    This comparison fails because the nature of the sports is radically different. It is almost logistically impossible for the NFL to implement the plan you are describing, primarily because you just are not going to stretch out a football season to a place where viewers are still interested with each team playing 40-50 times a season. Part of the reason football works so well is that people find the “one-and-done” aspect appealing. More importantly, you are still advocating for NFL players to suit up 40-50 times in a season you are claiming would still be the same lenght as the current schedule. Oh, and of course, players are still going to train and practice at a higher level since they will have to train themselves to play 40 games of football in a regular season for the first time ever. If you think the players are livid about a possible 18 game season, then you would be blown away at their reaction to the suggestion they suit up and play 40-50 times a season.

    Moreover, there are plenty of ways to improve the safety of the game and the players without dramatically altering the season schedule. Invest more more money and effort in better designed helmets that combat brain trauma; widen the field a bit; increase the number of players available on the gameday active roster.

    But what sure as hell will never happen is expanding a sport like football to a 40 game season. That is sheer lunacy.

  17. 17
    PTirebiter says:

    I love the NFL, I still look forward to each game of every new season. That said, an additional two games won’t add any value for me. If they do add the games, I’ll likely fake my wife out and skip a few weeks during a season.
    When they played a 12 game season I watched the pre-season games. I started skipping a few of them when they went to 14, I never watch any of them now. I agree with all the health arguments as well, but the NFL seems look only at the gate. I believe the limited number of games is part of the appeal and the NFL should reconsider from a marketing stand point. Killing the goose that laid the golden egg and all.

  18. 18
    Tom says:

    It’s not just the owners who are part of the problem–Jay Cutler had a torn MCL and current and ex-players were calling him out for not going back in. Dallas Clark almost punched out a trainer (hyperbole) because he wouldn’t let him back into a game due to a possible concussion.

    Players themselves have to take their health seriously and not engage in this game of macho-gamesmanship when it comes to injuries.

  19. 19
    ppcli says:

    @Roger Moore: Hockey is physically punishing, but in a different way. Anecdote in lieu of data: I played university hockey in Canada, and now, thirty years later, I don’t have anything like the chronic problems that the people I know who played college football have. My sister, a physical therapist, has complained that if you *wanted* to design an activity that would be ruinous for all those parts of the body that are hard to heal when injured (small bones of the hand, ankles and feet, brain, back, knees) you would be hard pressed to come up with something worse than football already is.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    MikeJ: I found it on Amazon by searching LEVENSON under “Books.” Here’s a mobile link http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d......038;sr=8-1 but I expect you can get more comprehensive information by searching the Amazon website. Did not check B&N. It does not seem to be available as an e-book, certainly not on Kindle. When you pull it up, have a look at the first few pages. Tom’s writing is so elegant, and he will not surprise you if you’ve been following the art he selects to illustrate his posts.

    Agree with you that he fails to promote himself as adequately as he should. “You must stir it and stump it/And blow your own trumpet/Or trust me, you haven’t a chance.”

  22. 22
    PTirebiter says:

    @Tom: I get the feeling a lot the Cutler type smack is media driven ala cable news. These guys have all become media savvy and they understand how to keep their names in front of the public. The only people that mattered supported Cutler in the post-game, then the tweets started to fly. Ditka didn’t question it, so there was no story but the cable meat grinder needs to eat 24/7. But yea, the players have to be responsible as well.

  23. 23
    meander says:

    I’ve wondered if perhaps the NFL and college leagues shouldn’t consider weight limits for each position. A few decades ago, a 300 pound lineman was unheard of. Now they are common, if not the majority. So set some limits, like 280 lbs for linemen, some other number for linebacker and so on, as a way of slowing down the “arms race” of bigger and bigger players.

    A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell had a chilling piece in the New Yorker about football and brain injuries. The whole thing is available on-line for free.

  24. 24
    pattonbt says:

    I would like to, though, point out an email that Peter King received from this weeks Monday morning column which (paraphrasing) said “well, all the players and columnists are bitching about how bad an eighteen game schedule is because of the wear and tear on bodies and such and not in line with the leagues new focus on safety, and yet they all publicly and happily lambaste a player (Jay Cutler) for not being ‘tough enough’ and playing through injury”. So which is it going to be players and columnists? Is player safety and health more important? Or is the traditional “tough guy”, macho gladiator veneer more important? I mean, come one, what’s two more games huh? You guys are so tough and rugged and you can’t play two more little, wittle games?

    The NFL has a long way to go to reconcile what it is going to be and it can not have it both ways and not be called on it.

  25. 25
    MikeJ says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: I first became aware of Mr. L when he was on I think it was SciFri talking about Izzy. Been a fan ever since.

  26. 26
    Lysana says:

    What’s worse from what I’ve heard is the NFL’s retirement benefits suck. They gutted the union’s power the last time the players pulled a walkout. It exists as a shell of its former self. Notice the former players who seem like they ought to be better cared for? The owners are why.

    I don’t like the NFL owners. They’re the worst of the pro sports breed.

  27. 27
    elmo says:

    @Roger Moore:

    That is a very, very interesting point.

  28. 28
    Tom says:


    That’s a good article. And yes, Driver deserves acclaim for that action. Also, the article made me realize it was Witten, not Clark, who threw the tantrum when he wasn’t let back in.

  29. 29
    alwhite says:

    Even less attention is paid to the lives wrecked in college and high school. Steroid & HGH abuse is still rampant and kids are damaging joints and brains and will never hit the big payday.

    But beyond that is the culture of worship we have developed around athletics. Kids that show skill at an early age are ‘nurtured’ with a lot of extra camps and programs that reduce their childhood to an endless training camp. Then there are sycophants who will kiss their ass and those that will lie or cover for them so that they grow up thinking they can do no wrong. So that rapists and murders are an accepted part of pro sports.

    I used to love the NFL & lived & died with ‘my’ team but the more I learned about the damage and the more I see of the worst of humanity that is too often celebrated for the game. I worked with Randall McDaniel, he is a kind, generous, decent good guy. But he seems to be the exception in todays game where there are so many egotistical, self-obsessed sociopaths.

  30. 30
    Earl says:

    read this, too:

    It’s a look back at the SF 49ers team that won the 1981 superbowl. They are, essentially, physically destroyed. Some quotes:

    Twenty-five years later, [Joe] Montana’s left knee is essentially shredded. His right eye occasionally sags from nerve damage. His neck is so stiff, he could not turn his head to look at a reporter asking him questions while he signed memorabilia. Montana, 50, turned both shoulders instead.

    [Dwight] Clark [the guy who made ‘The Catch’], also 50, endures sharp pain every time he lifts his arms above his head — the exact motion he effortlessly completed on The Catch — because of a bent screw in his left shoulder and arthritis in his right shoulder. The simple act of turning his head also is a chore, thanks to all those jarring hits on crossing patterns over the middle.

    “I hurt,” Clark said, “from getting my head squashed down into my neck.”

    The net physical damage:

    The Chronicle interviewed 30 players from the 1981 team in recent months, ranging in age from 47 to 59. Twenty of those players cope with significant physical issues today, from arthritis to chronic back pain to joint replacements. Two (including Montana) have had spinal fusion surgery, two have had knee replacements and one has had a shoulder replacement.

    Nine players said their doctors told them they eventually will need a joint replacement. The scorecard: seven knees, one shoulder, one hip.


  31. 31
    alwhite says:

    Worst owners is like trying to figure out if syphilis or gonorrhea is worst. But you have to admire the NHL owners that crap on their players more than most, even if it is only marginally worse.

  32. 32
    alwhite says:

    HBO ran a show on retired NHL players. The one story I remember was Jim Otto’s (Raiders Center). He was seeing a dr. about knee replacements. The doc asked for the history of his knees “Tore the right ACL in junior year, tore the left MCL senior year” And so it went back-and-forth until the doc says “Just give me the total surgeries” “17 on this knee, 16 on this one”.

    The guy was about 50 and had to use two canes to get around.

  33. 33
    SFAW says:

    You have to wonder how much being punched contributed to his Parkinson’s condition.

    I don’t. It’s been pretty obvious for awhile. (Standard disclaimer: not a doctor, don’t play one on TV, etc.) He was never really hit hard until the Frazier fights, but after that, he got hit a lot. I understand that you don’t have to get hit in the head to develop Parkinson’s (witness Michael J. Fox), but I thought they’ve shown a correlation.

    I remember seeing him on some interview show (Frost? Cavett? Don’t remember, I think it was >20 years ago) and almost crying. I remembered what he had been like in his prime – the guy I saw was a shadow of Clay/Ali.

    I still get sad thinking about it.

  34. 34
    daverave says:

    I’d hate an 18 game schedule. I fondly remember a strike-shortened NBA season that was the best ever. Unfortunately, this country is just hard-wired for “more” and “bigger” always meaning “better.”

    As an aside, I played soccer for 25 years and wonder about my mental faculties going forward due to heading issues. And I’ve already had both hips replaced at the age of 56 (which I found out yesterday makes me a straight out “DENY” for nearly all individual insurance plans.) Wankers.

    Also, too, Tom, I was at Candlestick to witness “The Catch.”

  35. 35
    Mnemosyne says:


    Players themselves have to take their health seriously and not engage in this game of macho-gamesmanship when it comes to injuries.

    That was my argument when this came up a couple of days ago: right now, there’s a lot of pressure on football players to play hurt even though doing that will make their injury worse than it needed to be. It’s inculcated in them starting with Pop Warner football that they need to “shake it off” and keep playing no matter what, so it’s going to have to be an overall cultural change, not just a lecture you give to NFL players at the start of the season.

    From the article that MattR posted, it looks like maybe the beginnings of a cultural change are starting to sprout. I hate to say it, but Driver’s actions will actually be more influential now that his team is going to the Super Bowl than they would have been if they’d lost. Showing that you can let injured players sit on the sidelines and still win will at least a counterexample to that cultural attitude that you have to play hurt or else your team is doomed to lose and it will be all your fault.

  36. 36
    General Stuck says:

    I had my bell seriously rung several times just playing high school football, though at the time I was too dumb to notice any changes. But I can imagine going on to play in college then years with the pros real problems would likely occur.

    Traumatic brain injury, they are discovering, can be fairly insidious and not easy to detect at the time. Some of this knowledge has been coming from Iraq and Afghan war vets, and I don’t see any reason why a larger number of lower level head knocks in pro football, over a decade or two, would not produce similar problems.

  37. 37
    Francis says:

    I’ve long thought that the soft helmets some rugby players wear would make much more sense.

    ps: Just bought Newton and the Counterfeiter on Kindle for an upcoming vacation. Review will issue in late Feb on my return.

  38. 38
    PTirebiter says:

    @Tom: In fairness to Witten, it was in the heat of a moment in a hyper-competitive sport. As it turned out, he was fine and could have played. Nevertheless, after the game he told reporters that he understood the reasons for the protocol and “those trainers and doctors have my best interest at heart when they make those decisions.”
    He’s a bright, level headed guy

  39. 39
    honus says:

    @PurpleGirl: Muhammad is an interesting case. It’s really sad to see him because he’s a guy who love to talk and loves people (he used to live in my town in twenty years ago and I’d see him around a lot.
    But for a boxer, he didn’t take a huge amount of punishment. It’s always been baffling to me that Joe Frazier, who’s strategy was to let Muhammad and George Foreman pound on his head, is just fine.

  40. 40
    stannate says:

    If you really want a depressing read, look up ESPN’s profile on Conrad Dobler’s current health condition. Personal note: Dobler looks and sounds a lot like my father, which is one of the reasons the story got my attention. Finding out that Dobler has to mainline Vicodin, and that Oxycontin wasn’t strong enough to kill his constant pains, was the other.

    I did mention a couple days ago that the players’ boasting about their own physical prowess could come back and bite them in the collective rear during the upcoming labor talks. I hope that, per @pattonbt, more players pick up on this seeming contradiction; otherwise, 18-game seasons will become a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’

    @MattR: Nike will grab the NFL uniform contract in 2012. Apart from some potential design changes along the lines of the Pro Combat template (look at Uniwatch for some possible ideas of what we could see in a few years’ time), I’d be curious to see if a radical helmet redesign could come out from Phil Knight’s skunkworks.

  41. 41
    flakk says:

    @honus: I seen Joe Frasier lately. And while he isn’t like Ali, he’s not exactly the picture of physical or mental health. As a matter of fact the boxers who are could probably fit in a phonebooth.

  42. 42
    honus says:

    @General Stuck: The effects of fairly serious TBI are very difficult to detect after a few weeks, even though they persist for months or years. (I know from personal experience, and a number of neuropsychologists have confirmed this; they say there’s simply no way to measure the deviations from normal, although the deficits are clearly extant)
    For instance, it was obvious to me that Ben Roethlisberger, even though cleared by his doctors, was still suffering the effects and had no business playing most of the season after he put his head through that car windshield. He seems to have recovered most of his faculties (as I said, it takes years) but if I were him, I’d retire after this Super Bowl. I wouldn’t take the risk of any more blows to the head, which will surely come as his career declines.

  43. 43
    CaseyL says:

    I stopped watching football regularly years and years ago – the problem then was spinal injuries. It seemed there was another serious spine or neck injury every week – the game just stopped being fun to watch.

    Then the NFL introduced newer and supposedly better protective gear, and changed the rules regarding allowable tackles. I’ve heard it theorized that the improved body padding,neck braces, and helmets have contributed to the concussion/brain injury epidemic, because the players think they can “safely” give out (and take) harder hits.

    Football players are also much, much larger, heavier and faster than they were, even a generation ago. There are tight ends today over 300-odd pounds, guys who would have been defensive tackles once upon a time. How it’s possible for someone that big to move that fast is a mystery to me. I’ve joked that these new guys are supermen, and in some ways they are as astonishing physical specimens as ballet dancers in terms of doing things the human body was not meant to do – but that extra mass and speed must also be a factor in the severity of injury.

    I don’t know what to do about this, and it saddens me. I refrain from watching football to spare my own sensibilities; it doesn’t do a damn thing to help the players.

  44. 44
    honus says:

    @flakk: I doubt that he does look good. As you say, very few old fighter do. But I’m surprised he can even talk after what Ali did to him in manila, not to mention the way Foreman punished him. Those are two very large, fast, strong men who hit Frazier a lot.

  45. 45
    BARRASSO says:

    I have always marveled at how people love football, I was forced to play little league and watched from childhood to junior high and then stopped when I had the choice. It just isn’t a game that displays athleticism well. It is regimented and boring and the actual game time is like 8 minutes. It is very dumb but that may be what makes it very American.

    They could solve some of the issues by making all the players play all the positions. Reduce the specialties and you couldn’t have the huge lummoxes hurting the little guys. Or just go no facemasks.

  46. 46
    BARRASSO says:

    I recently watched Facing Ali, where some of Ali’s former opponents are interviewed, all of them needed subtitles to understand their slurred words from the beatings.

  47. 47
    Lee hartmann says:

    Tom, I’m so old I remember the 12 game season. Days of Jim Brown etc. Frank Ryan a real math professor, as qb. This is insane… But, people are more fungible than money no?

  48. 48
    geg6 says:


    Despite what all the haters say, the Rooneys are the best owners in the league. They really do care about the players and that’s why so many stay here after retirement (I like to think the fans also help). They’ve been through some tough episodes with former players whose health, both mental and physical, have been irreparably damaged from their time in the game. The most famous one is the sad tale of Mike Webster, but there have been quite a few others. I think they really took these incidents to heart and that is why they don’t support the increase of the games. It helps that they aren’t greedy assholes like so many NFL owners.

    The most amazing story I saw about repeat concussions was on HBO’s Real Sports this past year. Turns out that ALS is rampant among ex-NFL players, especially those who have had multiple concussions. And the researchers expanded their research pool to players in other sports where concussions are common, like soccer and hockey, ALS was again present in much, much, much higher proportions than would be expected. And a further review of the records showed that Lou Gehrig (sp?) himself had suffered dozens of concussions during his streak, each time playing immediately after being injured. And we all know what the other name for ALS is.

    And don’t get me started on how tragic the fate of Ali is. I think I probably saw every one of his pro fights and was mesmerized by his interveiws and pressers. Ran almost smack into him late one night, waiting for a delayed flight, in Pittsburgh International. He was changing planes on his way back from JFK, Jr.’s funeral. He, his wife, and his bodyguard couln’t have been nicer or more gracious. Got his autograph (such as it is now), but it was sooooo sad to see him. Couldn’t understand a word he said (his wife “translated”) and he needed help to walk even the shortest distance. It was just devastatingly sad.

  49. 49
    JD_PhD says:

    Several things:

    1. The big SI article was some 15 or so years ago, no? Johnny Unitas can’t close his hand to shake someone else’s; Fran Tarkenton’s pinky sticks out; everyone has crutches, etc etc.
    2. Like others, I’ve wondered whether soft helmets might actually help. The talk this year about the new tackle regulations included how hard helmets made it possible – and therefore required – to hit with the head. How’s the health of rugby players?
    3. On the speed of today’s massive linesmen: do we really believe the published numbers? Or are they like NBA heights?
    4. The rules are what make the players and the play the way it is. Compare US with European or even Canadian hockey. What if, for example, a rush were limited to three men and all the rest had to be downfield? Or if there were only 9 men and some defensemen had to play downfield, analogous to lacrosse?

  50. 50
    mclaren says:

    The brutal truth about pro football remains massive brain damage. Early-death brain damage. Early-onset Alzheimers brain damage. Plaque so severe that brain experts couldn’t believe the slides when pathologists showed them the brains of NFL linemen.

    Start with the New Yorker article “Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?” by Malcolm Gladwell.

    Move on to the New York Times article “PRO FOOTBALL; Expert Ties Ex-Player’s Suicide To Brain Damage From Football” by Alan Schwarz, 18 July 2007.

    Since the former National Football League player Andre Waters killed himself in November, an explanation for his suicide has remained a mystery. But after examining remains of Mr. Waters’s brain, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh is claiming that Mr. Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football and he says that led to his depression and ultimate death.

    The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.

    Then take a look at the New York Times article “New Sign of Brain Damage In N.F.L.”:

    TAMPA, Fla. — Brain damage commonly associated with boxers has been found in a sixth deceased former N.F.L. player age 50 or younger, further stoking the debate between many doctors and the league over the significance of such findings.

    McHale died at age 45. Researchers found brain damage uncommon for someone his age.

    Doctors at Boston University’s School of Medicine found a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain of Tom McHale, an N.F.L. lineman from 1987 to 1995 who died in May at 45. Known as C.T.E., the progressive condition results from repetitive head trauma and can bring on dementia in people in their 40s or 50s.

    Maybe the rest of you guys think pro football or pro hockey or professional wrestling or prize fighting is “tough” or “manly” or awe-inspiring.

    In reality, these so-called “sports” involve people brain-damaging themselves for the amusement of spectators. That’s not “manly.” That’s not “awe-inspiring.” That’s not “tough.” It’s pathetic.

    At some point in the foreseeable future, pro football will get banned, just like dogfighting. It’s only a matter of time.

    Eventually, as the science on the massive brain damage accumulates, lawsuits from the NFL players’ families will shut pro football down.

    Until then, the best thing the rest of us can do is not support this spectacle of self-destruction and self degradation.

  51. 51
    SFAW says:

    honus –

    Although Frazier absorbed a lot from Ali and Foreman, Ali also took a beating from Frazier. And it really didn’t get any better for him after his fights with Frazier. (I don’t recall Ali taking a lot of head shots from Foreman, just a lot of body shots. But there were other fights where he didn’t fare as well.)

    Ali was also not known for being a particularly hard puncher, at least not in the Marciano/Louis/Robinson/Tyson mold. Fast, yes, and that in itself contributes to the impact, but he was a boxer, not a puncher.

  52. 52
    Tom Levenson says:

    Thanks to all who have contributed much more of the substance of this story than I touched on in my post. I’d forgotten that SF Chronicle story about the 49ers team that@Earl: referenced. That’s part of the problem. That team was such a reward to the Bay Area; I just loved everything about it (beating Dallas! — even better in its own way than taking out Miami in the next game), the Catch, the pure intelligence of the way the 49ers worked the game…all of it. With that, I didn’t want to think of the young, perfect, athletic gods of that team turned into cripples and men old before their time. So I read that article, but while writing this post, simply didn’t remember it. The myth of sports in general, and football in the extreme, is of the human capacity to do superhuman things. It’s hard to give that up, so it becomes (at least it clearly did so here for me) terribly easy not to notice anything that gives the lie to that lovely fable.

    @SiubhanDuinne: My thanks. May your tribe ever increase!

    @MikeJ: No e-book. There was nothing in the contract for ebooks way back then, so nothing has happened. It would be very difficult to clear rights for the illustrations at this point, though I could talk to the publisher about doing a non-illustrated e version, I suppose. But the bottom line is that the book is so old that it’s selling in the dozens per year, and it only exists in a print-on-demand edition. I’m frustrated, because the rights should have reverted to me which would let me do some revisions and reissue with either an academic press or in a new electronic edition. Hard to do in this publishing transitional moment.

    That said — it’s an easy and cheap buy on the used market, I think. Or direct from the publisher in a bespoke, on-demand copy.

    @stuckinred: It’s not just the Big 10; high school football can do lasting damage. My almost 92 year old father-in-law has had 76 years of pain from a back injury suffered while playing for the Ethical Culture School in NYC back in 1935 or thereabouts. And the second Globe article referenced above talks of symptoms of dementia in high school players. This is a man-eating sport.

    @MikeJ: And last: I’ll try to be more effectively self promoting. Watch this space tomorrow…;)

  53. 53
    Roger Moore says:


    Hockey is physically punishing, but in a different way.

    And the major point of my suggestion is that the goal should be to change the way football is played so that it becomes punishing in a different way, rather than to try tweaking the rules to avoid specific kinds of dangerous behavior. A major goal of any attempt at fixing football is to shrink players down to something like a manageable size; you’re a lot more likely to suffer a terrible injury if you’re hit by a 300 pound player than a 200 pound player. But direct limits on player size aren’t a practical solution. The only real solution is to change the physical requirements of the game in a way that demands lighter, more mobile players. Forcing them to play more games in the same amount of time is one possible solution.

    I suppose there are other ways of achieving something similar. Shortening the play clock might help. That would make substitutions harder and give players less time to catch their breath after each down, both of which would make the game more aerobic and enormous players. It would also increase the amount of action, which fans would like, and make it harder for the coaches to micro-manage the action. Some of the proposals about widening the field and the distance between the hashes might also help in that respect. Directly tightening the substitution rules, maybe by limiting the number of players who can be substituted on any play except when there’s a change of possession or a timeout, would also force players to be more fit.

  54. 54
    JD_PhD says:

    @Roger Moore: An enforced drug policy might go a long way to lowering player sizes.

    BTW, does anyone else find the apparent immunity of many modern players to the cold a bit odd? Green Bay played at 19° and more than a few players (mainly linemen, I think) went bare-armed. I googled around a bit and it looks like even the regular uniform sleeves were at least ¾.

  55. 55
    Tom Levenson says:

    @PTirebiter: BTW, Mr. Biter: I was taught radio production by David Ossman — the member of Firesign Theater who created Porgy Tirebiter (and many others). Now there was a man who knew both radio and the absurd.

  56. 56
    Roger Moore says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    The myth of sports in general, and football in the extreme, is of the human capacity to do superhuman things. It’s hard to give that up, so it becomes (at least it clearly did so here for me) terribly easy not to notice anything that gives the lie to that lovely fable.

    I’m not sure if what happens to the players later really gives lie to the idea of doing superhuman things. What it does is to show that we call those things superhuman for a reason; the body isn’t meant to do those things. Pushing our bodies to their limits and beyond does them damage, sometimes terrible, permanent damage. If there’s a really sad part, it’s that athletes are damaging themselves that way for what are ultimately shallow, silly reasons rather than something that deserves that degree of sacrifice.

  57. 57
    NobodySpecial says:

    @Francis: Agree. You get less James Harrisons if it’s THEIR melon that takes a thumping as well.

  58. 58
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Roger Moore:

    What it does is to show that we call those things superhuman for a reason; the body isn’t meant to do those things.

    Exactly so. What I should have said.

  59. 59
    PhoenixRising says:

    Why I love National Geographic: This article is so short that it was today’s reading comprehension test for a 5th grader.

    Comes with pictures, too. Bottom line is that neuroscience is coming closer every day to having the data to condemn football as played in the NFL.

    I can’t enjoy it anymore. Four years ago I broke up a shoulder and had to rehab for 6 long months. At the sports medicine lab I was quite lucky to be assigned, the other guys were former NCAA Div I football players and infantrymen who had stepped on something what went BOOM.

    I’m bitter and disgusted that we lack the political will to stop inflicting pain and trauma on new soldiers; it seems like reforming football into something humans can survive undamaged should be easier.

  60. 60
    Scamp Dog says:

    @JD_PhD: It’s been quite a while since I read the article (newspaper? blog? book? beats me), but it said that rugby players take a superficial beating (cuts, bruises, even broken bones), while the lack of protection keeps them from doing the grievous damage (TBI, cartilage damage that wrecks joints) to themselves and their opponents that football players do and endure. The idea is that skin and bone heal better and more completely than cartilage and brain tissue. I’m not sure I’d want to have this theory tried out by the youngsters in my extended family, though.

  61. 61
    mclaren says:

    @General Stuck:

    I had my bell seriously rung several times just playing high school football…

    That explains a lot. Behavioural dysfunction and violent tendencies have been associated with traumatic brain injury.

    General Crackpot Fake Name’s incoherent violent posts are exactly what we would expect from someone who experienced repeated head trauma in childhood. We can also confidently predict that Mnemosyne experience repeated head trauma in childhood — in her case, probably by an abusive parent or relative.

    See the article “Traumatic Brain Injury and Deviant Behavior.” Everyone who follows this forum knows that there’s something not quite right about General Crackpot Fake Name and Mnemosyne. Traumatic brain injury seems the most likely explanation.

  62. 62
    General Stuck says:


    I was wondering which one of you idiots would take that bait. Like fishing for Carp./

  63. 63
    JWL says:

    In a “money talks, cripples walks” vein, it might ultimately boil down to health care regulation. So long as owners are not obliged to pick up medical tabs, the status quo will be maintained. Burden them with that financial responsibility, and things will change.

    I for one would enjoy seeing an entire season reverting to the playing days of leather helmets. It would be fascinating.

  64. 64
    frosty says:

    @honus: While I’m sure being punched in the head doesn’t do great things for the brain, it may not be the reason for Ali’s Parkinson’s. The cause is still indeterminate. There may be a genetic component, there may be an environmental component.

    Ali could have ended up this way with an office job. My dad did. And so did Michael J. Fox.

  65. 65
    Mark S. says:

    I haven’t heard anyone besides Goodell and the owners say they want an extra two games. Most people don’t like seeing their favorite players have more chances to get hurt.

  66. 66
    frosty says:

    @mclaren: I’ve never done this before in the comments, but here goes::

    Fuck off, Jack.

  67. 67
    burnspbesq says:


    I played basketball and lacrosse growing up, both games that don’t lack for contact. My theory as to why there is so much more long-lasting trauma in football and rugby than in other contact sports is that in other sports, a lot of the contact is from an angle.

    If you beat your man out wide and cut into the middle to create a shooting angle, or come out from behind the net, the help is going to be coming from somewhere other than directly in front of you, and you’re most likely to take the blow on your shoulder. In lacrosse, pretty much the only time you see a guy get lit up from directly in front is on a ground ball.

    Only in football and rugby do you see teams line up and go straight at each other dozens of times per game.

    It’s also the case that in hockey and lacrosse, the fact that you have a stick in your hands makes it much more difficult to lead with your head; if you want to avoid a cross-checking penalty, you have to get your stick out of the way, and that virtually always means that you’ll be leading with your shoulder.

  68. 68
    Chris says:

    “professional football players are well compensated adults who choose and (most of them) love what they do.”

    Yes, though within quite a range, and much of the big-number dollar figures in new-contract stories is unguaranteed. I’m somewhat suspicious that the NFL’s salary structure and the allocation of money is inefficient because of turnover and injuries.

    Also, I don’t give a shit about Goodell saying, “Oh, I’d work for a dollar a year.” That’s insultingly deceptive PR. Open up the owners’ books. We know what players make. We know owners agree to give it to them. What the league and owners have done with regard to pensions and health benefits should be as clear a sign as possible what they think of players.

    “The facts here aren’t hard to track down: any professional player knows, or should, that careers are short and injuries are an inesca[pa]ble part of the game.”

    What’s the average career length, three years? And this’ll be based on my uninformed guess, but I would bet money that the NFL has the highest percentage of players who retire due to injuries sustained in the game (though I’m not sure how to quantify that – it’s not like a lot of shooting guards have great knees at 40).

  69. 69
    Resident Firebagger says:

    I strongly suspect that NFL owners are hammering at an 18-game season to focus the union (and the media and fans) on this one issue. Then they’ll bargain it away in exchange for a whole shite-ton of other concessions that they really want more anyway.

    I sure hope the players stand their ground, because the owners are coming after them. Like with America in general, the rich fuckers have already taken about everything they can from the rest of us. Pro athletes are about the last unions they have to crush.

    But yes, with every story like this that emerges, it becomes a bit tougher to be a football fan…

  70. 70
    fucen tarmal says:

    i’m going to ignore the sobbing bandwagoneering of a pats/49ers/raiders fan who doesn’t want to watch if one of his teams isn’t winning j/k

    the injuries are part of the game, and even the rookies have played enough football to know it is a price that is paid, they already know of guys from the neighborhood who were great athletes who got caught up in other stuff, or who had an injury or two deny them even getting that far, the way many players look at it, to quote james harrison “i would go through hell for my children”, or warren sapp adding “i would go through 2 hells”.

    the 18 game season is something nobody wants but the owners who leveraged their own eyeballs to buy their teams, or build their billion dollar stadiums, and are now realizing that debt load threatens the increases in franchise value they hope will pay for their mess. they see how the league could be at a revenue plateau, or even a decline, despite the ratings, which defy the splintering of the tv/internet et al, from when networks ruled, they may even surpass that, but there is only so much water in that well.

    so the owners take the fans, media, etc saying preseason sucks, which it does, as a viewer, and as a paying customer, and spin that to mean the fans want more regular season games…they don’t, especially the diehards, if they wanted a game everynight they would watch baseball, most don’t. they want the games they do get, to be as good as they can be. believe it or not, quality over quantity.

    the issue about the injuries is more real, and more long term, but, like the proliferance of ped’s in the game its something that can mostly be ignored, except that the nfl is staring down two barrels of a gun known as liability. players are starting to take their cases to the courts, to sue for workers comp and permanent disability, this is a huge financial drain, and a pr nightmare that is coming like sunrise.

    the financial drain is obvious, many players, hundreds of thousands per year at a minimum in lost wages, lifetime limitations and expenses. they other less obvious side, is what the nfl, and the teams will have to do in court, when they are defending themselves. this is pr armageddon, and puts the nfl in the position of questioning the players lifestyle, background, education, future job prospects, they will end up laying bare many societal ills, and many things that they have conveniently ignored about the college game that feeds them and keeps them well stocked. they will be indicting the high school game, they will be exposing the boosters, and glad-hands that fund the players on the way up, and occasionally will pay to keep a former player employed in their business as a living breathing memento, and novelty attraction for clients…

    so who pays for this? well the owners and players will be looking at the proverbial pie, arguing its future size and shape, wanting to decide between themselves where to cut it, this will be the wedge both of them do not want to allow for, and want it to come from the other guy’s end.

  71. 71
    bookcat says:

    This. Thisthisthis. I live in Baltimore city and it never ceases to amaze how into the Team everyone here is. Kids are raised in an atmosphere of worshiping these guys. I can’t imagine worse role models or a worse activity to encourage kids to do. People do not want to admit what a horrible sport it really is or has become. So much money and myth surrounds it it has become sacrilege to point out the obvious.

  72. 72
    JD_PhD says:

    Average (mean, median?) career length; minimum salary:

    NFL: 3 ½ yrs; $325k
    NBA: ~4 yr; $473k
    NHL: 5 plus (very nice site, btw); ~$500k
    MLB: 6.8; $400k

    The careful reader will notice that the NFL has both the lowest minimum salary and shortest average career.

  73. 73
    Tuttle says:

    @daverave: Soccer players actually sustain concussions at about the same rate as (American) football players do. But it isn’t from properly heading the ball, it’s from head to head (literally) collisions and improper heading (ie, non-intentional ball to head contact, usually at short range and unavoidable).

    There is some very iffy evidence that players who play header-heavy positions (strikers, central defenders) perform slightly worse on intelligence tests than those who do not (goalies, midfielders) but the studies were hardly rigorous or particularly wide in scope.

    As for American football, I’m on the better equipment side. I once saw Ralph Schumaker put a 1500 pound car going 180 miles per hour into the high wall at Indy and walk the fuck away from the burning pile of wreckage that was left behind him. If we can protect those crazy ass sons of bitches we should be able to do more for football players.

  74. 74
    SFAW says:

    If we can protect those crazy ass sons of bitches

    The families of Jochen Rindt, Ayrton Senna, and Dale Earnhardt might have a slightly different view.

    Yeah, I know, that was a cheap shot. Sorry. Considering Senna was that last one in F1, and it was more than 15 years ago, I guess I’d agree that auto racing is remarkably death-free.

    (Somewhat OT, and of interest to no one except me: I remember watching Rindt win Monte Carlo, and was stunned to realize it’s been almost 40 years since he did. I feel old.)

  75. 75

    All professional athletic events are hard on the athletes long term. That said, I’m glad that the NFL is cracking down on egregious hits and concussions.

    My very irrelevant take? 18 games only if each team gets two more byes. As it stands there should at least be one more bye in the 16 week season. More byes allows less overlap in play so potentially more eyes on each game.

    Also, too, owners are a part of the galtian class, so would you expect anything less than “suck it up” and passing the blame?

  76. 76
    Mart says:

    I was nearly decapatated as a freshman in High School. My mom refused to sign the papers to let me play football again. This led to soccer. Although I still have my wits (sorta), I only have one knee. (Note to youngsters – stop playing soccer at thirty – it is about then all your old teamates start getting bad injuries. Your time is coming.) Even though I never got a dime (not counting booze and bread in the clubhouses after games), I would do it again. A little hitch in the get along was worth the joy playing the game.

  77. 77
    patrick says:

    I strongly suspect that NFL owners are hammering at an 18-game season to focus the union (and the media and fans) on this one issue. Then they’ll bargain it away in exchange for a whole shite-ton of other concessions that they really want more anyway.

    I honestly think this is the real reason behind the 18 game emphasis….boom, they instantly have a bargaining chip that doesn’t actually exist.

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