National Commentary

Football & Mass American Dementia

nfbenton-mugIt may not be evident yet, but pro football, if not football in general, is going the way of professional boxing as a sport in the U.S. Once enormously popular, pro boxing barely exists anymore. So it will become for football.

The astonishing report issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University this week revealed an absolutely staggering fact. Of 91 deceased National Football League players whose brains were studied, an incredible 87 of them had conclusive evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That’s 96 percent of them. 96 percent!

So far, evidence of the degenerative disease can only be detected if the subject is deceased. It doesn’t take obvious concussions, per se, to bring it on, just a lot of cranial bumping.
This latest story, taken from a PBS “Frontline” documentary, was buried on the inside of the sports section of the Washington Post last Saturday, even though the implications of the study are more than huge. They’re epic.

Monday, reporting like giddy adolescents on the Sunday game outcome for the Washington, D.C. team, whose management is so stuck in the mud that it stubbornly refuses to correct its highly-bigoted nickname, the Post exclaimed in a front sports page banner headline four times the size of the one about CTE: “Ground and Pound!”

Yes, “ground and pound.” That’s how you do it. That’s how you make brain chowder on a football field. That’s the recipe. How disgustingly ironic.

At some future point, should our fragile democracy survive, people will look back to this time with greater contempt that they felt when Edward Gibbon famously wrote about the ugly facts of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Today’s football, being without regard for the kind of evidence reported last weekend, is worse than the old gladiator sports of Rome, because this time, it is an entire culture that is caught up in this orgy of self-destruction.

In Rome, the “games” were not 22 of the best our society can issue forth in its developmental process to trot out onto a field at a time, with a hundred-thousand watching in person at scores of locations across the country and millions on TV.

Today, the athletes have pumped up their bodies to over 300 pounds, cultivated agility and speed, and crash into each other faster and with more force that anyone considered feasible, even in the pros, two decades ago.

Sadly, America’s “national pastime” has shifted from baseball to football. Baseball is the most elegant of popular team sports, even though pressured to compete with football, it was tarnished by steroids and false achievements in the 1990s.

(Baseball, by the way, paid for my college education, not that there is any point to that in this conversation except to acknowledge that I am not at all anti-sports.)
But the shift from baseball, where the size of a competitor is not necessarily a function of his success at all, to football is proving a function of a more brutish, militaristic, angry culture, in general.

Virtually every young man growing up in America is expected to play football as a sign of masculinity. As CTE doesn’t require major concussions, only constant banging, who knows, really, how many of our society’s males are harboring the seeds of a crushing dementia, or a more generalized inability to think in an intelligent and nuanced way beyond reducing everything to winning and losing?

Can this account, at least in part, for the decline of the national political or cultural discourse? For the Tea Party? After all, a star pro quarterback has made headlines by endorsing Donald Trump!

When the VA/Boston University study comes out more fully in coming months, and when Will Smith’s new film, “Concussion,” hits the theaters around the same time, there will be no way to keep a lid on this issue. Like the dangers of smoking, it may take too long to sink in for the general public. But it will happen eventually.

In the meantime, any impact this latest evidence can bring to deter what is surely a veritable epidemic of degenerative dementia through individual decisions definitely helps.

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