no-Manhattan-lofts diversion is back to football, violently

the hits just keep on coming

Does anyone else feel it? Perhaps because I am sensitized to these articles, I am seeing dribs and drabs of media reports and commentaries that are dribbier and drabbier than what has come before. This piece from The Atlantic, Tony Dorsett Has CTE from the always thoughtful Ta-Niesi Coates, is both respectful and frightening. At the other end of the age spectrum, this ESPN piece suggests how the NFL may eventually whither, if not die: the pool of young people feeding into ever higher levels of “amateur” football may be shrinking already.

If you know Coates, you know he was a huge football fan who stopped watching NFL games 2 seasons ago. (Although, unlike me, he will watch if a game is on at a bar.) He was an even bigger Dallas Cowboys fan (long story, that) and Tony Dorsett was The Man:

To perform in that way, to be a magician, to bring people to the edge of themselves, up out of their skin, simply by running with a ball seemed incredible to me. Watching Dorsett was like a watching a doe play tag with a pack of hyenas. The doe always won.

In his always thoughtful way, Coates addresses the NFL as it is:

It isn’t the violence to which I object. Players often say “I know the risk.” I think it’s worth taking them at their word on that. Longevity is not the only value in the world. There are experiences so intense that you might trade them for the years. Were I white I could pad my life expectancy a bit. Still I somehow believe I got the better end of the deal.

What rankles me is the inability to look squarely at what this game is, to obscure, to pretend that penalizing head-shots, that decreasing “big hits,” that playing the game “the right way” will make it all go away.

Dorsett is about my age and he “often” can’t remember how to get from Point A to Point B in a car, with Points A and B being places he has been going for many years. Brett Favre was quoted recently as saying he can’t remember having been to his daughter’s soccer games, and refused to consider (yet another) NFL comeback for fear of doing further damage to his brain. These stories will both be more common and more notable for the players involved.

The Big Names With Bad Brains will probably get the biggest headlines, but I don’t think that’s the biggest story here. After all, as Coates notes, the obvious point is that adults are free to make their own decisions, even decisions that are likely to reduce their life span or future lifestyle. (Need a cigarette, anyone? Considering a job fighting fires on oil rigs?) It’s the parents of little kids who are going to be doing the math, and fewer will want their boys playing tackle football. That’s the takeaway from the ESPN piece, done under their (seemingly increasingly marginalized) Outside The Lines franchise.

According to data provided to “Outside the Lines,” Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

Pop Warner officials said they believe several factors played a role in the decline, including the trend of youngsters focusing on one sport. But the organization’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, cited concerns about head injuries as “the No. 1 cause.”

I don’t know if the game can be tinkered with to be made “safer” and still be palatable to the core of football fans. Frankly, I don’t much care, as I am no longer a fan. But I know many people who consider themselves fans who do worry about these things. In a world in which “ultimate fighting” and “mixed martial arts” get many many television eyeballs, there is a huge market for violence as violence. Not my eyeballs. Not any more.

If the pops (and especially, the moms) with Pop Warner age boys continue to vote with their feet, there will be fewer kids in the pipeline. If the lawsuits over concussions make their way to college or high school sports, those levels might ratchet down participation dramatically. I don’t know how long it will take (40 years??), but I expect professional football players to be selected from a pool with fewer and fewer people. Grown men, more or less, making decisions about their jobs and their families’ financial futures. Maybe the skill levels will go down as the feeder pool shrinks, and maybe fewer people decide to carry 350 pounds in case they make it in the NFL. There will always be fans, likely fewer and fewer, however.

(By the way, if you are at all interested in this stuff, read the comments to the Coates piece. He has, hands down, the best set of readers and commenters on the inter-tubes, in large part because they are a stable group, heavily invested and smart as heck, and because he actively moderates the comments.)

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