By David K. Shipler
American football is a metaphor. It rewards violence but depends on canny brainpower. Its plays look fairly simple from a distant stadium seat or a television screen, but beneath the raw muscle are intricate tactics and mental tricks, sometimes in the players’ taunts you cannot hear, often in the feints and ploys you cannot perceive. If you could see the quarterback’s eyes faking one way while he’s about to throw the other, or if you could watch every receiver at once and comprehend the dance steps and glances each uses to deceive the defense, you would appreciate more richly the complex game that enthralls so many Americans and earns such fortunes for players and owners.
None of that makes it a very civilized sport, however. A century from now, if human progress were inevitable, history would look back at football with something of the same revulsion now visited on the ancient bloodletting of gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Not just the obvious physical damage to tendons and limbs, but moreover, the stealthy destruction of brains. Repeated hits to the head, long dismissed by the mercenary National Football League as medically insignificant, are finally acknowledged as causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy later in life. Symptoms can include impaired thinking, depression, impulsiveness, short-term memory loss, substance abuse, and suicidality.
A study two years ago found that 40 percent of retired NFL players had evidence of traumatic brain injury. Last year, after lawsuits and public humiliation, the NFL finalized a settlement with players that has paid over $431 million to date. (The league even has a website devoted to the terms.) And, as every football fan knows, team owners voted in 2013 to impose a 15-yard penalty and a possible fine for leading with the head, whether on defense or offense. As every football fan also knows, referees are inconsistent in making that call.