They Got to Me Early
I was never particularly good at sports, but in the culture I grew up in, it was a very rare boy child who did not pick a sports team to root for and identify with (usually the home team). My first such emotional bond was to the New York Mets, but my family moved from New Jersey to South Florida when I was 13 and it didn’t take long before I became a Miami Dolphins fan too.
Over the decades, I have found that my attachment to the Dolphins runs deeper in my soul than my attachment to any other sports team. That may be largely because I love the Dolphins’ uniforms, with their defiantly cheerful color scheme and sprightly Dolphin logo. (Most National Football League teams have uniforms whose colors look busy and very serious to my eye.) Also, the Miami Dolphins are twined in my psyche with the lazy, humid magic of South Florida in the 1970s. I left Florida for the West Coast way back in ’79, but the sight of those Dolphin jerseys still stirs something in me.
It’s been several years since I’ve had the patience to watch an entire football game. Nowadays I “watch football” by clicking on the YouTube NFL “highlight reels” which condense entire games into 12 to 15 minutes. But I’ve continued to follow the Dolphins.
I have, however, become increasingly aware of the violence in the game, and its long-term impacts on the players. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disorder. Its symptoms include depression, anxiety, confusion, memory loss, impulse control problems, and dementia. Concussions are a primary cause of CTE, but the cumulative effect of multiple non-concussive head impacts are also believed to cause CTE.
CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem. A study of over 100 former NFL players’ brains, which were donated to science after death, showed that 99% of them had suffered from CTE. This is staggering. But the brains in the aforementioned study were of former players who passed away at relatively young ages. There is no way to ascertain what the overall percentage is of NFL players who emerge from their brief, glory-saturated, high-adrenaline football careers with a life sentence of progressive brain damage. Probably a pretty substantial percentage though, based on the available data.
Every football season, hundreds of NFL players suffer concussions, as well as countless lesser head impacts, not to mention injuries to necks, spines, fingers, knees, ankles, etc. Somehow the vast majority of these players keep returning to the field after a temporary stint on the “injured list.” The game is (apparently) what they live for, after all.
But what a smorgasbord of chronic pains must they endure for the rest of their lives after they are out of the league, with older and less supple bodies, long forgotten by their fans?
My Man Tua
Tua Tagovailoa was the quarterback for the Dolphins when the current, soon-to-be-concluded football season started last September. It looked at first like this could be a marquee season for my team! Three weeks into the season, people were “talking Super Bowl” as the Miami Dolphins theme song goes. (“…and when you say Miami, you’re talking Super Bowl! ‘Cuz we’re the … Miami Dolphins! Miami Dolphins! Miami Dolphins, number one!” Flying from Florida back to California in January, 1985, when the Dolphins were about to play the 49ers in the Super Bowl, I led an entire planeload of people in singing that song while we were in the air. Seriously. We rocked the skies! Unfortunately, the 49ers won anyway.)
But talented and dynamic though he may be, Tua is only six feet tall, a shrimp of a football player, easily hurt. When he got his first (recognized) concussion this season in Cincinnati, I wrote him an open letter, urging him to quit football for the sake of his lifelong health. I told him I would stop watching my 12-minute YouTube game highlight reels if he would stop playing the game.
But he didn’t, and I didn’t either. After a few weeks, Tua passed the “concussion protocol” of his team’s doctors and returned to the field, leading the Dolphins to five straight victories, while I resumed my YouTube watching habits. But then Tua suffered another concussion (it’s unclear whether he’s received two concussions or three this season) and he was removed from play after that. Though he would have preferred to be back in the game for the playoffs, he remained “in concussion protocol,” which I believe means that he doesn’t pass all their cognitive tests quite yet. That’s pretty scary.
And then there’s Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills who went into cardiac arrest on the field after a violent hit last month. Hamlin, whose life was certainly in danger, recovered in the hospital and now visits the Bills’ team facility on a daily basis, no doubt longing to play again as soon as they let him.
So What Should Be Done?
“These guys know what they’re getting into when they sign up to play pro football,” declared a friend. “If they don’t realize there’s a risk of injury, well then that’s pretty dumb.”
I disagreed. I pointed out that most or all of these guys have been playing football since they were children, that they’ve based their aspirations and identities on the game for essentially their entire lives, and that playing pro football with all its attendant money and celebrity and various perks represents the golden fulfillment of their dreams.
And I don’t know about you, but I was pretty dumb in my 20s, not in an academic sense, but in a common sense way. I took some stupid chances; I felt immortal; I certainly wasn’t considering what the consequences of any of my actions might be decades down the road. So I don’t think it’s fair to hold these young football players entirely responsible for their unwise choices, given their youth, their lifelong momentum, their massive conditioning, and the cultural reinforcement and social pressures they’re exposed to continually.
“So what would you do?” my friend challenged me. “Disband the NFL?”
I acknowledged I had no easy answer. I was only articulating what I knew to be true. Disband the NFL? How would that happen? Through an act of Congress? A collective spiritual epiphany on the part of the team owners? Not likely.
But if I had some godlike power to end pro football all by myself, would I do it? I certainly wouldn’t do it quickly. A formidable financial network has been built upon the NFL. Untold thousands rely on the league for their livelihoods, from concessionaires, to various team and stadium employees, to pundits and commentators and god knows who else. Abruptly ending the NFL would throw that far-reaching economic ecosystem into chaos.
And then of course, presuming (as I do) that following the NFL provides a certain joy and communal experience and perhaps even a benign outlet for antisocial energies within its many millions of fans … what would take its place? Something would have to replace it. Nature abhors a vacuum and a missing NFL would create a very large vacuum.
So I cannot answer the big question of “What would I do about it?” And that question is not mine to answer anyway in real life.
A Smaller Question
But there is a more humble decision that I CAN make, a smaller but not insignificant question, not about what the NFL should do, but what I should do.
How do I feel about my own participation with the NFL? How do I feel in the knowledge that every time I click on a YouTube highlight reel, or on a clip of an NFL coach’s or player’s press conference, or on a clip of some NFL pundit panel, I’m not only expending my own precious time and energy on this nonsense but I’m also, in my miniscule way, lending my support and tacit endorsement to the industry?
Somewhere, all those YouTube clicks are tabulated. NFL-related content probably gets hundreds of thousands of clicks per day. Each little click, including my own, does its tiny part to prop up a business that feeds human souls into Hell like a conveyer belt — delivering life-impacting brain damage and chronic physical pain to strong, foolish young men.
If those clicks were to slowly fade away, individual by individual, if more and more fans began tuning out rather than in, what might happen to the NFL’s advertising revenue? Could the entire edifice collapse?
Well, again, not a question I can answer. And probably a pipedream. But the only question I’m required to answer is the one I just posed to myself. And the answers are inside of me, where I can find them.
It occurs to me, if I detach my psyche from NFL fandom after all these decades, I may miss those bright green Dolphin jerseys. I’ve never actually owned one, but maybe I should mail away for one, so I can bury it, like an alcoholic or drug addict in recovery might bury their destructive substance of choice, as a way of saying goodbye to an old friend.