Friday, November 27, 2015

Haunted still

Those of us of a certain bent watched football yesterday, and we will watch more today and tomorrow and Sunday. It's what we do in America on a weekend given over to being thankful, even if the thanks are sometimes less about substance and more about seconds.

Never once do we give thanks that we're not one of the poor dopes we're watching between courses.

Never once -- or hardly ever -- do we wonder about the guy who lands on his head out there, or lowers his head and drives hard into another helmeted skull, or cartwheels over the goal line, the way Cam Newton did yesterday to a whole lot of oohs and aahs, at least in the living room I was occupying.

I never once stopped to think what Cam Newton's life will be like 20 years from now, after he's finished cartwheeling over goal lines or taking on tacklers. No one stops to think about that. And that is what the National Football League is counting on.

It's counting on entertainment trumping the ghost that haunts it, which this week was the ghost of Frank Gifford. In a comparatively small item lost in the tumult and shouting of Thanksgiving Day, it was revealed that Gifford's brain, examined post-mortem, showed signs of CTE, the degenerative malady that has been found in the brains of so many former NFL players who've died too soon, afflicted with early-onset dementia. That it's directly related to all of the Sunday afternoons (and Saturday afternoons, and Friday nights) in those players' lives is beyond any question.

In other words: The concussion thing is not going to go away for the NFL, no matter how much we ooh and aah over Cam Newton. It's going to be the dark presence gliding just below the surface of the glitter show, occasionally rearing its head the way it did this week -- and not just in the quiet item about Frank Gifford.

Last Sunday, for instance, a St. Louis Rams quarterback named Case Keenum was slammed hard to the turf on a pass play, and everyone except the people who were charged with doing so knew his brain got the worst of it. You could see his head ricochet off the ground, for one thing. Then he grabbed his head. Then he stayed on his knees for awhile, clearly woozy.

Finally he got to his feet and literally wobbled around out there, like a fighter climbing off the deck after catching a particularly thunderous left hook.

And yet, somehow, no one thought it would be a good idea to get him out of the game.

Not his head coach, Jeff Fisher. Not the trainers specifically charged with enforcing the league's concussion protocols. Not anyone.

And so Keenum stayed in the game, and you were left to wonder if the league's belated attempt to safeguard its players was a futile exercise. Protocols are weak sauce when matched up against athletes who continue to get bigger and faster and stronger. And so you were also left to wonder just when Keenum would begin forgetting things, like where he'd left his car keys or where he lived or how to feed himself.

Twenty years? Thirty years? Sooner than that?

Questions with no answers. Because the game in all its glory will march on, regardless of what happens to Case Keenum or Frank Gifford or any of its sad victims. We'll watch. We'll cheer. And if we think about the cost, about the carnage, it will only be fleetingly.

The NFL is counting on it. Because, in the end, what choice does it really have?

It's not like anyone can do anything about it.

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