Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Head cases

My son is 17 years old and taller than I am.

(And, no, it's not because I'm 5-foot-2. I'm a respectable 6-1. OK, maybe not respectable, but 6-1).

Anyway ... my son is 17 years old and taller than I am, and if you saw him walking the halls at his high school, you might reasonably think "Football player." He's not. He's never played any sport. Never really even liked sports (except, briefly, for auto racing), which might strike you as odd given that his father was a sportswriter for 38 years.

I have my theories about this. But that's another Blob for another time.

In any case, this is a roundabout way of saying his mother and I are not exactly heartbroken these days that he didn't fall in love with football. And we're really not heartbroken that he didn't turn out to be good at it, because then there would be decisions for him to make down the road -- like whether or not the game was going to be good enough to him to risk winding up like Mike Webster or Dave Duerson or anyone else from the burgeoning roll call of ex-football players who wound up first brain-damaged and then dead, occasionally by their own hand.

This has been a thing now for awhile in football, and mainly that's because the National Football League, as the most visible, lucrative and pervasive entity in the game, has made it one. For the better part of 20 years it stuck its head in the sand on the concussion issue, at first calling it an invention of "pack journalism" (Paul Tagliabue, 1994), then consistently downplaying and/or publicly smearing scientists whose research increasingly indicated that repeated trauma to the head led inexorably to brain damage.

It reached the height of idiocy in September 2009, when an NFL-funded study found that former players were 19 times more likely to have dementia, Alzheimer’s or other memory-related diseases -- after which the NFL denounced its own study.

The Shield has been playing catch-up ever since, clumsily more than effectively. In its stead, others have taken up the denial mantle, claiming that concerns over concussion issues is overblown and part of some fictive "war on football."

As half-baked notions go, that one's fully baked.

But it was given new life this week after an op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times. It was written by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who first tied head injuries, particularly concussions, to the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players. Deep in its denial phase, the NFL viciously attacked his work; you can see that story on-screen later this month in the feature film "Concussion," which stars Will Smith as Omalu.

In his op-ed piece, the real-life Omalu suggested that young men (or women) shouldn't be allowed to play football or any other concussion-heavy sport until they're 18 and can make the decision for themselves as an adult. Which of course has gotten the War on Football people going.

Let me say this about that: I think Omalu's got it backward.

I understand his point about being able to make your own decisions as an adult, but I think 18 is  when a football player should start thinking about giving up the sport, not taking it up. Eighteen, or thereabouts, is when you really start worrying about serious head trauma. That's because the older (and bigger, and faster, and stronger) you get, the more foot-pounds of force you generate. And the more foot-pounds of force you generate, the more damage to your squash you do.

For 8-,  9-, 10-year-old kids -- or even older -- football's mainly about running into each other and falling down. Or just falling down. It's only later that you get big enough, fast enough and strong enough to hurt either someone else or yourself.

And that's when it's decision time.


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