Can football reinvent itself as a spectacle of speed, skill and courage, without creating horrible brain damage—or becoming indistinguishable from soccer?
The season of the Super Bowl, capitalism’s movable feast, has arrived—and an appetizing Super Bowl it is, opposing perhaps the two finest teams in the NFL. It certainly includes the league’s two most interesting major personalities: Seattle’s Richard Sherman, the verbal fencer/elite defensive back working on a Stanford master’s degree, and Denver’s Peyton Manning, the detached, dryly funny passer who devastated football’s record book this year.
These are both Americans, one suspects, who will remain famous 30 years after Sunday’s final whistle. Socially conscious, combative Sherman could become a 21st-century Howard Cosell. Manning, with his natural executive prowess (and his wealth), is easy to imagine as a state governor or a president. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
But these well-adjusted high-IQ types are the exception in football, as they would be in any sport: and it is with increasing unease that educated Americans assemble their seven-layer dips and their football pool charts at Super Bowl time. The medical evidence that long football careers can induce a chronic form of personality-altering brain trauma has become convincing—by a legal standard, overwhelming. The NFL, sued for initially suppressing and dismissing the problem, tried to escape by throwing $765 million at former players, but has collided with a judge who wants the league, in the words of one commentator, to “show its work” and justify even such a fat settlement. It has become common to hear American parents say—as President Obama did to The New Yorker this month—that they would not or will not let sons play football.
Meanwhile, the fiasco over locker-room bullying between the Miami Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito reminded everyone this season how eccentric football now is culturally—not because of a hidden health problem, but just in its explicit, inherent violence. The battle fought in the press between the players’ “sources” unveiled football as a dark, subterranean hive of old-school warrior values and character-building sadism. Taunts and racial imprecations were openly justified, the way military floggings once were: as salutary hide-tougheners.
The problem is that football is not war: it’s entertainment. And there are alternatives. Football’s pre-eminence among sports in North America is not a permanent matter of divine right. The American football rules have largely failed to take root outside America, so Shermans and Mannings must be produced by America itself, an America whose children are increasingly precious and sheltered with every generation.
If Americans will no longer trust their children to football, that is a big problem. The game has a tough square to circle—and so does the analogous Canadian game, although so far Canadians have been able to whistle past this particular graveyard. (If some enterprising lawyer sued the CFL for, say, $100 million on behalf of former players, could the league pay up?)
It is interesting how the increasingly popular spectacle of mixed martial arts (MMA) competition so quickly secured a perimeter of social acceptance for itself. MMA is not only violent; it is violence. But the risks are blatant enough for us not to pity the competitors. (Their locker rooms are probably pretty crude places, too.) Football players, by contrast, are not supposed to be pure, uncivilized instruments of brutality. They are supposed to be technicians, strategists, artists whose work involves only a limited element of cruelty.
Moreover, they are nurtured in a system of universities as “student-athletes,” and a corrupt, increasingly bizarre system at that. The game grew out of educational establishments in the first place. No one is trying to integrate MMA with the curriculum at Notre Dame or Harvard; MMA was invented too late for that.
The question, then, is whether football can reinvent itself as a spectacle of speed, skill, and courage without creating an inherent moderate incidence of horrible brain damage—or, on the other side of the spectrum, becoming indistinguishable from soccer. The NFL is transparently taking the first steps toward reassuring the public, with rules designed to discourage the assault of vulnerable players and the use of helmets as weapons. (It is fair to wonder whether helmets might be part of the problem.)
It is still unknown, however, precisely what kind of football players develop traumatic encephalopathy, how exactly it happens, and how it might be prevented short of calling off the games. Indeed, we are unsure whether even soccer is totally safe. The scary possibility is that it all may boil down to intractable physical law: that tackle football as a civilized pursuit of mass popularity, with national anthems and halftime shows and cheerleaders and a Super Bowl as we know it, is actually impossible in the long run. Enjoy the show now, for it may be fleeting.