Maybe it’s time for an intervention.
Or past time.
America is exhibiting signs of end-stage drug addiction: Ignoring life-threatening consequences. Spending its money on the high instead of food and education. Deploying enough denial to fill three rivers in Egypt. And, perhaps most significantly, passing the addiction and its lifelong consequences to our children.
If America had some good friends right now – the kind who will tell you hard truths – those friends would be sitting the country down and saying it’s time to go cold turkey on football.
And it’s definitely time, these friends would tell us, to stop shooting it into the veins of kids at school.
Like many addicts, America won’t hear it. Like many addicts, America will fight back, change the subject, dissemble, rationalize – then keep chasing the rush. The studies emerge, the commissions gather, the reports issue recommendations, and America just designs new helmets and creates better concussion protocols and builds new stadiums.
America would steal money out of your purse for football.
The news this week that Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who took his own life in January, had first-stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy was both shocking and not. His father said the autopsy revealed that the 21-year-old Hilinski had the brain of a 65-year-old.
It’s not clear what, if any, connection there is between his suicide and his CTE, but the CTE alone should give everyone pause – all of us who watch the sport, cheer the monster hits, send kids out in helmets and pads to have their brains injured under the banner of their educational institutions.
And yet: All of that knowledge shouldn’t really be surprising. It’s only shocking because we’re addicts, living in a football fugue state, taking in the latest news about how the sport ruins brains and then displaying the addict’s amnesia, dreaming only of the rush.
We know tackle football does deep, lasting harm to the brain. We know that this is no longer just true at the highest levels – no longer just a pro concern, no longer just a college concern. (As if being “merely” a college concern would make it somehow OK; college football players are young people attending institutions of learning that have sold their souls to an enterprise that ruins brains.)
And we know that football harms the brains of kids at the young ages.
No other activity associated with our school system produces the kind of head trauma that football does, nor would one be tolerated. If trigonometry caused CTE, it would have been ripped screaming from the curricula at high schools and colleges a decade ago.
CTE is caused by repeated head trauma, bringing along a host of problems ranging from depression to aggression to memory loss. It can only be diagnosed with brain studies following death. The clearest, most disturbing evidence exists among former NFL players. Researchers have examined the brains of 111 former NFL players. They found CTE in 110.
The stories of the former players are heartbreaking. Spokane’s Mark Rypien, who suffers a wide range of effects presumed to be connected to head trauma, said this: “I wouldn’t put any of my kids or grandkids in a football jersey and play this sport.”
A study published last month found that, among the deceased NFL players with CTE, the earlier they started playing tackle football, the earlier they began to exhibit behavioral and mood problems that worsened over their lives. Several other studies show similar connections, resulting in widespread suggestions that kids younger than 13 should not play tackle football. There is even evidence suggesting that blows to the head that don’t cause concussions can lead to CTE.
Obviously, children that young are at crucial stages of brain development. And yet it’s hard to imagine repeated head trauma is a whole lot better for 15-year-olds, or 17-year-olds, or 21-year-olds. The trend is unwavering: The more we learn the worse it seems. Heck, scientists are now studying whether soccer players suffer long-term damage from heading the ball.
But we’re hooked on football – hooked – and the proof lies in the fact that we are not even remotely considering putting a stop to it within our school systems. I’m not saying that eliminating football is necessarily what ought to happen. But it seems like it ought to at least be on the table. Instead, such an idea is preposterous. Typing it feels silly.
We respond like a drunk who switched to beer, like an addict who’s “tapering off” – finding every way to keep doing the thing we love, when all the evidence tells us we should just stop.
We’re addicts. And apparently the bottom isn’t here yet.
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