Sports History Files: A century of ‘reforming’ football

Following the suicide of former NFL All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau last year, and the media frenzy that surrounded his San Diego-area home, Buzz Bissinger blasted the press for trying to perpetuate a narrative he thought foolhardy as he asserted that the culture of violence in football was essentially unreformable.

(A few months later, Bissinger called for the banishment of college football for a variety of reasons, including the Penn State scandal, misplaced priorities in higher education and the medical dangers of head trauma stemming from the game’s inherent violence. He later participated in a highly publicized debate on the subject, taking sides with Malcolm Gladwell against Tim Green and Jason Whitlock.)

league-of-denialIn the wake of the recent documentary on PBS Frontline and companion book about the NFL, concussions and the suicides of a number of prominent players —  including Seau — the narrative has understandably escalated. The league’s refusal to cooperate, ESPN’s last-minute withdrawal of its name and logo from the project and the NFL’s $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players in a class-action case right before the program aired have drawn plenty of scorn from the press, football observers and medical experts.

Yes, the NFL clearly does appear to be in a “League of Denial” about the dangers of a brutal sport played today by larger, stronger and faster men than ever, and who don ever-more potentially lethal gear ironically designed to protect them from the harm they inflict upon one another.

The book written by ESPN.com investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru — and which formed the basis of the documentary — reveals even more damning evidence of how the league tried to torpedo independent inquiries and research into football-induced brain injuries that many believe led to a number of former Sunday heroes taking their own lives.

But will this provide the critical mass leading toward subtantive safety changes that so many assert must take place in order for football to avoid going the way of boxing?

That’s not so certain, and the reasons stretch back almost as far as the life of the sport itself.

As “The King of Sports” author Gregg Easterbrook recently noted, a total of 18 college football players died on the field, or shortly after games, from violent play — and just in the 1905 season. Those tragedies finally spurred President Teddy Roosevelt — the champion of “the strenous life” of an overly physical and Christian-oriented masculinity — to call for the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in an attempt to “reform” a seriously violent sport.

He feared that the football would be banished, especially since objections from religious leaders were harsh. As former Kansas City Chief-turned-professor Michael Oriard writes in “Reading Football,” his 1993 study of media coverage of the early period of football, what Roosevelt championed was built into the roots of the organized game during the Victorian era:  readingfootball

With industrialization, the closing of the frontier, and the migration to cities, the American male was cut off from the physical demands of everyday outdoor life, through which his manhood had once been routinely confirmed. Thrust into a new world where traditional masculine traits were no longer meaningful, he found in vigorous outdoor sports such as football a compelling validation of his manhood. The outcry against the football brutality was great, but concern over the possibility of an emasculated American manhood greater; football was saved not by eliminating all violence but by compromising on an acceptable degree of physical danger.

These are sentiments that, for better or for worse, have been hard to shake for more than a century. The NFL and college football have attempted to make some rules changes in the name of safety, including severe penalties for defensive players who “target” the head of an opponent.

Yet even the so-called “clean” unintentional hits abound. For a moment on Saturday, I channel-surfed to the Virginia-Duke football game and within seconds a massive collision took place, with helmets loudly making contact. The sound was as appalling as the sight.

Virginia quarterback David Watford, trying to sneak in a touchdown, was rocked back at the goal line by Duke safety Jeremy Cash. Both players stayed down for a while as training staff from both teams immediately rushed to the field.

They eventually were ushered off with assistance and later returned to the game, but we all know the long-term effects of that play could be truly damaging to both young men.

How can plays like this ever be “reformed?” What additional safety measures can be made without altering the nature of the game? Is football even worth saving? These are not new questions, but they do persist.

I’ve blogged previously on the existential arguments being made along these lines (here and here), and there is no shortage of their renewal after the “League of Denial” package. At Grantland, Andrew Sharp also makes a historical reference to the 1905 football deaths, but is hopeful something may be changing:

Nothing in the documentary is breaking news, but if nothing else, it gives us a definitive document of all the NFL’s hypocrisy and ignorance that’s defined this battle from day one.

We may still be clueless about solutions, but making the truth as clear and undeniable as possible feels like the first step.

slowgettingupExcept that the head coach of an NFL team that admittedly engaged in avid “bounty-hunting” is back on the sidelines after a year’s banishment, and his team may be the best in the league for the moment.

Leonard Shapiro, who covered the NFL extensively for The Washington Post, penned a mea culpa over the weekend, regretting that he “glossed over” the game’s violence. And yet:

The game is appealing and appalling at the same time. And I have no doubt that all of us, news media included, will continue to feed the beast, even if the beast keeps feeding on its own.

Money and the game’s insatiable popularity are at the center of the current bloodlust, and on the field contemporary players, even those who aren’t stars and know their careers will be short, can’t keep themselves away.

Former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson is painfully honest — pun sort of intended — in his recent memoir, “Slow Getting Up.” Dwight Garner concludes his review in The New York Times by encapsulating the eternal, brutal lure that can never be reformed:

Our author is that truly modern being, a self-aware warrior. At one point, he writes: “In our football lives, we pretend we are invincible; because we have to keep on playing. In reality, we are fragile and we are afraid.”

He also declares, however: “I want to get hit. I mean really hit. I want to hit the ground hard and get up shaking myself off because I think I’m dead. That’s the feeling I want.”

As he says elsewhere, “I’m comfortable in hell.”

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