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Concussion talk muted, dangers remain
As it turns out, the road to hell starts in San Diego.
It was there, in his home, that legendary NFL linebacker Junior Seau was found dead. He had shot himself in his chest with a .357-caliber Magnum. He did not leave a note the way so many other NFLers had.
Those others had told of shooting themselves in places other than their brains so they could be studied and, maybe, possibly, answer the question that had been gnawing at them about their memory loss, depression, pain and insomnia.
Was the game they loved now responsible for the lives they could no longer stand to live?
The sheer magnitude of Seau’s name heightened the despair. It also led to much talk about the sustainability of football. I wrote a column back then comparing the game to smoking, how smoking was once cool, and how science saying otherwise was willfully ignored until lawsuits and common sense brought us to this place where smoking is very much viewed as an idiotic endeavor.
I mention this not as some “I’m so smart, read my column” self-congratulatory BS but rather to speak to my mindset at the time. What if, in 20 years, guys I had covered in the league and come to know and respect were ending their lives with .357 Magnums all because I could not give up my idea of what football was supposed to look like?
What I know for sure now is Mark Twain was right when he talked about the materials used on the road to hell. I was hardly alone in paving. There was much hand-wringing done by Buzz Bissinger, George Will and countless others about how this could not abide.
I can honestly say I arrived at this point with good intentions — a desire to see football made safer, to change our societal need for violence, a commitment to better care for those who stepped into the arena.
Then there were those who said this ultimately would not matter, a sentiment most famously captured by JR Moehringer’s “Football is dead, long live football” in ESPN the Magazine. This felt very much like the anti-global-warming folks, ignoring the science and obvious crush of evidence to tell us football would survive.
It turns out he understood our addiction much better than I.
What all of our good intentions came crashing up against was an NFL regular season arguably better than any before. We saw Adrian Peterson coming back from a catastrophic knee injury to surpass 2,000 yards rushing, and Peyton Manning coming back from neck-fusion surgery to turn Denver into a playoff favorite.
We witnessed RG3, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson be so exceptionally good that each has his team in the playoffs and the Rookie of the Year race feels impossible to call.
And we were treated to so many big-boy games — 49ers vs. Patriots, Green Bay vs. Minnesota, Seattle vs. Green Bay — that of course we watched.
Cowboys-Redskins to end the NFL season was the most watched primetime game ever. Games on The Big Three channels averaged almost 20 million viewers. An NFL game beat out "Dancing With The Stars", "American Idol" and "CSI" as the most-watched TV show in all 17 weeks of the season. During football season, NFL games were 31 of 32 most-watched TV shows. Almost 200 million viewers watched the NFL this season, more than 80 percent of homes in America.
The damage no longer matters. The fallout is pushed from our conscience. Much like I am sure a heroin addict dismisses perils in favor of being able to use one last time, the suicides, the lawsuits, the concussions have been quickly forgotten in our need for games. Just as we were getting real about the consequences of our collective addiction, the NFL put its best product on the street this season. We have become even more football-addled, unconcerned with the dangers and instead searching for our next fix.
Why, like with New Year’s resolutions, has our stated desire for a safer game so quickly fallen away? Nate Silver’s exceptionally smart “The Signal and the Noise” helps explain this phenomenon.
The book, ostensibly, is about why most predictions fail, yet speaks to why our stated values do not align with our habits when it comes to football.
It boils down to the fact we all bring our biases to information. So instead of looking at evidence critically we "construct stories that are neater and tidier than the real world, with protagonists and villains, winners and losers, climaxes and denouements and usually a happy ending for the home team.”
There is no need to construct the story in football. It is constructed for us, week by week, game by game, yard by yard, a tale of warriors playing through pain and overcoming adversity. It speaks to everything we love and believe as Americans. So the story becomes football is king, too profitable to go away.
So anything that does not support this theory — scientific evidence about the long-term ramifications of repeated brain trauma, the pending lawsuits, Junior Seau — is ignored. Seau was not the first or last player to kill himself in this rash of suicides. Nor was he the most instructive.
Dave Duerson implored his widow in his note to donate his brain to science in hopes of figuring out what extent the banging on his brain, done in the pursuit of the W, had led to his health problems. It is not simply about concussions, although this is what everybody loves to fix upon.
The talk surrounding Seau afterward was on how few concussions he had, ignoring that it was the smaller, daily head blows that might be more dangerous. They are the ones players play through, often go untreated and most definitely have a cumulative effect.
Four months ago, we cared about all of this stuff, or at least talked like we did. It was scary. It said something about the sharp edges of our favorite sport and as a result said something about us. It was an uncomfortable conversation. So it should be no surprise we quickly tired of it. And what better way to get away than another fix? It is how we ended up back on this road.
We know where it started, what it is paved with and ultimately where it leads.