A Viking takes down a Packer

Two types of football videos are popular on youtube: those that highlight incredible catches/unbelievable runs/exciting plays and those of powerful hits that make the viewer flinch. While I love watching great players in their greatest moments, seeing people suffer potentially life-altering injuries makes me sick. In fact, after watching a particularly painful hit, I often wonder why I love such a vicious sport, and if I really should condone such violence.

In a January 31, 2011 New Yorker article, Ben McGrath examines the future of football in light of the mortal danger to which players subject themselves. They are at risk every time they step onto the field, whether for practice or game time; in fact, as McGrath notes, 75% of hits are incurred during practice. Friendly fire is just as deadly as enemy fire.

Combat is an apt metaphor for the stress that football players undergo. However, even real combat can have lesser effects than a career in football. Col. Geoffrey Ling, a neurologist from the Defense Department, shares his view on the combat helmets that American soldiers wear: they can stop a bullet point blank, but they’re not good enough for the constant hits of the NFL. The helmets that players wear may even lead to increased chance of injury due to a heightened perception of invulnerability. Unfortunately, no helmet yet can protect the brain.

The brains of more and more retired football stars are being studied, with scary results. Many suffer from C.T.E, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and their midlife brains resemble elderly Alzheimer patients’ brains. Memory loss is frequent, and post-career depression seems to be quite common.

This hit cost James Harrison $20,000

What is the NFL’s responsibility to its players? This past year, they became proactive in limiting dangerous hits by fining players like the Steelers’ James Harrison for particularly egregious poundings he inflicted on opponents. Safety seems like a good goal, but where is its place in the inherent danger that’s written into the very design of the game? As much as I may wince when a player gets hit hard, I’m just as excited when the opponent’s quarterback gets sacked. There is a thrill in seeing someone go down, as long as they spring back up, ready for the next play. As McGrath says, “Averted danger is the essence of football.” Is there any way the game can retain that excitement–the very real specter of danger–if it became truly safe for players? It seems that the answer is no.