Baltimore Sun

The Conversation: The brutality of football (HealthKey)

Every so often here at the Toy Department, two (OK, maybe three) Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap e-mails with one another and debate something that is in the news. Today Kevin Van Valkenburg, Chris Korman and Childs Walker discuss the violence of the NFL and whether or not an 18-game schedule is a good idea.



Well, the 2010 NFL season is officially six percent over, unless of course you're New York Jets defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (ACL tear), Colts safety Bob Sanders (torn bicep muscle), Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant (ankle injury), or Philadelphia Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver (ACL tear), in which case your season is already over.

I know injuries aren't a new thing in the NFL, and every time we lose Pro Bowl-caliber players in the first week of the season, we wring our hands and fret over the question "Is the game too violent?" (Short answer: Um, yes. Duh.) But this year, it feels like the question has taken on a greater importance with the collective bargaining agreement expiring and the threat of a lockout next year. The owners want to expand the season to 18 games, and the players are rightfully a bit wary of putting their bodies through two extra cranks on the meat grinder that is life in the NFL. I think it's complete madness on the owner's part, extra revenue be damned.


Collisions in the NFL are so violent these days (why, just ask Jets wide receiver Dustin Keller!) I still think we're inching closer and closer to the day when someone dies on the field from head trauma. (Chuck Hughes, a wide receiver for the Lions, is the only NFL player thus far to die on the field, but he suffered a heart attack and his family had a history of heart problems.) We're already seeing signs of what repeated blows to the head will do to the brain, as evidenced by Chris Henry's autopsy.

The argument about expanding rosters isn't going to solve the problem one bit, and here is why. Think about this for a second: Let's say you take away two preseason games and turn them into regular season games.

Even if you have five extra players, a young, inexperienced coach whose job is on the line isn't going to think big picture and say "I think I should probably limit the carries of my second-year running back so that he has a long and productive career." He's going to think, "I have to win this game, or I'm going to have to move my family for the fifth time in eight years. So give that guy 34 carries. He's a warrior."

The problem is, I don't know what the answer is. The NFL claims it's trying to crack down on concussions -- and by the way, I sure hope Joe Flacco got a concussion test and was honest about the way he felt after the hit Sean Ellis put on him in the first quarter -- but how can you say that on one hand, and then add more wear and tear on players bodies? We already saw Johnny Unitas unable to shake hands and, collectively, we shrugged it off. Picturing Ray Lewis with a cane 20 years from now isn't going to change anyone's mind.

People love to tell you how overpaid they think NFL players are, but I'm beginning to believe they deserve every last cent. They destroy their bodies for our entertainment, shaving years off the end of their lives, and can be cut at any moment once the team decides they're disposable.

Brett Favre's Vicodin addiction makes a lot more sense as I get older,





Anyone who ends up standing, for whatever reason, on the sideline of an NFL or Division I college game has stories of how startling it is to realize just how big and fast the players are. You're left walking away from the experience wondering how it is that the violence inherent in the game doesn't more frequently result in the sort of cringe-inducing replays we saw this weekend. (I dare you to watch the Leonard Weaver injury again and NOT reflexively bend your left knee just to reassure yourself that it works.)

Thankfully the drastic injuries have been surprisingly few. I was covering the Indiana-Ball State game in 2008 when Dante Love, who would have been an NFL player, went low to brace for a tackle from Chris Adkins. He suffered a cervical fracture and lay motionless on the field for a good 20 minutes before being driven on a cart toward a waiting ambulance. It was agonizing and made it impossible to think about football that night, or for the next few weeks, without wondering if the game is really worth it. Love is able to walk again, but he'll never so much as play flag football. He's shown unfathomable courage since then, working toward a career in coaching. Another guy I wrote about, former Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro, became an inspiration for many when he unexpectedly walked after a spinal injury. He's now an attorney who runs a foundation that supports other athletes that have suffered catastrophic head or neck injuries.

Those might be extreme examples that some people can explain away as fluke occurrences. Especially if they didn't have to be there, sitting in the eerie silence of a football stadium full of bewildered fans looking down upon a kid whose life has clearly just changed forever.

But, as KVV notes, the cumulative beating of the NFL is something we're just starting to understand. Once in Harrisburg I covered an event where Jerome Bettis was a main attraction. But Gayle Sayers was also there. Around that time, Bettis was going back and forth over whether to play another season of football. General sentiment seemed to be running toward the old indestructible Bus lacing 'em up for one more go around.

Sayers, who long ago lost his desire to be a part of the usual din, simply shook his head when I asked him about it. He walked away for a second. I wasn't sure what was going on. When he came back he said, "Do you see how I walk? Can you imagine how my body feels each morning? And I ran away from hits." Bettis, of course, famously ran toward hits.


So it sure does seem like sheer lunacy to add two more regular season games. Not only will the coaches want to play their best players too many snaps, the best players will want to play too many snaps. You don't become an NFL star by having much regard for your own safety on the field. They may be multi-millionaire professionals, but they still live by the code. And the code says you play if you are able.

If the games count.

Each August you hear complaints that the NFL pre-season is too long and too meaningless. These days it amounts to an extended real-time tryout for the guys on the fringe. But after watching week one, I'm wondering if coaches have taken to maybe taking it too easy on their first-string guys. Maybe by playing so few snaps in pre-season games top players are actually thwarting the whole reason for sitting out -- staying healthy -- because they aren't ready for a full-speed, full-length game come opening day.

Then again, there's no consensus on the best way to prepare a football player for the season. It's interesting that the three most popular levels of the sport approach the pre-season in different ways. In high school, teams generally run controlled scrimmages against other area teams. At the Division I college level, "live" play is restricted to intra-squad action. The NFL has four pre-season games, and also puts its players through more hours of practice.

Guess what I'm saying is, I don't have any answers, either. It seems likely the owners will opt to add more games and make more money -- imagine that -- and the welfare of the players will remain a talking point.

Ouch, my knee,




This analogy probably gets dredged up far too much, but it still bears repeating: Football players are the modern gladiators, and we're the Romans. We want to see bone-crushing hits like the one Ray Lewis put on Dustin Keller, but we know deep down, when his body is all used up, there will be another 22-year-old linebacker who will be eager to try and fill his shoes. It's a difficult thing to rationalize if you're a reasonable person -- which, in general, I think I am -- but I still love football. I love the smells, the strategy, the brotherhood and bond it forms between men, and the competitive energy it stirs in me.

Sometimes I wonder though: would the game be as popular if the violence was somehow toned down by half? Just to be clear, I doubt that's possible. I think we crossed that Rubicon long ago. But what if the game had evolved differently, the way Rugby or Aussie Rules Football did, and players weren't allowed to wear pads? Would it make it safer if players didn't grow up feeling invincible, launching their bodies at one another like Stinger missiles? Or would it make it less entertaining? I've been to Australia twice, and the men there like to joke about how wimpy American football is because of all the pads and protection we wear, saying it only emboldens the most reckless players. But haven't the movies taught us that the gladiator with the least regard for his own well being is usually the baddest dude in The Coliseum?

I suppose the "quality of life argument," at least with regards to aches and pains, isn't really for anyone to decide but the players actually playing the games. A twisted knee, a torn shoulder, a broken foot -- all these injuries are brutal, but the reality of genetics is some ligaments and bones just hold up better than others.

But the head injury stuff certainly gives me pause. Did you see the story about the University of Pennsylvania defensive lineman, the captain of the team, who hung himself despite having no prior history of depression? The autopsy found he had early signs of early signs of CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can be caused by repeated blows to the head. When you start talking about guys killing themselves because their brains are so damaged, it suddenly becomes a lot more serious than how it's going to affect my fantasy team.


Remember Mark Kelso, the special teams ace for the Bills who wore a helmet that made him look like the Great Gazoo from The Flintstones? I sort of wonder, other than aesthetics, why that kind of helmet never caught on. You'd think there would be some pressure by the league to make players wear additional padding in their helmets, but if there is, it doesn't seem to be working.

Are you not entertained?


Chris, KVV,

You all have hit a lot of the salient points. Kevin, you touched on an interesting point with your mention of the lack of padding in Aussie Rules. I've often wondered if football is protected from greater scrutiny largely because the players' bodies are so hidden from us by equipment.

Chris mentioned feeling the violence of the game from the sideline, but most people haven't had that experience, and I'm not sure it translates when you're watching faceless guys from halfway up the stands or on television. Sure, we've been in NFL locker rooms and talked with players about how much it hurts to get up on Monday. Some veterans will tell you pain is as much a part of their lives as their homes and families. But those are just words that can be looked past by fans eager to read about who will start next Sunday.


Sobering photographs of retired players have circulated in recent years, but those are old men (even though they're really not), too easy to separate from what we watch live and in color.

I'm a fan of both boxing and mixed martial arts, so I'm always interested at how infrequently football gets swept into debates about the barbarism of combat sports. Is football simply so popular that we can't stand the cultural self-examination?

Maybe, but I think the difference in immediate visual impact is a big part of it. We can watch a boxer's reflexes slow as his face turns to mush over 12 rounds. We can see a UFC mat soaked in blood after a knee has busted someone's nose. But with football, we don't see the brains bouncing against skulls, the cartilage wearing away in knees. Such damage accumulates with every snap, but the average game doesn't not forced to confront our complicity in this brutal spectacle. Guys almost always get up and keep playing. The damage is tallied later, in more indirect ways.

I do believe we're headed for a more serious reckoning with the violence of football. As scientific data mounts on concussions, as more parents consider preventing their children from taking such risks, the conversation will deepen. But it probably would have come sooner if the sport wasn't played at such a visual remove.

Kevin, you played football at a pretty high level. But if you have a son, will you let him play?



Childs, KVV,

First, good to have you back Childs.

Old-time hockey players often talk about the lack of respect in today's game. And what's to blame? Helmets and face shields, of course. It used to be that if you got your stick up, you'd do real damage. And so it didn't happen. Through the years, as NHL legislation has mandated helmets or, in leagues for younger players, full face shields, players have been taught, subliminally in some cases, to be less careful with their sticks. I've even heard guys complain about players shooting recklessly, sending it too high and leading to pucks catching more players in the head.

So the equipment leads to a false feeling of invincibility, and to sloppiness. The same principle no doubt applies elsewhere.

Obviously it's impossible to compare the tackling in rugby, which is actually a very structured game, to football. But if you watch enough of it you'll see better technique, in general, than you do in most NFL games. Anymore players tend to just throw themselves at other players, seeking the big hit. It's no insightful observation to mention that wrapping up is a lost art.

But KVV is right. Putting football back in the bottle ain't gonna happen. Every college player in the country knows his path to fame and riches involves getting bigger and stronger and being more aggressive. That lesson has been drilled into this generation, and removing pads won't erase that.


Childs brings up a good point. There's something impersonal about football and the way we experience it. Often dramatized versions of the game -- think that old ESPN series Playmakers, or some of the more popular movies about football -- show players struggling to live when they aren't on painkillers or shot up with cortisone. But that stuff's easy to shuck, the same way we don't believe CSI shows what it's actually like to be a police officer or Friends shows what it's like to be a  young-ish person living in New York City.

The difference is that Playmakers' tweak was not to put up a facade that made its subject more accessible -- and exciting -- to the masses, as with so many television shows. The NFL already cultivates a skewed image. It already glorifies its gladiators. So Playmakers -- which was way over the top in many ways -- maybe went the other direction and became too close to real. The NFL famously forced it off the air, after all.

But I'm interested in your answer to Childs' question, KVV. Or at least your thoughts on it.



Would I let my son play football? I can't say this is a question I've ever deeply pondered until just now. (It helps that I don't yet have a son.) I think I'd let him play high school football -- Friday Night Lights being not only one of my favorite books, but also favorite TV shows -- because I can talk myself into believing that he'd be less likely to suffer serious injury, and I think football teaches valuable lessons about being tough and being a man. But am I kidding myself here? Are the blindside hits any less nasty at the prep level than they are at the college level? I think so. But that might just be based on personal experience. In high school, I was typically the one delivering hits. But I took some nasty, nasty hits in college and every time I wake up on rainy day and my shoulder aches, I'm quickly reminded of the many afternoons I spent on a practice field colliding with a pair of future NFL linemen. Years later, I got to stand on the sidelines for the final minutes of a AFC playoff game between the Ravens and Steelers. The sound make when two players smashed into one another -- on a routine tackle -- scared the hell out of me.


I usually get laughed out of the room when I bring this up (especially around those who fancy themselves sports moralists), but I wouldn't have a problem with allowing NFL players to take steroids or smoke marijuana to help deal with injuries. I'm not sure if that makes me a sports libertarian, a menace to children, or a potential Tea Party candidate, but I don't see how it's realistic to expect football players to continue doing this to their bodies forever, without any kind of eventual resistance or rule changes.

Hasn't boxing suffered because it no longer attracts the best athletes? I sometime think that had boxing's popularity not waned from where it was 35 years ago, Ray Lewis would have spent the last decade as a heavyweight title contender, slugging it out with the Klitschko Brothers instead of the Steelers. In another 25 years, is it possible young American men might gravitate toward soccer, or back toward baseball, because they've watched football leave the current generation of stars crippled and suffering from dementia? Seems unlikely, but if you would have told someone in 1971 during the build-up to the first Ali-Frazier fight that the NFL would one day be infinitely more popular than boxing, they probably would have scoffed.

And while athletes chose sports other than boxing in large numbers, boxing's popularity waned in part because people felt it didn't have ENOUGH violence. I still believe the primary force driving the popularity of mixed marshal arts is people want to see a fighter get hit. Floyd Mayweather might as well be an artist with how technically skilled he is at defense, but who wants to pay $50 to see him dodge punches for an hour?

Chris' point about the emotional and intellectual distance required to fully enjoy watching the NFL is spot on, I think. The NFL has a narrative wants us to adopt, and we're happy to adopt it. We don't really want to know how it all comes together on Sundays, we just want to enjoy it. The mentality seems to be: I don't care about drugs, about labor issues, about men who cheat on, or beat on, their wives or girlfriends, I just want to enjoy my Sundays and root for my team.

I'm reminded of the Lou Holtz quote I heard often as a kid that I think properly sums up the entire mentality, for both players and fans.

"Don't tell me how rocky the sea is, just bring the darn ship in."



Now we pass it to you. Thoughts in the comments section would be appreciated, especially if you want to riff on that closing thought: should football players be able to use performance enhancers if, ultimately, they help deal with injuries?