You know that a game is violent when Aaron Herndandez's arrest on a charge of murder -- and potentially more murders -- doesn't manage to dominate discussions about it for even 17 weeks.
Any doubt you might have as to the primacy of football's structural carnage should have been dispelled by now, after a beefsteak made out of psychosis and bro body wash like Richie Incognito managed to make headlines for systematically tormenting a fellow player, then be largely forgotten.
You still hear about both, somewhat, because the NFL Network has so many programming hours to fill in the day. Peter King will speculate about how the Patriots' season might have fared differently with Hernandez. The Dolphins and Incognito had to come to an employment arrangement per the collective bargaining agreement this week.
Yet neither of those could trump the story of the year, written about by seemingly everyone, a new person every week: That the biggest, most resonant, most compelling, most awful and violent thing about football this season is the foundation of the game itself. It's a story that we simultaneously cannot stop invoking and, almost in the same breath, cannot stop passing the buck on.
The story, as you probably already know it, is this: The NFL spent years trying to downplay or discredit emerging evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE); That, while big hits and concussions contribute to it, the greater danger lies in the dozens of sub-concussive hits given and taken every game and in many practices; That linemen experience the colliding force of a car accident on every down; That the debilitating effects of CTE can become deadly even by high school; That we, as viewers, indulge in a game that is raising a generation of men at high risk to grow demented and broken.
That's usually where things stop. You can go far on the Internet before finding someone willing to conclude something further. Our own Patrick Hruby is a rare exception in that, after detailing much of the history of CTE and many of the more nightmarish stories of its victims, he said this: I will not watch football anymore.
Most stories begin with descriptions and end with hand-wringing. Because that's what we're good at -- not just sportswriters, but people in general. Unless you were/are an Exxon-paid climate scientician, you've known that anthropogenic climate change has been sort of a big, threatening deal for at least a decade. You probably realize that most of America's transport and electrical infrastructure is over half a century old and at risk for collapse or overload. Those things are scary, and finding and implementing solutions for them is sure tough. That's what we do: We are a people unafraid to acknowledge large problems. Then we are unafraid to say that maybe if we wait, they will fix themselves. (Climate change? It's like a bear. Let's wait it out. Maybe it will get distracted and harass other campers.)
Or, if we're mature enough to reject the "stick your head under the blanket and hope the monster goes away" theory, we are unafraid to call for bold solutions. What they are is either unknown or immaterial; what's important is that we emphatically assert their need to exist. Let the word go forth that, ontologically speaking, we support the concept of solutions as things that should happen.
We resort to some variant of "won't somebody think of the children???" that doesn't sound too specific for multiple reasons. First, sportswriters have to write about sports, and watching sports and documenting their narratives without talking about existential crises tends to help. Many don't have the luxury of declaring that they will never watch a sport again -- or write about it only to demonize it -- and that their editor will just have to find room in the budget for some other hump to do it.
Second, the problems really are difficult. If CTE is particularly harmful to developing brains, where do you set the age minimum for play? What if it should be 18? How do you run a college football program when everyone learns the sport in college? If collisions on every down are the problem, how can you do anything less than eliminate the running game and linemen and have the quarterback face off against a single linebacker counting out "one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus..."?
If football is irremediably deadly, how do you shut down a billion dollar death industry? You might say, "Well, Congress..." but if you think that's enough, let's go to the Circle K and buy some smokes. Even if you do shut it down, how to you equitably distribute its profits to people already destroyed by it? And what of all those kids in Pop Warner, high school and college, who may already be destroyed -- whose only compensation was maybe making it to the NFL and having millions of dollars as succor for potential premature dementia?
It's easy to look at all of the variables and beg off, to assume that the weight of one opinion is laughingly insignificant against the weight of so much money and so many men. But that's been the NFL commentary season in a nutshell, and the unfortunate byproduct of so much hand-wringing is the illusion that something is being done. "People are talking about it."
There's a fun exercise you can do if you're bored and/or hate yourself. Go on YouTube and type in "energy independence" and then Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama. Watch them in sequence. Listen to the same nouns, nightmares, market-based solutions, alternatives, research and development investment, the need for America to loose itself from reliance on foreign nations, and all the other attendant buzzwords roll past you with the affirmative tone of a nation in impending crisis yet capable of solving its own problems.
If you want to save time, just watch Carter's, because virtually nothing has changed. And it's been 40 years. But at least we were talking about it. And right now we're talking about the NFL and health. So, fair enough, now what?
The thing is, I don't know. I sound like everybody else, because plenty of smart caring people don't know either. What I do know is that I don't want to wake up 40 years from now and find myself still talking about it, floating an airy moral conversation above the bodies of two more generations of the broken.
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