Taking a Pass on Football for the Next Generation.*
*This reflection was originally posted for Super Bowl XLV. But the message is the same in 2020 for Super Bowl LIV. So I thought to share it again.
Football is the last thing left in civilization where men can literally fling themselves bodily at one another and not be at war.
On Sunday night, I watched the Super Bowl with a hundred million other Americans. And I tweeted a bunch too. It was a better Super Bowl than most. Exciting to the end, even though the Steelers never took the lead. The ads, the halftime show. It has become part of American tradition. But I didn’t enjoy the game as much — or in the same way — as I used to.
I used to watch football with my father. He’d played football in college, for the University of Indiana, on a full scholarship. By the time I was born, he had turned in his helmet, in exchange for a hardhat, but the television was always on for football. And very occasionally, he would scrape together enough money to take me to see the Giants or the Jets or even the Eagles at the stadium.
He understood football as only a player can, from the field point of view — and he taught me the ins-and-outs of the game: the artistry of a good quarterback, the value of a good defensive playbook when to run the ball, when to run the clock, how to slow an opponent’s pass rush and open up opportunities for wide receivers (the position my father played), and on and on. I was the son my father never had and that was fine with me.
This season, my father would probably say that the Eagles’ Michael Vick is the best quarterback in the NFL. I would have to stifle my inclination to bring up politics (you know, the thing about the dogs) and I would argue instead that the best QB in the NFL is definitely the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers. My father would probably see through this, remembering that I went to UC Berkeley. (So did Rodgers.) My father always said that I am loyal to a fault.
So, my father and I would have had some fun with this Vick-Rodgers debate while we watched the Super Bowl — especially since neither of us would have cared that much. Vick wasn’t even in it. And we are both Jets fans, anyway.
But we didn’t watch the Super Bowl together. Instead, my father was tucked into his bed at his nursing home. My mother tells me he was already asleep when she left at 6:30 last night. I doubt very much my father even knew the Super Bowl was happening.
My father suffers from Parkinson’s disease. The initial onset was slow. But dementia that comes in the later stages of the disease has progressed rapidly in the last several months.
In case you are unfamiliar with it, Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. It impairs motor skills and cognitive processes. Famous people with the disease include Michael J. Fox and my father’s hero, Muhammad Ali (my father also spent some time in the boxing ring). That may help to bring to mind the awful symptoms: rigidity, slowness, and the signature tremor. As you can imagine, for an athlete, these symptoms are terribly frustrating.
The disease usually appears around the age of 60. I guess my father got lucky. He wasn’t diagnosed until age 70 (the first year we didn’t watch the Super Bowl together).
Parkinson’s is idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause, although some cases seem to have a genetic origin. That’s why there is a huge political component to the disease. Michael J. Fox has been fighting for research that would include stem cell transplants, which conservative groups oppose for religious reasons.
In my father’s case, however, I believe — and his doctors do too — that repeated concussions triggered the disease, especially given no family history of Parkinson’s.
Which gets me back to football.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the sport. And for good reason. My father was born dirt poor. When I use the expression, I mean it quite literally. My father and his siblings grew up during the Depression, orphaned and in poverty, with little more than dirt for floors.
He had no money for college and would not have gone but for track and football scholarships. Football paid for his room, board and books. It allowed him to travel to Mexico where he studied art and architecture and met my mother.
But my father paid a price for that opportunity. He played in the days of leather helmets and his brain suffered every blow. My mother, who grew up on football in Texas, stopped going to the games because she could not enjoy seeing my father and his friends brutalized, in play after play.
Of course, fifty years later, medicine, technology, and equipment have improved tenfold. When he could still debate this issue with me, my father would say that the modern equipment like neck rolls, spider pads, rib protectors (he called them flak jackets, harkening back to his army days, I guess), and even elbow pads help against injury. But, I said to my father then, and I still say that football players pay a heavy price for the opportunities they seek.
Most of that equipment does not address the concussion issue. And even though players now wear padded plastic helmets (my father wore one too, in the later years of his career), their brains still roll around inside their skulls, sustaining injury, the very definition of concussion. Even knowing what we know, we send players back onto the field to play through concussions when they absolutely should not.
As much as I love the sport, I love my father more. And I love my son, too. I always imagined playing the sport just like his grandfather. But then I did my homework.
And I didn’t have to look far. My station, WNYC, did a great segment last August on “The Takeaway.” There are 41,000 concussions every year among high school players. As far as I’m concerned, you are lucky if your kid doesn’t make it out of high school to play in college. If he does get that far, pray he sits on the bench and the coach tells him he doesn’t have enough talent for the NFL.
While the Concussions Committee of the NFL generally denies that concussions result in permanent brain injury, a 2009 National Health Interview Survey showed an increased incidence of memory loss and dementia for retired professional football players that was related to the incidents of concussion. More rigorous research is being conducted for the NFL by the neurologist Ira Casson.
But I don’t need to see more. I see my father. My son sees him too. We are grateful to football for the leg up it gave to our family. Without it, we might never have had access to the American Dream. But I am also grateful that my son’s next steps toward fulfilling his version of that dream will not be running down the field, looking for the pass. Instead, he’s talking a pass and running track instead.