You would not have needed Jimmy the Greek to guess that December would see a cavalcade of pigskin pontificators defending their belief in the virile virtue of tackle football. The movie Concussion hits theaters on Christmas Day and will further expose for new audiences the National Football League’s history of malignant neglect of both brain science and the safety of the people we cheer on the field. The NFL is already gearing up for a massive public-relations response to the film because they are nervous, and they should be. The film is going to shine a light not just on the league but also on the work of the film’s protagonist, Dr. Bennett Omalu, played by Will Smith. Dr. Omalu is not waiting around to take advantage of this Hollywood-provided platform. He penned an op-ed in The New York Times Monday with the pithy title, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football.” He writes:
If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms. If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage, which we know now by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a disease that I first diagnosed in 2002.
Now the forces defending football are starting to amass. Dr. Julian Bailes, who was Omalu’s mentor responded that he thinks football is safe for kids. He also said, “We don’t know the prevalence of CTE. I have said and I believe that CTE is a risk in a minority of NFL players and hopefully in a group of players who are in a now bygone era, meaning that the reforms in the NFL that began in 2009, as a result of our work and others’ work, has resulted in sweeping changes.”
These debates are productive, and we should have more of them. We should also note the interests different debaters represent. Dr. Bailes is the medical director of Pop Warner football, which is tackle football for kids. In February, Debra Pyka sued Pop Warner on a wrongful death claim, after her son, Joseph Chernach, committed suicide at the age of 25. Chernach, who only played at the youth and high-school levels, was diagnosed with CTE during his autopsy. In a Boston University Study, 21 percent (four of 19) of brain autopsies on people who just played youth and high-school football, were found to have CTE. Dr. Bailes sharply critiqued the study on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, saying, “There’s absolutely no information on the number of concussions that the [study subjects] had in high school or college, or the severity of the concussions. I think what probably happened is lots of them get no concussions in youth, but three in high school, five in college and 10 in the NFL. They’re trying to say it’s the age of first exposure that is the problem, when it’s more likely cumulative exposure.”
Fine. Two scientists disagree. Dr. Bailes seems to have a rather blaring conflict of interest, but again, the more debate and more discussion about this issue, the better.
What is toxic—and what the NFL should pull the reins on right away—is this tweet from former backup quarterback and current ESPN national radio host Danny Kanell; a tweet that went viral and spawned an endless number of side discussions on social media. Kanell slammed the New York Times piece by Dr. Omalu and tweeted, “The war on football is real. Not sure source but concussion alarmists are loving it. Liberal media loves it. Doesn’t matter. It’s real.”
This tweet also launched Kanell into a series of debates with others (including me), where he further expounded on the snarkiness of liberals, the left-wing nature of the media pumping this up, and the “war” on the game he loves. It’s worth noting first off that Kanell is hardly breaking new ground with his view that there is a liberal “war on football.” From Rush Limbaugh to an even deeper depths in the right-wing fever swamps, the idea that their football is under coordinated attack by forces whose goal is “the wussification” of young boys has been a trope for so long that it has morphed into cliché. Think the “War on Christmas” with jock itch. Yet this is the first time, according to my own research, that someone backed by the ESPN brand has actually ascribed a political red state/blue state motivation to this rising tide of scientific data and the ensuing public concern.
Let’s not mince words: There is no war on football. There are individuals who have said the sport should be banned. But their words are drowned by a sport that has colonized our Sundays. It is like drawing the conclusion that there is a War on Christmas because you hear a store clerk say “Happy holidays.” The danger of concussions is real enough that the NFL has upended the protocols of its league so the world knows it has to take it seriously. Announcers now speak in hushed tones when there is a strong hit, like they are in the back pew of a funeral parlor. Players are quitting the game earlier so they can “remember the names” of their kids in 20 years. CTE is real, and the dangers of football are real. If the suicides of players like Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and others haven’t sufficiently grabbed our attention, the ensuing autopsies and reams of research should. This is not a war on the game; it’s a world adjusting to settled science and trying to figure out how to make a game that will never be safe safer for the people we cheer.
The worst thing that could happen would be a replica of how the right attacks environmental data and treats its belief in quack science as a bizarre form of identity politics. If this happens to concussion research, we’ll see parents ignoring the risks of youth football because they think that’s just a way “libtards” control the “sheeple.” We’ll see high-school coaches sending players out on the field with preexisting cognitive issues because they are soldiers opposing “wussification,” or maybe their school is in “Trump country.” We need to defend the existing consensus about brain injury, concussions, and their connection to CTE, and we need to continue to push for more scientific data. To make this yet another tired partisan hot-potato does a disservice to everyone whose life has been hampered or destroyed by CTE, and gives undeserved cover to a league that for decades simply did not care, as their retired players suffered in silence.