Thursday, May 10, 2012

that was unexpected

I've found Junior Seau's death and the attendant discussion very sobering. I found this piece by Daniel Engber sobering as well, just in a different sense.

As you know, I have a lot of problems with the media, and my most consistent complaint is that too often, people who are paid to find out the facts don't. Instead, they accept a narrative that sounds plausible or speaks to their own biases: America used to be number one in education; digital tools make a big difference for students and schools; printed book sales are in steep decline; and so on. But I've been guilty of similar thinking when it comes to the NFL, concussions, and suicide. And Engber-- who, I must highlight, is writing for my frequent target, Slate-- takes the time to look at the evidence and finds it lacking. The narrative was just so clean, and too flattering to certain of my preconceptions. Engber:
At the request of the NFL Players Association, government scientists compared the death rates for almost 3,500 of the league's retirees to those for age- and race-matched non-athletes over the same years. The football players had much longer lives: Just 334 of them had passed away, compared with an expected total of 625.
What does this have to do with Junior Seau? The CDC study was designed to look for fatal cases of cardiovascular disease among the athletes. (It found one-third fewer than expected.) But the researchers also compiled numbers for more than a dozen other categories of disease and injury, including suicide. Former players were 42 percent less likely to die of cancer, 86 percent less likely to die of tuberculosis, and 73 percent less likely to die from digestive problems. And among the athletes who regularly played professional football between 1959 and 1988, a total of nine perished as a result of "intentional self-harm," compared with an expected number of about 22. The sample size was small, but the effect is large: Ex-NFLers were 59 percent less likely to commit suicide.
This is not to say, as Engber hastens to point out, that we know for certain in the opposite direction. But the evidence, for now, that concussions specifically and football-related injury generally are leading to suicides is startlingly lacking, given our casual certainty. I sometimes wonder if this sort of failure is inevitable these days. We rush to judgment as a matter of course. And it's not just the speed at which we communicate, but the way in which social conditioning is now omnipresent. There's so little time or space for reflection that isn't mediated through the Internet, which constantly impresses other people's opinions on us. I certainly don't envy Engber, who is likely to receive a lot of pushback and a lot of accusations of insufficient concern for these football players whose lives appear ruined.

One thing that I've been thinking about this-- suppose the evidence gradually emerges that football indeed has debilitating consequences for the large majority of people who play it. And suppose that the only way to make it safe is to become, in essence if not in name, two-hand touch. That's more plausible than you might think. Now, if the NFL was to adopt that kind of change, I think I'd respond in two ways: I'd say "good for them." And then I'd vote with my feet by ceasing to follow football. Oh, I'd last for a little while. But despite what my conscience says about the game, I just wouldn't be interested in watching a "safe" version of it. I'm already turned off enough by the sudden ubiquity of 4,000 (and 5,000!) yard passing seasons. I wouldn't maintain interest, and I doubt I'm the only one.

Given that economic reality, how long before a rival football league emerges, playing old school football? And given the money involved, how many young men would be willing to take the risks and trade their health for the possibility of wealth and fame? Maybe this is just bad faith, and I'm raising these issues out of guilt. But I can't help but think that a safe NFL wouldn't lead to the end of violent football. Football is violence, it always has been.

Update: Or take the recent calls to ban college football. I'm not a college football fan, so it wouldn't matter much to me. But does anyone doubt that a new minor/developmental football league would emerge to replace it? As long as we're not talking about actually criminalizing the game-- and as I think that the government has no business regulating the self-injurious behaviors of informed, consenting adults, I hope we aren't-- I seriously question our ability to reduce these risks.


Mysterious man from the Shadows said...

To my mind, the fact the Seau's suicide may have been caused by head trauma sustained during football was portrayed as symptomatic of a larger point: hat people are realizing that a game where you get hit in the head repeatedly may not be good for your brain.

Most of the stories I've seen haven't said "football players are more likely to kill themselves"; they've said "football players are more likely to suffer brain damage."

Whether causes a person to suffer mental illness leading to suicide, or simply day-to-day difficulty with seeing, hearing, thinking etc. the moral of the story is "football can hurt your brain. What results from that is anyone's guess, but it's never good."

You're right that people are being a bit hasty in assuming Seau's suicide was the result of head trauma--although the manner in which he took his life leads one to suspect he thought so--but that doesn't change the broad conclusions.

All that said, I think your prediction is exactly right: the NFL will move to a point where the only way to make the game safe is to make changes that will end its popularity. (Not only that, but a 'two-hand touch' league would see an influx of mediocre players who would never make it the present-day league.)

You're right--there is no way to reduce the risks other than to eliminate the game.

Anonymous said...

"the government has no business regulating the self-injurious behaviors of informed, consenting adults"

The entire worker safety movement of the US just coughed. -K.

Freddie said...

I think the self in self-injurious part is important, and complicated.

Anonymous said...

That's fair. "Injurious", "informed" and "consenting" are all probably all complicated as well.

There's something awful about the thought that your job is destroying your brain (as opposed to your lungs or hands or knees) that causes some of this rush to judgment.

But (to draw from my own experience), scientists often do not wear enough PPE to adequately protect themselves. Some worker safety types (most of them, it seems) believe that the law states that it's the employer's legal responsibility to do Whatever It Takes to make their employees protect themselves. (How often that actually happens, of course, is a different story.) -K.

Adam Burch said...

I'd be interested to hear you try to reconcile this idea of football always being violent and the violence being the joy with the fact that I always seem to hear that people are turned off by soccer and hockey because they are too violent. Indeed, my own impression of soccer was that fans hate truly violent matches, as you don't get to see real play of the game, but rather, a bunch of thugs wail on people. Ditto w/ hockey, but these might just be my own anecdotes.

And I've heard no talk of banning football at any level; rather, of making it clear the dangers associated, and in the case of college football, seeing players rewarded for their work, and seeing taxpayer subsidies of these activities disappear.

Ethan Gach said...

I'm surprised by that last bit Freddie.

Where does coercion and workers rights fit into college football? The ones putting on the show aren't even considered workers, let alone paid.

Is this a new found respect and support for free enterprising exploitation?

Freddie said...

I'm making predictions, here, not describing my ideal situation. I don't know, I'll have to think about it.

Paul Sherrard said...

HOW TO SAVE FOOTBALL: Have the same 11 guys play offense and defense. You know, like in basketball and baseball. The status quo, in which 300-lb defensive tackles get to rest for half the game so they can be all fired up to tear receivers in half when they take the field, would end. As would the ability of running backs to sprint into them at top speed all day. As would the incentive for defensive players to cultivate the physique of water buffalo. We'd have a manly, brutal game, but one in which athletes were a bit too fatigued to hammer each other like they do now.

Mysterious man from the Shadows said...

I can't speak for Freddie here, but regarding the "workers safety" aspect of college football, the difference in my mind is that no one can *only* play football and nothing else to make a living.

With workers safety issues in factories, mines, construction etc., those aren't highly specialized jobs, so anybody in decent physical shape can do them. Football is a specialty you need to be athletically gifted and specially trained for.

Bottom line: almost everyone who can play football (maybe not Defensive Tackles) has recourse to some other line of work, but workers in other areas may not have the same choice.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to thank you for two very interesting blog posts, on football and "Fight Club."


Long said...

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padraig said...

"At the request of the NFL Players Association, government scientists compared the death rates for almost 3,500 of the league's retirees to those for age- and race-matched non-athletes over the same years."

This is a bad comparison.

You should compare 3,500 of the league's retirees to 3,500 other athletes.

You're trying to find out if football is dangerous among other sports, not if it's more dangerous to be a footballer with a few million dollars in the bank than a couch potato who lives on the average wage.