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.
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.