Gladwell's Bruising Hit on the NFL—and What the League Should Do About It

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If you watch the National Football League and haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s disturbing New Yorker piece on football’s link to degenerative brain conditions, do so now. While a lot of attention has been paid to concussions suffered by players at the professional level, Gladwell points to new research that suggests that all tiers of competitive football exact a grinding toll on players’ brains. Repeated collisions—both in games and in practice—constitute the equivalent of repeated serious car accidents, smashing gray matter into skulls again and again, causing dark, deadening scar tissue to accumulate, apparently dooming many players to early dementia, violent physical and emotional trauma and death.

So there it is: the game prized as the epitome of American toughness and ballsy manhood is, in reality, a merciless bloodsport that chews up its players and leaves them to vegetate. Yes, it’s worth noting that the research Gladwell cites is still in progress, its conclusions yet to be written and accepted. But a wealth of evidence on what happens to ex-football players after their careers—and how the NFL treats them—speaks pretty clearly. So, too, does the only semblance of an NFL response in Gladwell’s reporting:

“Let’s assume that Dr. Omalu and the others are right,” Ira Casson, who co-chairs an N.F.L. committee on brain injury, said. “What should we be doing differently? We asked Dr. McKee this when she came down. And she was honest, and said, ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ No one has any suggestions—assuming that you aren’t saying no more football, because, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.” 

“We certainly know from boxers that the incidence of C.T.E. is related to the length of your career,” he went on. “So if you want to apply that to football—and I’m not saying it does apply—then you’d have to let people play six years and then stop. If it comes to that, maybe we’ll have to think about that. On the other hand, nobody’s willing to do this in boxing. Why would a boxer at the height of his career, six or seven years in, stop fighting, just when he’s making million-dollar paydays?” He shrugged. “It’s a violent game. I suppose if you want to you could play touch football or flag football. For me, as a Jewish kid from Long Island, I’d be just as happy if we did that. But I don’t know if the fans would be happy with that. So what else do you do?”

Not for nothing, Ira, I have a few ideas. Ideas that don’t involve ridiculous non-starters such as converting the NFL to a touch league or banning football altogether. My ideas are simple ideas, which even an NFL franchise owner can understand.

The National Football League makes a lot of money—$8 billion in annual revenues, in fact, according to this report. Just to put that number in context, it’s about the same as what the Obama Administration plans to spend as seed money for a national high-speed rail network.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m willing to bet that a small percentage of that money—say, 5 percent, or $400 million, or even 1 percent, $40 million—could fund an enormous amount of research on the cognitive effects of professional football careers.

And I’m not a social scientist, but I’m willing to bet that another small slice of that money—$400 million or $40 million or whatever order of magnitude the Ira Cassons of the world might be willing to discuss—could fund a goodly amount of professional rehabilitation and treatment for mind-shocked ex-football players.

Either (or both) of these initiatives could be announced at a high-profile media event; the NFL happens to stage the biggest show on television every winter, for example. Either (or both) could be announced as the first steps in a comprehensive effort to deal with the league’s real and growing brain-damage problem. 

There you go, Ira. No charge to you, my friend. Happy to do it.

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About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
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2 Responses to Gladwell's Bruising Hit on the NFL—and What the League Should Do About It

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Zach Dundas - Renegade Sportsman – Gladwell’s Bruising Hit on the NFL—and What the League Should Do About It - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. Russ Walker says:

    Good ideas for the NFL, but would they really dilute the impact of the research Gladwell wrote about? Dumping half a billion dollars on brain trauma research won’t guarantee a cure or anything close to it. Rehabilitation is important and should be done, but does it offset the fact that we fans are demanding that the players risk their future cognitive health for our viewing pleasure?

    I’m a huge college football fan. The Gladwell piece is tearing me up a good bit.

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