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:
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.