Football is Dangerous Business

Football is bad for your health. I'm not talking about those of us who will watch the Superbowl with one hand in a bag of chips and the other clutching a beer. I mean the people we'll be watching, many of whose bodies will sustain the equivalent of a car wreck this coming Sunday -- on top of the many concussions and breaks they've already experienced this season.

This is nothing new, of course, but results from a recently released (and not coincidentally timed) study from the Boston University School of Medicine indicate that the damage may be worse than previously thought. Examining the brains of dead, relatively young former NFL players, scientists discovered damage similar to "what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia."

Football is bad for your health, but it is good for the bottom line, which might explain why the National Football League's response to this latest study is reminiscent of the best work from tobacco company flaks in their heyday:

"Hundreds of thousands of people have played football and other sports without experiencing any problem of this type and there continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions and how they relate to other risk factors."

True to tobacco company form, the NFL even has its own internally conducted "studies," completed by real live bought-and-paid-for doctors, to indicate that multiple concussions really aren't that harmful.

Why the stonewalling? "The league is well-known in legal circles for tenaciously fighting even minor disability claims," wrote ESPN's Peter Keating about similar obfuscation after an autopsy of former player Andre Waters, who killed himself in 2007, showed he had the brain of an 85-year-old, "and the last thing it wants to face is a flood of lawsuits by athletes who suffered head injuries and kept playing."

New York Times article weeks after Waters' suicide suggested that the NFL not only keeps tight lips about injuries, it expects players to do the same. I suppose that's to be understood, given the legal risk. Never mind that refusing to acknowledge the problem is only likely to contribute to future injuries and death. Look, kid, do ya wanna play in the big leagues or don't ya?

Is there a solution? How about ginormous padding and helmets, akin to those faux Sumo wrestler outfits? Perhaps making players wear weights in their shoes so they don't have as much velocity when they tackle one another? Ironically, maybe the best solution is to eliminate helmets and pads altogether. As Edward Tenner noted in Why Things Bite Back, helmets have had the unintended consequence of producing more serious injuries on the field, because when players know they are protected, they can brutalize one another with abandon.

Which is why, let's be honest, a good many of us like to watch. But perhaps as the physical consequences of on-field brutality become more apparent, the NFL will begin to hear a voice it's actually willing to listen to -- that of the fans.