Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?
The opening of the NFL training camps coincided with the closing of the investigation into the April suicide by gunshot of Ray Easterling, 62, an eight-season NFL safety in the 1970s. The autopsy found moderately severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE was identified as a major cause of Easterling’s depression and dementia.
In February 2011, Dave Duerson, 50, an 11-year NFL safety, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest to spare his brain tissue for research, which has found evidence of CTE. Brain tissue of 20-season linebacker Junior Seau, who was 43 when he killed himself the same way in May, is being studied. The NFL launched a mental health hotline developed and operated with the assistance of specialists in suicide prevention.
After 20 years of caring for her husband, Easterling’s widow is one of more than 3,000 plaintiffs — former players, spouses, relatives — in a lawsuit charging that the NFL inadequately acted on knowledge it had, or should have had, about hazards such as CTE. We are, however, rapidly reaching the point where playing football is like smoking cigarettes: The risks are well-known.
Still, football has bigger long-term problems than lawsuits. Football is entertainment in which the audience is expected to delight in gladiatorial action that a growing portion of the audience knows may cause the players degenerative brain disease. Not even football fans can forever block that fact from their excited brains.
In the NFL, especially, football is increasingly a spectacle, a game surrounded by manufactured frenzy, on the grass and in the increasingly unpleasant ambiance of the fans in the stands. Football on the field is a three-hour adrenaline-and-testosterone bath. For all its occasional elegance and beauty, it is basically violence for, among other purposes, inflicting intimidating pain.
After 18 people died playing football in 1905, even President Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and gore generally, flinched and forced some rules changes. Today, however, the problem is not the rules; it is the fiction that football can be fixed and still resemble the game fans relish.