Last fall, two squads of pint-size players clashed in the crisp air at a peewee football field in Southbridge, Mass. The boys on one team were much larger than the others, and within six plays, three of the smaller boys had been carried off with head injuries, one with his eyes rolling back in their sockets.
By the end of the game, a 52-0 rout, five boys on the losing team were receiving emergency medical care for concussions.
Even as the smaller boys on the field were hit hard and carted off one by one, their own parents did not try to stop the game. Moms and dads stood on the sidelines, cheering. Though later suspended after a hearing, the refs and coaches continued playing, concerned about notching up another game for the 2012 Pop Warner football schedule.
This was not a Monty Python bit or a South Park episode. This really happened in Southbridge a few weeks ago.
Such is the glory and delirium of American football -- invigorating autumn air, the crack of a beer at the tailgate, the snuggly team-logo sweatshirt, boys with men in showers.
It's been a long, bad season for America's favorite fall sport, what with lawsuits by former NFL players, the Penn State scandal, pro player suicides, college and high school deaths, and brain injuries at all levels. The NFL just threw $30 million at the National Institutes of Health in a Hail Mary philanthropic pass to avert the PR and legal mess over a link between football's repeated concussions and early-onset Alzheimer's. The commissioner is using words like "evolve" to describe football's future.
It's been building for years, but the sport seems to have reached a crisis point. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research says all football games (from sandlot to NFL) cause an average of nine deaths a year. Just last week, a 19-year-old kid named William Wayne Jones III collapsed and died during a practice on the field at Tennessee State University. The cause of death is yet to be determined.
Then there are the deaths off the field: in August, Tennessee Titans wide receiver O.J. Murdock shot himself in a car and died at age 25, becoming the sixth NFL player to commit suicide in two years, a phenomenon that may be related to brain injury.
The dead are far outnumbered by the walking wounded. A study released in September found that NFL players faced a higher than average risk of Alzheimer's. The study followed 3,400 long-term NFL players between 1959 and 1988 and found that their risk of developing the disease was four times that of the general population.
Thousands of former players have sued the league claiming the NFL failed to inform them of the long-term danger of brain damage from repeated concussions. Plaintiffs are seeking to hold the league responsible for the care of players suffering from these problems.
But is there any way to reconcile player safety and the sport's inherent crowd-pleasing brutality?
Baseball is often called America's pastime, but the tapestry of physical grace and brute strength at the heart of football is the more perfect distillation of our national essence. We are the only nation that plays real football, not the delicate "futbol" of the rest of the world. Perhaps only British and Australian rugby teams or Spanish bullfighters match us in terms of public blood sport.
The NFL retirees deserve to win their lawsuits, although knocking brains out of their own and other men's heads is what they signed up for. Unlike the gladiators of ancient Rome, who were literal slaves forced onto the stadium grounds to fight for their lives, pro football players choose the sport, and get paid quite a lot. The median NFL player's salary is $770,000. Of course the money's not quite so staggering when you consider that the average career lasts just three and a half years, unless you include an announcer gig or a Ford dealership.
Is $2 million just compensation for relinquishing one's compos mentis years long before one's peers? It's too late to ask Michael "Iron Mike" Webster, the famed Pittsburgh Steelers center who, like so many other players, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a degenerative disease -- only after his death, following years of depression, pain and dementia.
Trouble is, college ball is dangled as one way out of poverty for big, athletic kids. The pot of gold is alluring, and it's hard to blame kids for choosing the sport. But the de facto commodification of poor strong kids means that players are all still property of the team "owners."
And what owners they are. The average team is worth more than a billion dollars, and rakes in an average of $261 million a season. Ads for the Super Bowl sold for $116,667 per second last year, according to Bloomberg.
Advertisers and billionaires are not the only ones invested: average Americans finance the great stadiums where the clashes play out, as the public till is poured into construction projects instead of childhood education. The Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the Super Bowl was played last year, cost $720 million -- much of it taxpayer-financed.
Despite all the money invested in the sport, the bloom is coming off the Rose Bowl. Publicity about the long-term symptoms suffered by brain-injured football players has lowered participation in the sport at the youth level, according to reports from around the country this fall.
The NFL is scrambling to deal with the fallout. Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at the Harvard School of Public Health recently, insisted the game can "evolve" and be made safer. He said the league has changed rules, including outlawing the flying wedge tackle to make the game safer, and introducing enhanced helmet technology.
"Not long ago, the game allowed the head-slap, tackling by the face mask, horse-collar tackles, dangerous blocks and hits to the head of defenseless receivers and quarterbacks. All of that has changed," he said.
Mr. Goodell claimed the new attention to long-term effects of brain injuries means the game is potentially safer. The league has taken strides to move up the kickoff line, penalize hits to the head and more quickly diagnose concussions on the sideline.
On one Sunday during the last season, three NFL quarterbacks -- Alex Smith, Jay Cutler and Michael Vick -- were taken out of games with concussions, with Mr. Vick's injury described as "pretty significant." Quarterbacks have probably been spending Sunday nights with concussions ever since pro football hit the airwaves. But three taken off the field on one afternoon is unusual, and likely related to the NFL's newfound consideration for players' brains.
About now, I sound like I'd rather be watching Downton Abbey tonight, but au contraire, I love these brutes. I can't get enough of the prancing beauty of the running back or the quarterback's soaring arc of a pass, the human perfection of Tom Brady and his throwing arm in the second before being crushed by the troglodytes of the defensive line. Who can resist the clash of helmets, the crunch of flesh and bone slamming to earth? Primal savagery delivered to our living rooms is sort of the whole point. Without it, it's "futbol."
But the price paid by brain-injured boys and teens, and by potentially thousands of grown men reduced to the possibility of shuffling around with early-onset Alzheimer's, is a pretty bill to pay for couch-potato thrills.
More publicity about football and brain injuries is anecdotally causing more parents to keep their kids off the field. Some changes underway include handing out penalties for tackling with the head, and emphasizing safer defensive techniques. But high school players still suffer 67,000 concussions a year in football, fueling a multibillion-dollar obsession that thrives on their new blood. Every Friday night this time of year, college scouts haunt the high school stands with binoculars and charts, scoping out boys like race horses.
Pop Warner, the sport's equivalent of Little League, has made some changes, including limiting contact drills to one-third of practice time and prohibiting full-speed, head-on drills. One brain injury expert has advised "no tackle" football until age 14, yet Pop Warner phased out safer flag football in 2005 because parents insisted on the full-contact version. The league even added tackle for five- and six-year-olds.
The NFL can throw millions at brain injury and helmet research, but the real changes have to start at the local level, on fields like the one in Southbridge, Mass. Parents should demand that leagues and schools install stiffer rules to protect their kids and that coaches actually enforce them. If that means a kinder, gentler game, so be it.