Sunday, November 29, 2009

The high cost of football

The first time I ever went to a football game was to watch the Detroit Lions, then flying high, at home. The crowd roared so loud on third downs that I couldn't hear someone screaming in my ear. Ford Field would be a great stadium if there was something even half-decent to watch. The way the crowd cheered, however, was different from the way I'd always imagined games, because you're not really cheering for a long touchdown pass as much as you are a good hit and some violence.

It's tempting to say, then, that we have some culpability in the way players, especially professionals, do serious, lasting damage to their bodies from playing the game. But, that's ridiculous, because while our money makes players very rich, they're consenting adults, not to mention highly competitive athletes, who long ago decided that the set of physical problems resulting from football is outweighed by the benefits.

With concussions, that argument doesn't quite hold, because decisions are made from a state of ignorance. Ben Roethlisberger will play this week after suffering a concussion last week. This entry at the New York Times' Fifth Down blog questions that one week is enough to return from a concussion, even though Roethlisberger says he feels fine. There's obviously no shortage of athletes in a variety of sports that retired due to concussions, but the more that's known about concussions, the less it makes sense for someone to return in just a week, never mind on the same day, as is commonly the case.

I started writing this post last night, and as I came back to finish it, I read that Roethlisberger will not play tomorrow due to the concussion. A good analogy to concussions is with smoking. Though the dots can be connected, in practice, concussions aren't treated nearly as serious as they are. By the time the NFL accepts what it does is wrong and changes its practices, we'll still have generations of athletes who are irreparably damaged.

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