Football, Brains, and Whether People with Brains Should Be Watching Football

I came to the NFL a Lawrence Taylor fan. Taylor was the most famous football player to come out of Chepel Hill since Choo-Choo Justice, and his would naturally be the first name to penetrate the awareness of a five-year old who lived in Tar Heel blue. When he went pro, I became a Giants fan. It was a shallow fandom, of course. I answered the phone one morning to a friend of my fathers claiming to be Bill Parcells; I had no idea who Parcells was. But I like watching football with my dad, and I liked the Giants.

One of the first football plays I remember came in 1985. It was a Monday Night Football game, probably one of the first I was allowed to stay up late for, as the Giants were playing the Redskins. Lawrence Taylor came tearing through the Washington line, and brought down quarterback Joe Thiesmann. Theismann didn't get up; his leg had been broken in multiple places, and he'd never play professional football again.

I have never played organized football at any level. My experience is limited to neighborhood pickup games in the backyard going back to before Taylor ended Theismann's career. I'm built like a stick, and it was never going to be the game for me. We had a regular flag football game every Saturday in grad school, in addition to a decade of intramural play, and I always loved that. I'm reasonably quick and pretty tall, and love the sight of a well-thrown spiral falling gently into my hands a step ahead of the other guy. I want the interception, the open field. No one in flag football wants to be on the line "blocking" or whatever the rules allow. Yawn.

I've considered the possibility that my own aversion to pain and that play in 1985 has given me a different outlook on the game than most fans. Watching a game, I want to see the long pass to the open wideout streaking down the sideline, or the running back breaking into the open field. I'm not looking for the big hit. Sure I want our linebacker getting to the quarterback, but once that happens it becomes a solved problem, the end of the play. I want that opposing quarterback to get up after the play with no ill effect, for the entire tableau to play out again.

But that's what most people view the game, I think. Or used to. "True" football fans have always mocked the dilettantes who only cheered the quarterbacks guys who carried the ball. The insufferable Gregg Easterbrook has wrapped himself in the flag of the "Unwanted Pro" for years, and the deification of the left tackle didn't become conventional wisdom until Sandra Bullock spoke Michael Lewis's words to moviegoers in 2009. For all the talk that the NFL can't survive without the bone-shattering hits, that the sport is the modern-day gladiator fights in Rome, I'm not sure that's the case. I wasn't running around my backyard as a kid with thoughts of putting my friends into traction.

All of this thinking has been brought to the forefront by Junior Seau's seemingly inexplicable suicide at the age of 43. He killed himself with a gunshot to the chest, the same manner in which former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson ended his own life a year earlier. Unlike Seau, Duerson left a note, requesting Boston University study his brain. That came two years after Chris Henry's accidental death, which resulted in the finding he'd developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy from his years of playing football. He was 26.

I'm supposed to be writing something about Quinton Coples for the mothership's Jets blog. Nothing significant, just my impression of him; something to assure the fans that his performance drop-off last season wasn't a "character problem." (For the record, I don't think it was.) The internet makes me an expert on Coples' mental state, you see, despite only being in his presence a couple of times, always in the company of fifty thousand other people cheering for him to bring down the opposing QB.

Instead, I find myself worried about Coples. I remember that terrifyingly huge fraternity Omega brand on his arm.This is a kid who isn't afraid of pain. This is someone who is going to pursue his opponent to the ends of the earth, oblivious to the cost to his own body. Junior Seau was never on the NFL injury report for a concussion. He played through the pain; he got back on the field. He did everything demanded of him.

Last September I came to believe we're in the midst of a college football bubble. A lot of that was based on the scandals erupting in Chapel Hill and elsewhere, but the NFL's struggle with concussions was a big factor as well. Now you have Malcolm Gladwell calling for the abolishment of the sport at the college level, and while I'm shocked that it's coming from a sloppy thinker who advocated a win-at-all-costs mentality in middle school girls' basketball, the attention is going to snowball from here. Fans are making passionate arguments on whether we need to walk away from football.

I'm not sure I can. I couldn't do this gig while shunning the sport, but I can walk away from this at any time, and spew random thoughts elsewhere on the internet. But I don't want to give up football. I want to change it, to make it safe, but I don't know how. It's never been safe; we've just gotten better at hiding the damage. I should walk away from the sport, but I can't. I can't give up that perfect spiral gently falling into outstretched hands. Not yet, at least; It's just so damned pretty. I get closer every day though.

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