By Chad Cooper
Another Super Bowl is in the books. Super Bowl LIII. The 53rd installment. At 5:30 CST on Feb. 3, people from all walks of life gathered around televisions to watch the spectacle. I was one of those people.
The game has established the first Sunday in February as essentially a national holiday, imbuing meaning to what would otherwise be a mundane weekend in the middle of winter. Crockpots simmer, chips get dipped, and in a world of countless viewing options, TVs across the nation synchronize for a few hours. I’m talking a lot of TVs. Even with declining ratings in recent years, last year’s event averaged 103.4 million viewers. I use the term “event” very intentionally because the Super Bowl is much more than a game. In fact, for many people, the game itself is secondary or even irrelevant in comparison to the commercials and choreographed halftime show, brought to you by the caffeinated folks at Pepsi.
As I watched the event Sunday, I got the same odd feeling I now get whenever I watch football. It’s a certain moral queasiness, and it had nothing to do with Adam Levine’s laconic strip tease (though that was disturbing). This attack of conscience stems from the game itself.
At its best, football is a chess match on turf, pitting elite athletes and voluminous playbooks against one another. It’s also violent to the point of barbarism. Most games result in at least a handful of injuries, and those injuries are often gruesome. The game necessitates continual collisions between large athletes. During the course of any collegiate or professional game, you’re bound to see breaks, twists, tears and concussions. That last one — the concussion — has become a major problem for football and specifically the money-making machine that is the NFL.
CTE. That’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive hits. Brains with the disease accumulate a protein called tau, which clumps together in brain tissue, interrupting critical information flow. CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed in autopsy. The symptoms of the disease can range from forgetfulness and headaches to violent mood swings and severe depression.
Many former football players suffered from CTE, like former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. Duerson shot himself in the chest and died at age 50, leaving a suicide note requesting that his brain be studied for trauma. Junior Seau had CTE. The Hall of Fame linebacker also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 43. Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher was determined to have suffered from the disease. In 2012, Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then fatally shot himself in the head in the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium. Belcher was 25. Closer to home, former Iowa Hawkeyes safety Tyler Sash was confirmed to have had stage 2 CTE. Sash was found dead in his home in 2015 of a drug overdose. He was 27. Those are just a few of the more notable cases.
ALS. That’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is another degenerative brain disease that causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles. ALS is a death sentence — most patients eventually lose the ability to walk, speak, swallow and breathe.
Many former football players have been diagnosed with ALS: Steve Gleason, Dwight Clark and Tim Green, just to name a few. Researchers have recently uncovered a link between CTE and ALS.
Those are the facts, and those facts have become so deafening and damning in recent years that the NFL has been forced to address the crisis. The league has trotted out purported improvements in helmet technology and has made a few highly publicized rule changes in an effort to cut down violent collisions and concussions. Unfortunately, those changes are Band-Aids meant to obfuscate the core problem: the game itself.
One of the worst cases of CTE was found in former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster. Webster took hit after hit, play after play. These weren’t the massive hits that cause game-stopping concussions. Webster wasn’t doing anything against technique. In fact, Webster was doing exactly what should be done for his position, and that resulted in thousands of micro-collisions over the course of his 17-year NFL career. Webster retired in 1991. After retirement, Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia and depression. He eventually became homeless, living out of his truck. Webster died at age 50 of a heart attack.
Football is a dangerous sport, a collision game that many children start playing at a young age. And while arguments have been made about consenting adults and players knowing the risks, it has become difficult to engage with the sport without a feeling of moral dubiousness.
As for last night’s game, the New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams 13-3, winning the franchise’s sixth title. In the aftermath, a lot of people were asking if New England could win a league-record seventh championship next season. Others speculated whether New England’s star tight-end, Rob Gronkowski, would return next season. A post-game report quoted Gronkowski as saying he could barely walk:
“Try and imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life,” Gronkowski said. “It’s tough, it’s difficult. To take hits to the thigh, take hits to your head. Abusing your body isn’t what your brain wants.”
With quotes like that, I found myself questioning different things, like the immorality of a sport that causes that much destruction, the way a league and corporations profit off the pain, why I continue to watch and what that says about my own morality.