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Football & Desensitization

If, as some claim, violent video games and films have contributed to the desentsitization that has led to our killing culture, then certainly football can also be blamed. We have been trained to continue to cheer the game even though we now know there is ongoing brain damage in every contest. If that doesn't desensitize our chuldren, I don't know what does.

But there is a difference. In the films and video games, the damage is only pretended. In football, it is really going on. How do you celebrate an event that could very well leave its contestants wondering what city or state they are in a dozen years from now?

We are told they are paid and understand the risks. Perhaps.That doesn't protect our children from correctly presuming, given how we glorify the game, that brain damage is no big deal.

Today, only a few hours ago, Junior Seau's four children filed a wrongful death suit against the National Football League. Seau, 43, a former star, killed himself a few months ago. It was discovered he had been suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain condition that can lead to depression and dementia, and, obviously, suicide.

Of course a master suit has already been filed against the NFL by thousands of former football players, most of whom probably live wretched or only partial lives.

Still, we prepare to celebrate another Super Bowl in 11 or 12 days. I used to be a sportswriter and covered the San Francisco 49ers a time or two. I was hoping they would lose their game last Sunday to Atlanta. Not because I have anything against the 49ers, but because I would prefer the kids in this region of Northern California, my region, not be exposed to all the remaining days of hype for a game that will take a toll on the brain cells of the players.

I wouldn't wish this on the kids of Atlanta, either, but I'm naturally more concerned about kids I know. Atlanta parents should be glad the Falcons lost to San Francisco.

Actually, I do hold a grudge against the 49ers. Some weeks ago their starting quarterback, Alex Smith, was knocked out of a game with a concussion. When he had to sit out another week, the 49ers used that opening to install another player permanently at Smith's position, thus subliminally relaying the message to all players everywhere that reporting a concussion can be injurious to your job prospects, let alone your brain.

Smith, by the way, is a very smart guy. He should, while his intelligent brain is operating, walk away from the game, laughingly.

There have been recent stories that the 49ers have not found a company to put up hundreds of millions to have its name on a to be constructed new stadium for the team. Maybe some companies are a little worried about that master lawsuit, or simply don't want to be connected to a game that destroys its competitors. Still, someone will pony up the money. That's a given.

A few people, incidentally, have told me I shouldn't write this, that that might take away their fun watching the game. Those very nice people have been successfully desensitized.

Checking the word ``desensitization'' on wikpedia, I found it defined as ``the diminished, emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.''

It is somewhat ironic that this sounds like the damage inflicted on the brain after repeated battering in the game of football.

6 Comment count
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Not a Football Fan

Steve, thank you for this provocative blog.  I have pondered it often since reading it.  And I still do not know what I think.  I loved the excitement, the outdoor atmosphere, and the color and pagentry of the games when I was in high school marching in the band and the visiting other schools.  I even understood the game a bit in those days.  

I have probably not watched a handful of games since college although I still like watching the bands. Since I don't particularly like football, I am bored by much of the talk about it. I might walk through the room when the Super Bowl was on, but probably have never watched a game. I don't know these players, so I don't take an interest in them.

Nevertheless, many people love the game, and I cannot imagine closing down all the football stadiums and killing the dreams of those kids who have aspired to such glory.  For those who don't get seriously hurt, I am confident there are many benefits from the sport. The industry provides many jobs and draws the country together as people have something to talk about.

Until  recently, most people did not know all the brain damage being done.  I don't think children watching the game probably understand that yet.  Nor many of their parents.  Maybe now that more people know, parents will persuade their kids not to play. My mother would not let my brother play in high school  because she did not want him going through life with a bumb knee.  I thought she was smart, and I was grateful that our small rural high school had no football program, so Idid not have to worry about my son getting hurt on the turf. (He seriously hurt his knee playing high school basketball, and I suspect he suffers from it today although Idoubt he would ever admit it.)  I just cannot decide how much risk we must avoid in life, and how much risk we can deny other people to take.  If we stop the game of football, we will lose all the good things it brings to many.  But anything we can do to make it safer and prevent injuries is very important.  So I am glad you wrote this piece and hope you continue to persuade us to be less violent in our games as well as in our video watching.  Keep your crusade going!


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Sue, I agree the game definitely has benefits . . .

. . . but I don't think it is right to have children playing youth football and thus endangering their futures and lives. It is more than just a chance someone might suffer injury; the odds are very good, according to most studies, that the steady impact to young heads creates brain damage. It might not show up until someone is in his or her 40s or 50s or later, but once it does it is a nightmare, a living hell. That is why Junior Seau and Dave Duerson took their own lives in their 40s. If football can come up with a way of preventing brain damage, that would be wonderful. Until then, I used to enjoy watching the game, just can't do it anymore. I don't want to be entertained by watching people suffering tragic injury.

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This is a very interesting

This is a very interesting read, Steve. My eldest son is a big 49' ers fan. So hyped up over the upcomiing game. I must share your blog with him. I don't know anything about American football but my youngest son plays rugby and it scares the hell out of me. No helmets, no protection. Out in all weathers, hail, rain or shine. Mud up to his neck....etc., etc., . And I worry about injuries, several for people in the past who are now paralyzed. I often ponder why people engage in these games. The jock syndrome comes to mind, the bravo mentality, the pure crazy high received from a win. m

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No helmets in rugby might not be a bad thing, Mary

Because in American football, helmets seem to be the cause of so many terrible injuries, spinal and brain. Players used to intentionally do what was called ``spearing'' the ball carrier, hitting him helmet first, sometimes helmet to helmet. It can cause great damage to both players. This would likely not happen, hitting head to head, if the players were helmetless. In the wrongful death suit filed this week by Junior Seau's children, a helmet manufacturer is included along with the NFL. Intentional spearing or head to head clashes is now penalized by the NFL, but it still happens, often, and a 15-yard penalty is not going to be much satisfaction to a seriously impaired player, especially years down the line.

There used to be an annual rugby tournament on the Monterey Peninsula and I covered it several times for the Monterey Herald. There were a lot of injuries, sprains, broken arms and legs, sometimes a broken nose, but serious head injuries, as I recall, were almost unheard of. Again, unlikely two rugby players would intentionally use their helmetless heads as weapons. So that's a very good thing about rugby and other sports where equipment can't be used as a weapon.

In soccer, apparently there is movement to cut down on ``headers'' by players, guiding the ball with head action. Especially not a good idea for kids, when the brain is still developing. I played Catholic league soccer growing up in St. Louis. Fortunately, I was lousy at headers, but probably didn't help my thinking process any with numerous futile attempts.

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Ingrained madness

An insidious part of the problem is that the game of football became popular long before the effects on players were appreciated.  As with so many things (from soft drinks to the gun industry) football has become so much a part of our culture that you risk getting hate mail (or worse) for a blog post like this one. 

If football became a banned sport, millions upon millions of dollars in income, from the players' salaries to the advertisers' access to fans, to the hot dog vendors' sales, would be disrupted.  Not to mention the outcry from people who are entertained by football games and whose thoughts and converations are often about teams and players and games. 

No one really knows if banning violent games like football would decrease our collective tolerance for violence, or would just remove a social relief valve that allows many to work out their violent impulses through the sacrifices of a few. 

Maybe the game will be modified eventually to address the head injuries, but we may have to wait for better technology, just as players had to wait  before they switched from leather helmets to materials that absorbed some of the impact. 

Anyway, thank you for taking on an unpopular topic. 




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Thanks for the comments, G.

Interesting what you say about hate mail. I don't think I ever get it on Red Room but when I do the same sort of pieces for a newspaper, they come flowing in. You can see that now if you go to the website of any of the larger newspapers. Anyone who criticizes football or simply has a political or social opinion will get twenty to 30 percent hate mail. It can be really ugly stuff.

I'd rather see football survive if there was some way to prevent the head injuries.  You're always going to have broken bones, but a remaining life of dementia and depression is a nightmare.When Obama spoke about our consciences and football, I'm sure that is what he was referring to – what price is paid by others for our entertainment. Which is why I can't watch it anymore.