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What's Up Magazine

Whither Football?

Oct 01, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Gary Jobson

There are two sides to the sport of football. The first is an exciting game with great drama and passion for both the players and the spectators. Football is called America’s Game with good reason. Whether you are watching in person, or on any network, broadcasting every play keeps one glued to the action. The question on everyone’s mind is: What is going to happen next? The pageantry surrounding football is well-produced. Pre-game shows, bands, parades, big screen videos, loud music, and the roar of the crowd for the home team combine for an exhilarating experience. The flip side to football is the dark side. In professional football, so many players suffer injuries. Severe head injuries are common. We are just starting to understand the number of debilitating injures, early deaths, and mental issues that are a direct result of football injuries. Long term, there is a major question of whether the sport of football can survive.

My own experience with football started at a young age. My father worked as a reporter for a newspaper in New Jersey. At the age of five, I tagged along to watch high school games. To this day, my memory of those games was sensational. Years later, my college organized a football team in 1970. I will never forget the first game. The New York Daily News predicted the score in the Friday morning edition: Stony Brook 40 New York Maritime 0. Needless to say, that unfortunate prediction was posted on the locker room door, and New York Maritime went on to win in a major upset. It was great fun. I was on the sailing team in college, and never had a serious injury, but a few football players who were my classmates got banged up pretty good with broken bones, and yes, concussions.

In 1905, there were 19 deaths from football related injuries.

Many years later as a sports commentator for ESPN, I was able to attend eight Super Bowls. My role was to entertain advertisers, and cable operators the day before the game. If the Super Bowl was near water, we would take the guests sailing. The excitement building up to a Super Bowl is impressive. No matter where you sit in the stadium, there are celebrities everywhere. 

Unfortunately, in most football games, a player seems to be carted off the field with some kind of injury. The routine is familiar. The player leaves, the fans of both teams offer applause, and the game continues. A shocking number of those players are damaged for life. Even when football first appeared in the 1800s, there were a lot of injuries. In 1905, there were 19 deaths. President Theodore Roosevelt held a meeting with representatives from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and mandated that rules be implemented to make the sport safer. Rule changes included the elimination of the flying wedge and other mass formations, and the forward pass was made legal. 

Interest in college football has grown every year since those early days. The first professional football game was in 1892. A growing following has been automatic over the decades. But in the past three years, television ratings for football games have dropped dramatically. There are many reasons, including offering too many games four days per week, younger adults are engaged in other activities, the games are not as interesting, there are too many commercials during telecasts, attending games in person is ridiculously expensive, and there is a growing awareness that there are too many injuries. But I stayed a loyal fan. I owned four Redskins club seats for 18 years. The initial ticket price was $200 per seat per game. Ten years after acquiring the tickets, I continued to go to games even when the prices doubled to $400 per seat per game. Yet, in 2014, the Redskins decided to increase the price to $740 per. I haven’t been back since. 

In 2015, a feature film soberly titled Concussion, starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin focused on the devastating effects from head injuries. The film, based on fact, won many awards and opened my eyes about the effects of concussions. The film explained that the brain sits in the skull unattached. When there is a severe trauma to the head, the brain is jostled and can be damaged with internal bleeding, or a concussion. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is possible to have a concussion and not even know it. Usually the effects include headaches, problems with concentration, memory, balance, and coordination. Slurred speech, vomiting, fatigue, ringing in ears, and dizziness are also common problems. Most people recover from a concussion but symptoms can last for weeks. For football players, repeated concussions cause troubling issues later in life. Reports of prominent football players having Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a worrying pattern. There have been a shocking number of former players who have committed suicide. 

I have stood on the sideline during many professional football games. What you never quite understand on television is just how hard the players hit each other, how fast they run, and the genuine pain that the players experience at the end of a play. Let there be no doubt football is a violent game. A good friend of mine, Larry Mialik, played for the San Diego Chargers and the Atlanta Falcons. He played tight end for six seasons. Larry also sailed on three America’s Cup crews as a grinder and won one America’s Cup with America3 in 1992. He was a great teammate, an attribute he no doubt learned playing football. A few years ago, I asked him if he had any football injuries playing in the pros, or at the University of Wisconsin. He showed me scars all over his legs, arms, and body from multiple surgeries. Larry said he lost two inches of height from repeated blows to his head. Now in his late 60s, he suffers from all those injuries.

I never played football myself, although my brother was a fullback on an undefeated high school team. He went on to play in college. Recently, he wrote me a rare hand-written letter to tell me about the severe headaches he was having. He attributed his problems to football. In high school, he would get banged up trying to get a first down, and as a result he got some concussions. The coaches would simply say, “Son, show us how tough you are and get back out on the field.” Never mind that he played with blurred vision, and could hardly speak. Now, 45 years later, he is suffering from those injuries. Who is responsible?

The Boston University School of Medicine conducted a brain injury study that showed 33 of 34 players tested post-mortem, showed clear signs of CTE. Baltimore Colt greats Earl Morrall and John Mackey are among the players who died with CTE. Other well-known deceased players around the league that tested positive with CTE were Junior Seau, Bubba Smith, Andre Waters, and Frank Gifford.

The National Football League, as other sports leagues, now has a concussion protocol that keeps players off the field if they can’t pass a cognitive test. Ex-Packers star quarterback Brett Favre says that he fears he has memory loss because of multiple concussions. When asked during an interview with NBC how many times he had played with a concussion that the new rules would have resulted in him sitting out, he replied, “A lot.”  

Head injuries are not the only problem facing football players. Lack of safety came into sharp focus when University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died of heat stroke in May. You will also find an endless list of football injury video clips on YouTube. One of the worst visual injuries came when Joe Theismann suffered a broken leg on a Monday Night Football game in 1985. Theismann never played again. The National Football League reached a $1 billion-dollar concussion settlement with its former players. According to The Washington Post and The New York Times, settlements have been slow being handed out. Over 20,000 former players have registered as possible litigants. 

Will football fade? Certainly the injury lawsuits will take a toll on the National Football League, and most likely college football programs as well. With the publicity surrounding the risks of playing football, I believe fewer young athletes will take up the sport. We have four grandsons now. It is my hope that they all find interesting sports to play, but not football. I would not want them to go through the experience my brother is facing from his football injuries. I expect colleges will continue to evaluate their football programs. Certainly, there is considerable revenue from ticket sales, and in many cases television contracts, but at what expense? 

Baltimore Colts’ great Earl Morrall, pictured here in 1976, suffered from and died with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), likely the result of playing football. 

We want to prepare young people for vibrant careers and productive lives. Is football worth it when many players are physically impaired in their 20s and mentally impaired later in life? There will always be injuries in sports like baseball, swimming, gymnastics, skiing, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, and yes, even sailing. But the percentage of serious injuries is far greater in football than other sports. My advice to young, aspiring athletes is to pick a sport that you can continue to play as you get older. I am not as good a sailor as I was in my 20s and 30s, but even at the age of 68, I am still competitive on the water. In many ways, I enjoy the experience even more. It might take several years, but football is in danger of losing spectator interest as more young people forgo playing the game, television ratings continue to fall, and injury related lawsuits take a financial toll on colleges and professional teams.