Prodigal Pastime (3)

I should be forthcoming. I’ve never liked football. I hate it now, but it didn’t suffer some fall from grace. Dad used to take me over to Granddaddy Melvin’s out in the Appalachian foothills to watch the Redskins. Granddaddy wouldn’t usually light a fire, but the entire street, sandpaper bark and billow clouds, smelled sharp with woodsmoke.

Football drove me absolutely insane. I enjoyed playing it in the side yard against mainstreet, but it was at the bottom of my hierarchy when I was in middle school. I was a decent basketball player for a couple years. Speed was a strong suit in any sport I played and I developed a pretty good eye for the bounce pass. My dad was a serious player for a long time and taught me how an average build could occupy disproportionate space around the rim. I loved it in neighborhood driveways and gym classes, but never took it more seriously than that.

I was a good soccer player. I was fast, able to avoid whistles, skillful without the ball, and built like a defender (though I hadn’t figured that out yet). Baseball was my best sport until the mound stretched from 45 feet to 60 feet 6 inches. I always say that but it’s a correlation without causation. My only home run and the final in a long string of all-star teams came in sixth grade, my last year of little league. In seventh grade I played for the middle school team on a big field and was pretty much a full time pinch runner. The bigger field was also populated by bigger players who threw big curve balls. There’s nothing on god’s green earth scarier than a good curveball on the heels of a high fastball. I wasn’t any good from the moment I realized I was scared of getting hit.

I played football in a lot by the road after school almost every day of sixth grade. I was fast and had good hands from my years of baseball; strong and agile from soccer, difficult to tackle, but I couldn’t hit for shit. I wasn’t always like that, but I really only played football in middle school. When I was thirteen, fourteen, it was part of my personality – I ran from stuff but didn’t throw my body in its way when it ran at me. Even in middle school soccer I was an aimless midfielder; timid, first or second off the bench, but rarely a starter. Only in high school did I learn reckless abandon to any useful degree, figure out how to hold a line and guard it with my shoulder. Anyway, football was fun for what it was to me. Watching was a different story.

Its reputation is of intensity, speed, and physicality but, lord almighty, it’s a slow watch. Best case scenario, skulls crack, buttons hook, baskets catch, and bones shake for six or seven seconds before a pause five or ten times that length. Worst case, the ball flies out of bounds or a back picks up a couple feet underneath an impenetrable scrum: three minutes, no action, one punt, and six commercials. A game clock with sixty minutes takes over three hours to hit zero.

I never liked football once it left the confines of my neighborhood, but I really hate it now. Football is hitting its Barry Bonds crisis. I would love to think that the utterly despicable treatment of Colin Kaepernick by the league would be its downfall, but CTE bears more of the markers. Everyone knew steroid use was rampant in baseball, but it was only when it started tainting the record books that everything went to hell. Baseball was content to let it roll until it realized it would have to deal with Pete Rose every single year at Hall of Fame inductions while the name “Barry Bonds” topped all of its record books. I’d rather they just put Pete Rose in the damn Hall while they’re at it but that’s another matter. At some point soon, the NFL is going to have indisputable proof that it ruined the health and livelihood of its very pride and joy.

Mark Leibovich spent the last few years reporting for his book Big Game and noted in an interview with The Atlantic that scientists are close to breakthroughs that will allow them to identify CTE in living patients. It’s hard to imagine a situation where the NFL does not soon have asterisks beside the names of its very best. Not asterisks that taint their achievements, but asterisks that shame the NFL for their role. Leibovich said of a researcher who examined the brain of Aaron Hernandez: “For a twenty-seven year old athlete, she’s never seen a worse case of CTE.” A sport probably shouldn’t survive that any more than mining operations should weather the death of their miners by black lung and explosion. I don’t think it can.

But there are lessons for football in other sports that have faced such existential crises. Baseball’s ratings never quite recovered their peak of the late 1980s, but the 2016 World Series was the most watched in the event’s history. It’s remained one of the country’s cherished major sports even after it acknowledged and corrected the malignancy of steroid use. Baseball allowed steroid use to burrow far too deep into its legacy before excising it. But it survived, a better, more competitive, sport than it was before.

Leagues always use their athletes to a certain degree – expect their silence, buy their right to organization, throw gobs of money at owners that dwarf those of the players, often leave them with injuries. I’d like to think, however, that we can draw a line between a basketball or soccer that leaves forty-year-old retirees with money and knees free of cartilage, and a boxing that drops bodies and leaves fighters with permanent brain damage. Baseball drew a self-serving line far too late, just on this side of encouraging its athletes to take dangerous drugs to build muscle. But baseball had also been played free of such drugs for a century and could imagine the game without them. Boxing hasn’t made any such changes, but it’s hard to imagine a bout that doesn’t constantly threaten concussion, blackout, brain damage, death. I’m inclined to think that football is somewhere closer to the latter, but if scientists are close to determining without an autopsy whether players have suffered traumatic brain injuries, then the league is bound to be able to figure out how to prevent them.