A Dissonance of Spirit

All I really remember was the loud “ping” that echoed through my helmet when I collided face to face with the opposing team’s running back. Neither one of us fell down; we just stopped, and the play was whistled dead. I soon discovered that the source of the ping sound was the bolts that fastened the face mask to my helmet exploding free due to the force of the impact. My face mask could be lifted up like the beaver of a medieval knight’s helmet. The next time I hit someone the thing would likely be blown the rest of the way off. The equipment manager managed to get it fixed pretty quickly…I think. I don’t really remember much of what happened next. What down was it? Whose ball was it? What day was it?

That was in 1984. I was a sophomore in high school, playing on my school’s JV football team. I loved football; not for the feeling that those who scored the points or who threw the touchdown passes must have experienced. I never knew what that must have felt like. I was a center and defensive tackle. I did get to touch the ball every offensive play, unlike the rest of the linemen around me, so that was pretty cool. I started the play. Until I moved the ball, no one else could move. But that feeling of control wasn’t what drew me to football either. It was the hitting; the sensation of colliding with another player, struggling with all of your strength to tackle him, block him, or get him out of the way—that was what I enjoyed. Yep, I was that guy; the one who ran and lifted weights while listening to “Rocky” music. I would train throughout the year to strengthen every key muscle group involved with performing those specific actions associated with being a football lineman. That one on one competition between myself and the opponent just across from me was a weekly obsession for the couple of months each fall when football season at last arrived. I miss it. A lot.

I was only 16 then. Now I’m 54. I still love football; following my favorite teams and watching skilled athletes maneuver the field to strategically and physically overpower their opponents is exhilarating. Of course, watching isn’t the same as playing. Nothing will ever replace those memories. At least, those I still have. It’s a good thing I kept a pretty detailed scrapbook, chronicling all the games I participated in. I can still read the newspaper articles that describe the highlights of every game. My name is even in a few of them for things like recovering fumbles, or even for the one interception I had over my five-year football career. Then there are the “dark moments,” like the ones that came after the “ping,” where what immediately followed is pretty much missing from the mental scrapbook.

A couple of days ago, I was scrolling through one of the streaming services to which my family subscribes, looking for something to watch that might be worth my time. I came across a documentary entitled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” I had already seen the 2015 movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith, which chronicled the discovery of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) by Bennet Omalu, whom Smith portrays in the film. The documentary featured interviews with Omalu himself, as well as other doctors who continued his work after the NFL essentially dismissed his work. The economic forces behind an industry as lucrative as professional football could not afford to have a firm connection become established between playing football and significant, ultimately debilitating brain damage. The evidence, however, was too compelling for me to ignore. As the work has proceeded, the NFL has begun investing in research to learn all they can about CTE and its possible connections to the sport. They have instituted new concussion protocols and have increased their monitoring of the severity of hits players suffer in order to keep the game as “safe” as they can given its inherently violent nature. I recommend the film and associated documentary mentioned above for anyone inclined to learn more. For me, the documentary has brought about a potent case of cognitive dissonance that I am having trouble shaking; I liken it to a spiritual crisis of sorts. I don’t really know what it is like to “lose one’s faith,” as I frequently adjust what I believe based on new facts and will gladly alter my worldviews and beliefs in the face of evidence compelling enough to bring about those changes. On this issue, however, my mind and heart are struggling against the uncomfortable truth that the sport I have loved all my life, and continue to love today, is ruining lives of not only its players, but their families as well.

Many victims of CTE suffer from significant transformations in their moods and personalities, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and in some cases suicide. They die too young. Football fans like myself watch the game not just to see spectacular catches by wide receivers, amazing pinpoint throws by elusive quarterbacks, and tough runs by running backs that require multiple tacklers to bring them down. We watch for what I most enjoyed about the game when I was a player—tremendous hits. The more punishing the hit is, the more we cheer. Masses of fans will roar for the players who can “light up” their opponents, or “decleat” them (knock them off of their feet, and metaphorically out of their shoes). “Did you see that! Dude got LIT. UP. That was a decleater!” Of course, not all of the recipients of such hits just bounce back to their feet right away. Many have to be helped off the field, unable to walk off under their own power. They head off to the medical tent on the sidelines, sometimes to the nearest hospital for further examination, and we find ourselves just wanting them to get scraped off the field so the game can go on. No one wishes them ill, but the fans don’t lose much sleep over those who fall in battle. Football players are modern gladiators (they just die more slowly, and out of the limelight) and we fans are the rabble that demand to be entertained by their suffering—just give us our bread and circuses!

There are many risks inherent in what these modern gladiators do. One hit can end a career. Many lesser hits, over time, can end a life. Those who are the victims of CTE have often left the gridiron stage and are quickly forgotten if they are no longer active playmakers that entertain the vast crowds every Saturday and Sunday across the nation.

Now, the great hits that I have in the past cheered for and celebrated are accompanied by different thoughts once the initial admiration of the hits subsides. I wonder how much damage to the player’s brain a particular hit has just caused, and to what degree it will affect his future—and his family. Will the cumulative effects of those hits over years of competition result in him losing all that he loves and values outside of the game? His family won’t be able to help him; the damage is irreversible. They will have to watch him transform before their eyes into someone they no longer recognize, someone who could even harm them, or himself. Instead of “Did you see how that guy just got LIT UP?” I find myself saying “I hope he gets up,” followed by “Is it all worth it?”

Do the players go into the game knowing the full risks? I know I didn’t. We had a helmet, and tackling someone didn’t really hurt, so where’s the harm? Sure, every now and then there are the hits that cause noticeable effects in the moment, but we were just expected to “suck it up” and play. Unless a bone was sticking out of some part of you or they had to cart or carry you off the field, then after taking a series off to “shake it off” you were expected to get back in there and do your job for the team. What did we know? Sure, there was always the risk of a blown knee (which I also endured) or some other injury, but those were risks I was willing to take. If someone had told me, or my parents, that the sport carried an inherent risk of long-lasting brain damage that could impact me for the rest of my life, would I have chosen a different path? It’s hard to say. We didn’t know then what we know now. The whole situation reminds me of how smoking was considered cool and fashionable at one time, and when the science of its health risks began to come out, there was pushback from the powerful industry that profited from cigarette sales. Today, the health risks of smoking are well known. That doesn’t stop everyone from engaging in that behavior, nor will knowledge of football’s potential brain damage risk likely cause it such damage that its popularity among players and fans will significantly wane in the immediate future. There is a lot more to learn. There are variables that have to be accounted for. Perhaps, when the evidence is so utterly insurmountable and irrefutable that no one can question that the sport causes lasting damage to the brain, more drastic changes will be seen. Perhaps that degree of evidence will not be found—or perhaps it already has been, and we just haven’t seen it yet.

Research shows us that when our deepest beliefs are confronted by strong evidence that refutes their validity, that we tend to dig in our heels rather than be open minded and shift our beliefs to match the new facts. Changing what we fundamentally believe can be painful. It represents a loss off something that has given joy, comfort, belonging, and satisfaction for decades. To simply throw all that away is beyond the capacity of many. I have always worked to live my life as someone who only believes what demonstrable facts reveal; I know what I want to believe in many cases, but my desire for something to be true cannot justify ignoring the evidence that says it is not. I seek out and genuinely work to listen to those viewpoints that oppose what I currently hold as true, because I know that my own knowledge is incomplete and that there are always arguments that I have not been made aware of or perspectives from which I have not viewed those issues.

The football issue represents one of the first times I have genuinely faced facts that challenge something I have valued, and I find myself resisting them. The dissonance is pretty strong. There are all kinds of arguments my “trapped in a corner” mind tries to make, such as “Well, other sports are pretty rough too. What about rugby? Boxing? MMA? Even soccer and volleyball involve taking blows to the head at times. What about horseback riding? My own wife suffered a severe concussion getting thrown off a horse. Are we going to put all those sports on trial too?” Okay dissonant mind, time to back off on the reactionary, emotional, “defend the status quo at all costs” fallacies. The front-and-center question here is “What does the evidence tell us?” Answering that question takes time. That some football players have suffered and died from a condition that can be pretty powerfully linked to head trauma suffered from playing the game has been established as fact. Is it possible, then, with different protocols, rules, equipment, and technologies that we can lower the effects down into the same risk category of the blown knee or high ankle sprain? That is work that those involved in coaching and training for the sport, and of course team physicians and other medical professionals whose expertise and experience carries a lot of influence, need to pursue to make the game as safe as possible. If, after all that work is done, the incidence of life-altering brain trauma continues to rise and is established as an unavoidable aspect of the game, perhaps the game will fade away on its own as its popularity becomes unable to compete with the facts.

I often wonder what my own future holds. I am pretty sure that I suffered at least two concussions playing football that went unnoticed. Had they been severe enough, I might have died in my sleep. Is my own brain permanently damaged from playing football for five seasons as a kid? I haven’t experienced any of the symptoms that seem consistent with CTE as of yet, and it’s been quite a long time since I slammed my helmeted head against someone else. If and when I experience symptoms such as those commonly seen with dementia, can that be reasonably pinned on activities from when I was a teenager, or is it just attributable to aging, genetics, or a combination of all of those things? It isn’t like I played college and professional ball, putting my head through many more years of high-powered impacts playing against much stronger and faster players. At the same time, there have been instances of football players dying from CTE in their teens and twenties, as the documentary mentioned earlier chronicled. There are still so many unanswered questions. The key is that we have to keep asking them.

I still love football. That isn’t likely to change any time soon. However, the dissonance isn’t going to go away. I will never look at the game quite the same way again. I will continue to read and monitor what is being learned as the research continues, and the day may eventually come when I may be forced to turn away from being a fan of the game—or not. I won’t do that easily, and that is as it should be. No belief you hold should be abandoned without pretty serious consideration. At the same time, if you are unwilling, in the face of evidence you are unable to refute, to even listen to it or consider how those competing views can be reconciled, then we have a problem. Change is a part of every aspect of life, and many genuine changes are slow to come—but come they will. Be open to them, uncomfortable as they may sometimes be. Listen. Read. Research. Think. Question. Learn.

Socrates tells us that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Let’s try to be a people who can acknowledge our ignorance, but never one to become content with it.

Gotta go, now. The game is on.

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