Feature

The NFL: Trying to save players’ brains

Finally showing concern that its players are suffering permanent brain damage, the NFL announced a long overdue crackdown on “headhunting” hits—the cause of chronic concussions.

On a recent Sunday, Zack Follett of the Detroit Lions crashed headlong into the New York Giants’ 6-foot-5, 270-pound Jason Pierre-Paul and was carried off to the hospital. The Eagles’ DeSean Jackson and the Falcons’ Dunta Robinson were ejected from their game following a “frightening helmet-to-helmet collision.” And James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, took out two opponents with devastating blows to their heads, and then boasted: “I try to hurt people.” Pro football is becoming “more violent with each passing decade,’’ said William C. Rhoden in The New York Times, as ever-bigger, faster players smash into one another with “unprecedented physical force.” Finally showing concern that its gladiators are suffering permanent brain damage, the NFL last week announced a long overdue crackdown on “headhunting” hits—the cause of chronic concussions. But can the NFL ever become less violent?

The biggest obstacle is the players themselves, said Tracee Hamilton in The Washington Post. Many of them reacted to the NFL’s crackdown on head hits with disgust and disbelief. “We’re going to be playing flag football in about five years,” Cowboys linebacker Bradie James sarcastically predicted. The Steelers’ Harrison—who was fined $75,000 for inflicting concussions on two Browns receivers—briefly claimed that he was considering retirement. “This is what we sign up for,” said Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Perhaps these macho warriors should meet, or view videos of, numerous retired players who now suffer with constant migraines, memory loss, depression, and even symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Perhaps they should be educated about guys like Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagle who shot himself at 44; an autopsy revealed that his brain was shrunken and diseased like that of an 85-year-old.

Good luck trying to talk sense into players, said Dave Zirin in The Nation. This is a game, after all, that “turns the poor into millionaires,” and produces billions in revenue for the NFL. Hefty fines, suspensions, and new tackling techniques cannot alter the fundamentally brutal nature of a sport in which every play ends in a violent collision. “There is no making football safer.” So perhaps we fans should turn away from the gore, said Michael Sokolove in The New York Times. But for many Americans, watching football has become like eating meat. “We have a taste for it, so we do not want to think too hard about it.”

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