I did not watch the Super Bowl this year. I could have, and there were a few moments when I was tempted to peek in, but I promised myself I would not, and I did not. In the interest of full disclosure I also cannot claim that abstaining was particularly difficult, because I had zero interest in either of the teams except to the extent that I hoped they might somehow both lose. Still, in a historical context my decision marked a turning point for me, and it is a choice I intend to continue going forward. As hard as it may be — and I suspect it will be a great deal more difficult than I imagine — I have decided to stop watching football at any level for the rest of my life.
In retrospect I am not surprised that I came to that decision, but I am surprised how quickly it took hold. As anyone even remotely aware of athletics knows, there is a serious problem with the game of football, which is that the game itself routinely if not inevitably maims the people who play it. For most of my life it was assumed that the physical damage from football was largely acute, occurring when a tendon ruptured or a bone snapped in two, and anyone who has watched football for any length of time has invariably seen players carted off as a result of such trauma. We now know, however, that there is a more insidious kind of damage which haunts players not only after their playing careers are over, but in some cases even while they are in what should be the prime of their life. This second class of injury may not become fully emergent until decades later, but there is now no question about where that damage comes from, and it comes from playing football. Otherwise healthy and fit — and in many cases extremely fit — human beings are disabled and even die, well before their time, for no other reason than having played the game.
That the first football game I chose to turn away from also happened to be the most celebrated annual event in American sports was not lost on me, but my decision was only incidentally symbolic. I could have watched the Super Bowl this year, then sworn off the game, but I decided I did not want to wait. Starting my football abstinence with the Super Bowl was indicative of my commitment, and I did not want to put off that commitment simply to satisfy my desire to be entertained for a few hours.
Abstaining from the Super Bowl was also not a specific indictment of the professional game. To be sure it is the National Football League which has been the focus of investigation into, and reporting on, long-term negative health effects for players, but the final straw that triggered my decision to stop watching football actually came from the college ranks. Specifically, only a few weeks into what would become my alma mater’s most improbably successful season on the gridiron, news broke that a former player at the University of Iowa — Tyler Sash — had died, in his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, of what was believed to be an accidental drug overdose. Although there had been prior reports of odd behavior and scrapes with the law subsequent to Sash’s retirement from the NFL, nobody thought that his life would come to an end at the age of 27.
While there were certainly concerns that football might have contributed to Sash’s death in some way — perhaps because of chronic physical injuries sustained during his years on the field, and his subsequent need for painkillers — it was also clear that Tyler Sash had walked away from the game relatively unscathed. That assumption seemed to be borne out by findings a month or so later, when it was reported that Sash had died from a toxic mix of painkillers. Tragic, to be sure, but in a country overrun with opiate abuse, hardly an indictment of the game of football, which Sash himself clearly loved.
Not until after the end of the Hawkeye’s surprising season, however, was it learned that Tyler Sash not only had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a type of brain damage now closely associated with head injury, and particularly with concussion — but the development of the disease was shockingly advanced for someone so young:
The Times report says the severity of CTE in Sash’s brain was similar to the level found in the brain of former NFL hall-of-famer Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 at age 43.
“With Tyler being so young, it’s very surprising to me,” linebacker A.J. Edds, who played at Iowa with Sash in 2008 and 2009, told The Register on Tuesday night. “But when you start looking back and connecting the dots, some of the symptoms and signs were there.
“It’s eye-opening. It tells you about the state and the standing of what football is continuing to do to guys, not just physically but mentally as well.”
The news of Sash’s post-mortem diagnosis broke at the end of January. Because CTE was already in the news at that time, and particularly because Sash played for a New York franchise in the NFL, the findings of his autopsy received national coverage. The news also occasioned deep reflection among several of the long-time beat reporters who cover Hawkeye sports, and their conflicted deliberations matched my own.
The NFL Conference Championships played out on Sunday, January 24th, 2016, only two days before Sash’s CTE was reported in the news. The Super Bowl was scheduled for two weeks later, on Sunday, February 7th. During that two-week period my already growing concerns about football as a sport, as entertainment, as a for-profit business, and as an agent of misery and death, coalesced into the only avenue of action available to me. I decided I would stop watching football, not simply as a means of avoiding what was happening to players at all levels of the sport, but as a means of effecting change, however incrementally. [ Read more ]