Football: I will pass on it

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The NFL and college football seasons are about to hit us full force and I have to sadly admit, I no longer care. I am a lifelong lover of the game and have endless memories of all the sport has brought me.

As a kid, it was not just a game to play for hours on end, it was also something to watch with great frequency. I sat on the time keeper’s table as a child watching older guys from the neighborhood play at the local high school while my dad served as team doctor. There were memorable games watching the Oakland Raiders with my dad who was an original season ticket holder as well as the many times I traveled on a bus full of liquored up 49er fans with my buddy Tom.

L.A. Rams wide receiver Nelson Spruce lost his entire rookie season to injury (Claudia Gestro)

I devoured every Touchdown for Tommy book I could find, played electric football with my older brother, ran thousands of pass patterns for him as he chased his dream of playing quarterback in the NFL, and I even served a stint as the first ever soccer style kicker at my high school.

But today, there are things I know about football that we were unaware of in the 1970s. Yes, it has always been a brutal game, but now that I know the extent brain damage runs throughout the game, I just don’t find myself enjoying the sport enough to follow it with any real interest. Still, I am fine with those who passionately follow the game. It is, after all, the single sport that best defines us as a nation.

We all know enough now about the dangers of football to no longer be able to make excuses for what happens to people who play the game. Parents have enough medical and scientific information to refute any youth coach who sells them on how safe it is for their eight-year-old to play tackle football. If you are willing to risk your son’s brain, joints, and limbs for your selfish desire to watch him run the gridiron, go for it. Just don’t claim ignorance if your child develops problems a few years or decades down the road.

I once had a high school student who was told his season was over after receiving his third concussion that season. The doctor was advising him to never play and said it would not be likely he would ever clear him to do so. The kid was pissed. His mother was pissed. His coached was pissed. Meanwhile, his teachers and I were concerned about his sudden outbursts and mood swings which did not improve over the course of the school year. In the end, he played the following year until another concussion ended his football career.

We know there is no such thing as a safe helmet that will allow 280 pound men running at full speed to collide head on with one another and protect them. Leagues can ban helmet hits but they still happen. So do low hits to a knee planted firmly in the ground, a forearm to a chin, and an unprotected low back from a blind side hit.

By now, we all know injuries are part of the game which explains the “Next Man Up” mentality of football players. They think of themselves as warriors, but in truth, they are nothing but interchangeable parts here to entertain us. However, team doctors will tell you the nature of the injuries they see from football are only rivaled by those found in battle or from horrific car accidents.

The NFL, for decades, fought to keep a lawsuit from moving forward showing they worked to cover up the effects of brain trauma in players. Now the league is investing $40 million dollars into research for ways to make the game safer. My guess is, they will soon realize they can’t and will be left to seek more players from other parts of the planet to gamble on their long term health for a chance to earn riches playing a game fewer Americans will be playing.

New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge after winning the 2017 MLB All-Star Game Home Run Derby (Claudia Gestro)

High schools in places like New Jersey are reporting having to end football programs due to a lack of participation. Physical freaks like Aaron Judge are turning away from football to play baseball or basketball because they know they can cash in on their athletic talent without sacrificing their brain in the process.

Those who do choose to play college and pro football do so now fully knowing how dangerous the game is. These are young men who have decided to gamble on their long term health in the hopes of striking it rich. There is no need to feel sorry for them if their brains turn into mash potatoes before their 40th birthday. Their suffering, all too often, becomes a point of pride, although I am not sure why.

Playing in a football game was once described as being in 20 or 30 car accidents where you hit head on at 20 miles an hour over a three hour period. The following week is all about readying yourself for the next round of head on accidents. High school is four years. Another four years of college ball and an average NFL career of 4 years means 12 seasons of this. That works out to about 5,000 head on collisions at 20 miles an hour. Would you do that? Would you allow your kid to do that?

I no longer see football players as exceptional athletes who play a sport few can imagine what is like to play. They really are interchangeable parts here to take our minds off our work, marriage, and life in general. We might as well just use robots and play a full scale size game of electric football to see who can smash and destroy enough of the other side to claim victory for a week. At least this way, the game becomes safer.

Top photo of the Los Angeles Chargers scrimmage at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA by Claudia Gestro