Bernstein: Let’s Please Just Be Honest About Football

By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) We’re doing it again, reacting in overwrought fashion to the latest evidence that smashing one’s head into things is bad for the brain.

First it was the latest, largest study published by the estimable Dr. Ann McKee in the Journal of the American Medical Association that detailed the grave and ongoing reality – 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players that were donated for her research showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

While striking, this information wasn’t exactly new in its conclusions. We were already well aware from the work of Dr. McKee and others that those kind of selected samples were overwhelmingly likely to evince a high correlation with the disease, as the decision to donate had already been made in many cases due to consistent symptoms. The non-neutral study results still set off waves of new consternation, powered by overblown headlines and jarring images of deteriorated tissue.

Then came the high-profile retirement of Ravens guard John Urschel and the question nobody cared to ask.

Urschel might be the smartest man to ever play in the NFL, having already forged a star career as a mathematician with several published papers and academic awards while pursuing his PhD at MIT, specializing in spectral graph theory, numerical linear algebra and machine learning. That he quit football so abruptly just two days after the release of the new study made him an easy national poster boy for re-prioritization, making the decision to protect his valuable cognitive abilities.

But I can’t be the only reasonable person to wonder why somebody that intelligent was still playing at this point or had been at all. As informed as the rest of us have been since the very first peer-reviewed studies began emerging more than a decade ago, Urschel had to have known the damage he was inflicting on himself through his career at Penn State and 40 games in the NFL. The son of a surgeon and attorney wasn’t using the sport to find some last-ditch path out of poverty, either, and never had to play. Rather than consider him some kind of hero, I want to know what the upside was for his accrued head trauma in the first place.

And with this came more familiar behaviors, the aggrieved, straw-man arguments against some perceived “War on Football” brigade, yet another round self-flagellation by the sports media, questioning its role in promoting something so brutal, and more “change the game” speculation.

Are we really doing this all again?

The fake tough guys are scared of actual medical information, worried that Malcom Gladwell will be correct earlier than once believed in his theory that playing football will be like joining the military – something most middle-class parents won’t want their kids to do. The youth coaches in football-culture hotbeds disingenuously peddle lies about high-tech helmets and magic mouth-guards to assuage the growing concern of parents who can’t escape science. There’s no war on football, just an ongoing effort to inform good decisions with the best data available.

And if public schools are soon advised by their lawyers and insurance agents that it’s best to get out of the brain injury business, so be it. There will be enough private organizations to keep stocking rosters with speedy physical freaks who want to clobber each other.

Spare us the hand-wringing of commentators and columnists seeing the latest story of a player ruined by the game and wondering “What have I done?” — as if just waking up to the obviousness of blunt-force destruction. Football is horrible for the combatants and always has been, and only the most willfully ignorant tried not to understand that or then mitigate it. Violence is much of the allure, in fact, a primary selling point until legal concerns forced everyone to pretend otherwise. Anybody who was basking in the mythos of character building and life lessons and winning one for the Gipper can’t possibly be dumb enough to suddenly now realize what it all actually is.

And don’t change the game one bit. If anything, we can go back to before the entire feigning of concern began to erode the entertainment value at the highest level of skill. It’s supposed to be dangerous and ultimately destructive, a weekly simulacrum of the battlefield acted out by our modern gladiators, harming each other for our amusement. We have to stop trying to retrofit football into some idealized intellectual construct that alleviates the pain of cognitive dissonance and instead accept what it is and why we enjoy it.

Football is simply not humane.

That doesn’t mean get rid of it, make it safer to the point that it loses its essence or bar people from participating. It means merely acknowledging the truth. We should strive for both informed consent and appropriate medical care that’s collectively bargained between the league and the players’ union, and then get on with the show.

We’re all grown-ups here, and I think we can better handle this than with more dissembling, public grandstanding and cross-purposed argument. It’s perfectly fine to know what we are watching.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Bernstein and Goff Show” in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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