Football and light bulbs
I heard there’s a big football game on next week; it’s an annual event where advertisers try to be so entertaining that we will actually watch their ads. There are also traditions of viewing parties, food and drink consumption, and the suspension all normal rules of family inclusion where those who do not “get” football are concerned. It’s the biggest game of the year: it’s just Super! Fans look forward to it all year.
It’s actually coincidental that I just got ’round to writing this post today, because I am going to make a “Modest Proposal” regarding their favorite sport. I’m going to propose that football go the way of the 100-watt light bulb.
Now of course when the 100-watt light bulb goes away, we won’t be sitting in the dark: we’ll be illuminated by less-harmful light bulbs. Over time they’ll get better and better, and we’ll just have to sit in our well-lit rooms and endure lower electricity bills and a safer environment. And so it is if we gradually stopped watching football; we’d watch other, less-harmful sports.
Wait a minute – what the hell do you mean, “Football is harmful”?
The armored millionaires you see on television were selected from a pool of college athletes, who were selected from a much larger pool of high-school athletes. And the cruel fact is, that it’s the high-school athletes who really take it in the head. Many of them walk away from the sport (or are carried away) with subtle injuries that will hurt them economically for the rest of their lives:
This research builds on previous work documenting the hazards of football for the teenage brain. In 2002, a team of neurologists surveying several hundred high school football players concluded that athletes who had suffered three or more concussions were nearly ten times more likely to exhibit multiple “abnormal” responses to head injury, including loss of consciousness and persistent amnesia. A 2004 study, meanwhile, revealed that football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a “major drop in memory performance” and that three months after a concussion they continued to experience “persistent deficits in processing complex visual stimuli.” What’s most disturbing, perhaps, is that these cognitive deficits have a real-world impact: When compared with similar students without a history of concussions, athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages.
Of course Lehrer frames his question as “Can Football Be Saved”; he’d be run out of town on a rail if he suggested it shouldn’t be. But I don’t work for a major magazine so I can say it: football is barbaric and it promotes tribalism, and its talent pool flows from massive numbers of injured teenagers whose lives will take a less-favorable arc because of that participation.
We already try to protect teens in other ways
In football, not even the most advanced helmets seem to cut injuries (see links below). And the worst effects are on kids, whose brains are still developing. Which leads me to this: if we don’t even let kids operate dangerous machinery in an after-school job, why in hell do we send them out on a football field?
Imagine these two questions:
- “Mom, Dad, I’d like to get an after-school job operating a forklift where I might lose a limb or be crushed under falling crates. What do you think?”
- “Mom, Dad, I’d like to participate in an after-school sport where kids smash their bodies together while wearing poorly-understood armor and have a massively higher chance of subtle, permanent brain injury. What do you think?”
I have no illusions that high school football could ever be banned; we can’t even get rid of hundred-year-old lighting technology without an annoying whine-fest from “traditionalists”. For football there would be open warfare and even more dangerous informal leagues. But maybe it could be shamed out of existence.
Teens think they’re invulnerable because their brains aren’t fully developed yet. We know better and it’s our job to at least make sure they have all the facts and are provided with better alternatives. And not put pressure on the parent who says “No.” Just as no light bulb is environmentally benign, but some are less harmful, no sport is perfectly safe but some are much better. We can do better, if we try.
NOTES and updates:
- This post has been altered for accuracy. Originally I thought the game was today. An alert reader informed me: “FYI, The Super Bowl seems to be next Sunday”. He added: “Though it’s certainly an understandable mistake: I had to look it up on Wikipedia.”
- Scientific American, Cocktail Party Physics: What Woody Woodpecker can teach us about Football
- Slate: The National Brain-Damage League
- Sanjay Gupta on the documentary Big Hits, Broken Dreams
- Yes, I am aware that no sport is perfectly safe, but we have put the most funding into one so dangerous it’s necessary to wear armor to even have a chance of walking away. Really, seriously… we couldn’t think of something better to do with high school funding than maintain a football team? How about we put the same money into a high-school health club? Get them started on a lifetime habit of exercise.
- I know a little something from personal experience, about the effect of concussions on the developing brain. We should be telling kids the truth, teaching them the latest science on the subject. Instead of wrapping them up in armor and sending them out on a football field for the development of tribalism and – let’s face it – for our entertainment.
- Minors working in agriculture are considered less worthy of a safe workplace, for some reason
- New efficiency standards for lighting go into effect in 2012
- But of course the current Congress pulled funding for enforcement of the law, and business-at-all-cost types are pleased as punch