NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl
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If they do start talking about brain scans in the Super Bowl run-up—and with another week and a half to fill, someone might do it out of plain desperation—when would they ever stop? This game pits two of the NFL's most storied and successful traditions: the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the crunching Packer sweep and the merciless Steel Curtain, Willie Wood's early-onset dementia and Mike Webster's early-onset dementia.
The two brain-damaged quarterbacks who'll be starting Super Bowl XLV aren't even half the story of this year's matchup. The Packers, a fashionable preseason Super Bowl pick, were essentially a 12-4 team that was concussed into a 10-6 record. To their credit, or their half-credit, the six losses included a 7-3 defeat to the Detroit Lions when, with the Packers' playoff chances very much on the line, receiver Donald Driver reportedly looked at Aaron Rodgers' glazed expression and told him to get out of the game and stay out. (Maybe that's as close to enlightened as NFL life is able to be: one player trying to convince a fellow player, through the injury-fog, to take himself out of the game.)
Where was that same solicitousness after Rodgers took that shot from Julius Peppers on Sunday? Presumably it's easier to write off the Super Bowl when you're losing a regular-season game to Detroit than when your team is ahead in the NFC Championship Game.
The Steelers, meanwhile, are nothing less than a head-injury Pro Bowl team. Receiver and past Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward—who once criticized Roethlisberger for not playing through headaches—had his consecutive-games-with-a-catch streak ended by a concussion this year. Tight end Heath Miller, Roethlisberger's No. 3 passing target, was sidelined by a concussion this year, too.
On the other side of the ball, superstar safety Troy Polamalu had to get a special neurological exam before the Steelers would even draft him out of USC, because he had "sustained at least five concussions since his freshman year in high school." That career total is now up to at least seven, including one where he "was so woozy he almost tumbled off the team bench."
If you took the Pittsburgh players with a recorded history of head trauma out of the lineup, you'd have the Cleveland Browns. And that's before you even get to the ones known for dishing it out, rather than taking it. Officially, as far as I can tell, James Harrison has a clean health record for his own head. But it's hard to imagine that all those years of using his helmet to scramble other people's brains haven't at least left Harrison with a poached brain of his own.
Because, again, as we've been discussing all year, the nasty hits on fancy players are not even the NFL's biggest trouble. When Aaron Rodgers gets walloped and goes glassy-eyed, it's obvious and distressing. But even if the long-term effects of such impacts have been frighteningly underestimated, everybody has sort of known all along that being knocked groggy isn't good for you.
The newer and more alarming findings are those ones about sub-concussive trauma—the regular blocking-and-tackling impacts that don't even register as dings, until somebody wires a G-force meter into the helmets or starts brain-scanning the apparently uninjured players. It's the difference between Joe Theismann getting his leg broken and the whole population of linemen limping into retirement with degenerative arthritis in their knees.
Everyone is getting hurt, in awful, long-term ways, all the time. How will football adjust to this reality, as the news sinks in? Is it going to be more like boxing, fading away as the majority of safety-minded parents refuse to allow their children to participate? Or is the game too big and pervasive for that? Will it end up being more like driving automobiles, where everyone celebrates major (if grudging) advances in safety technology, and thereby keeps on accepting an injury toll far beyond what people put up with in most other parts of life?
The flip side of the news that football causes previously unknown, widespread brain damage in players is that we must have been underestimating the extent of brain damage in the general population. If even an uneventful high-school playing career can rearrange a person's brain, how many people have been living with rearranged brains all along?
For more than a century now, former football players have filled the ranks of our country's eminent men. Business leaders, generals, novelists, politicians, movie stars—all of them have knocked helmets in their youth, then gone on to other things. It was a running joke that Gerald Ford might have taken a few too many head shots as a center at Michigan. But all that set Ford apart, really, was that he was good at it.
Richard Nixon played the game in college too, albeit as more of a practice tackling dummy than a star. And Ronald Reagan was a lineman. One of them sank into paranoid madness, the other drifted off into dementia. Maybe tau protein is fundamentally entangled with the American character.