The NFL is the most powerful and popular sports league in the country. At this point, it might be the most dominant institution in America, period. In its 93 years it’s grown to become both an altar of mainstream manhood and a multibillion dollar industry that puts on the most highly rated programs on TV. The NFL is so big that fantasy football, a game for grown men where you watch players compile numbers in another game, generates a billion dollars a year by itself. By now you’re likely familiar with the widely-accepted truth that all that tackling involved in the sport damages players’ brains, often horrifically—Alan Schwarz‘s New York Times reporting on that subject started way back in 2007. But if you watch the sport, you probably don’t care enough to stop watching.
PBS Frontline is going to try to make you care more.
League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, a documentary airing tonight based on a book that was released today, is the most direct assault on the league to date. The film not only reviews the by-now-at-least-faintly-familiar evidence that football collisions are very bad for you, it exposes the NFL’s attempts to cover up the damage the sport does to young men’s brains. The league’s executives and doctors come off as myopic and foolish at best, and scheming and evil at worst—in story after story, League shows NFL players dying after losing their minds due to what most independent doctors agree is football-induced brain damage, then the NFL is shown repeatedly denying the connectionbetween football and the broken families it has left behind.
My first decision was whether to take the five-dose strip of LSD before or after I arrived at the Superdome. I settled on doing it after, which turned out to be the right choice. The line for media to get into the stadium was hundreds of people long and zigged and zagged through the bowels of the Superdome garage in a way that made it impossible to tell how long it was and what was around the next corner. It just so happened that the end of this line had some bomb-sniffing dogs and fully armed military personnel. As I told my editor later, if I had eaten the acid before getting in line, this story would’ve ended when I saw the bomb-sniffing dogs. I would’ve high-tailed it out of there—probably screaming—and been eaten by those vicious animals.
Despite having worked as a full-time sports journalist in a past life, this was my first time at a Super Bowl Media Day. I was surprised to find that there was no workstation set up for me to drop off my stuff and get my bearings before sneaking into a darkened corner to take my drugs. Nevertheless, I still managed to take those drugs in a darkened corner—I could tell from experience that the bitter taste and tingling on my tongue was a good sign. I checked my watch: 9:30. The San Francisco 49ers would be on the field in half an hour for their stint with the media.
The acid first started creeping in while I was standing next to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I overheard someone ask Colin if he was a “steak and potatoes” kind of guy, and then I repeated “steak and potatoes” a few times into my iPod. I don’t think I attracted a great deal of attention, but I almost lost my shit when I noticed Kaepernick was getting beamed, God-like, onto the Superdome Jumbotron while I was standing mere feet away from him.
By this time, the trip was lapping against my mind in more consistent and powerful waves. I was very thankful that I had so many toys with me (my cameras, my iPod, and my smartphone) because fidgeting with my gear was a way to calm myself down. I’m not sure if this looked strange to anyone, but I’m also pretty sure I was staring at my camera without doing anything for what seemed like hours.
In reality, it couldn’t have been too long, because my next voice memo, recorded at 10:42, has me noting that the 49ers only had a few minutes left on the field and that I hadn’t asked any questions. Suddenly, I felt the urge to do something—everyone around me was moving with a purpose while I wandered around aimlessly and stared at the mysteriously pulsating artificial turf. I tried in vain to ask 49ers running back Frank Gore a question, but was beaten to the punch by a radio DJ who asked him if he’d ever had an imaginary girlfriend and some other guy who asked Gore, “If you had a Pegasus, what would you name it?” I made a voice memo wondering if I was imagining all of this.
Notes from a Hitter: High school football filled me with rage and damaged my brain
By the age of 18, I had undergone enough head trauma playing football to cause irrevocable damage to my brain. The three (documented) concussions I experienced resulted in a seizure disorder I will deal with for the rest of my life. I don’t discount my own role in the seizures I’ve had—some of them were partially due to poor decisions, lack of sleep, and excessive alcohol consumption—but according to my neurologist, my condition is undoubtedly caused by brain injuries suffered as a high school linebacker whose only goal at the time was to prove to his toughness to his teammates, coaches, and himself. That meant hitting people, and that meant harming my brain.
I consider myself lucky. Lifestyle changes and daily doses of an anticonvulsant have rendered my seizure disorder latent; its effect on my life is now minimal. More importantly, my mental faculties have remained intact enough to allow me to launch a (so far unsuccessful) writing career. Many NFL players aren’t nearly as fortunate—some have committed suicide, presumably due to the mental deterioration caused by their lengthy careers, including Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest rather than the head so his brain could be studied by neurologists after his death, and Junior Seau, whose family is suing the NFL. I hope that every player on the field during the Super Bowl lives a full, long life and doesn’t suffer any mental difficulties as a result of his career—but I know some probably will, and some will have much worse problems than I do.
It’s always questionable to draw broad trends from just a few weeks of early-season action, but fuck that—we’re looking at the best crop of young quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. Or at least if you’ve been watching football regularly for the past half-decade or so, it feels that way. Rookie playcallers like Andrew Luck and the concussed Robert Griffin III are legitimate good ball-throwing guys, of course, but there are plenty of good second-year QBs as well, like Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, and Cam Newton (assuming Cam gets his groove back at some point). If you expand the definition of “young” to include “drafted in the past five years,” you can include Sam Bradford, Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco on the list of young QBs who don’t seem too bad at the moment.
It’s a little bit hard to take in. Six years ago, Jon Kitna, a forgettable at best game manager for an abhorrent Lions team (he’s now a high school math teacher in Tacoma) was near the top half of the league in QB rating, and Damon Huard, about whom the less is said the better, was second. If you want to go deeper than QB rating, which is a lousy stat, you can look at FootballOutsiders’ QB ranks from that year. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are at the top, but then you’ve got dudes like Tony Romo, Marc Bulger, and Chad fucking Pennington in the top ten. Rex Grossman was a Super Bowl quarterback back then. Being an NFL quarterback seemed to be like managing the Yankees in the 80s—too hard for anyone to do.
Then things changed. Stricter rules on quarterback hits (or, if you prefer, castrating the pass rush) helped protect the precious pigskin heavers and spread offenses began to proliferate, especially after the ‘07 Patriots had a perfect regular season while ignoring boring garbage like running and defense. Last year, there were three guys who passed for more than 5,000 yards—before then, there were only two, and before 2008, there was only one. And now that there are a bunch of young guns who can play the position, there’ll be a lot more in the future. Which is good. Ignore the purists who bitch about change—remember when football was just 22 guys punching each other in the mud?
Pittsburgh (-6) at Tennessee Speaking of a bunch of guys punching each other in the mud, that would be more entertaining than this game, which features a dirty team led by a rape bro matched against the Titans, who, if you exclude their miracle victory against the Lions, have lost four games by an average of 24 points. Yikes. PICK: Pittsburgh, but I hope they lose
Cincinnati (-1.5) at Cleveland Look, I know the Browns haven’t won a game, but they’re actually not bad—they’ve played everyone pretty close, and Brandon Weeden isn’t terrible. Check out this throw:
The Browns are like that friend you have who was really smart in college, but keeps getting fired from shit jobs. You said you wanted to write screenplays, Kyle, so just do it. Stop wasting your time getting high with those messed-up kids. Can’t wait until he and the Browns get it together. PICK: Cleveland
Indianapolis (+3.5) at New York Jets Going with my heart on this one, not my head. I really, really want Andrew Luck to outplay Mark Sanchez so badly that all those big Jersey dudes who root for the Jets literally barf with rage. PICK: Indianapolis
Kansas City (+4) at Tampa Bay Haha, just kidding, this game isn’t happening! Can you imagine how depressing this matchup would be? I mean, Matt Cassel is hurt, so Brady Quinn would play. It would be horrible to watch. PICK: Tampa Bay
On a beautiful fall weekend where the multicolored leaves were fluttering off the trees and it was just cold enough that everyone in the neighborhood kept their smelly babies indoors, I got a phone call. “Snakes!”—that’s my nickname—“We have to go to that place with all the babes and cheap cool food and then to the store with the secret deposit of deadstock 1940s sweatshirts, the ones with the four-inch cuffs that you’ve been faxing me about.” I really wanted to go and experience all those things, but I couldn’t because sports. A few hours later I got a call about the art zine fair in Long Island City, which I had to skip for sports, too. I really wanted to see those zines, but part of being an adult is not going to zine fairs. If you didn’t skip anything, that’s fine. I didn’t need to eat that pizza made by a 95-year-old guy who’s retiring tomorrow anyways, I really was happy watching that Alabama game and telling you about it.
- The Saints, who won the Super Bowl last year, are 0-4 after missing a last-minute field goal in Green Bay, and I’m told they’re not going to play the rest of the season out of pride. Of course, they didn’t actually win the Super Bowl last year, but it feels like they did, doesn’t it?
Baseball: - I had this whole thing written about how going into Sunday night, no AL team has clinched a playoff spot, but then the Rangers beat the Angels and somehow clinched spots for themselves, the Orioles, and the Yankees. Still, not knowing what the playoffs will look like until the fourth-to-last day of the regular season feels like some sort of record. I’d look it up, but you probably don’t care. There are postseason implications in pretty much every series these next few days, which is awesome, but it’s also the last week with 15 games a night, which is a bummer.
I’m not going to stop watching football, but how do you excuse watching something as obviously evil as the NFL? Is it like eating processed meat or buying shoes made with slave labor—do you just not think about it? I guess that’s what you do. Shit.