Of all the disappearing stories in the American consciousness, no one like football has shaken the concussion out of the public eye. It’s hard to remember now, but less than a decade ago, President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, he would have to think “long and hard” before letting him play football. Stories have been published about parents pulling their kids out of youth and high school football; obituaries have been written for the future of the sport. In 2015, Will Smith, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, starred as dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist whose research football first linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that leads to memory loss, erratic behavior and depression. A study in CTE 110 of 111 deceased NFL players.
That alarm seems to have been replaced by some kind of theater around concussion. In the first quarter of last night’s exciting playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs, Tiran Mathieu, a defensive back for the Chiefs, received a blow to the head at the end of a game. What followed was a version of the concussion ritual we see almost every Sunday: A player is knocked out, the TV broadcasters say, “Well, you hate to see it”; the player is carried away or staggered to the designated blue medical tent; the sideline reporter tells the audience that the player will not return to action. All this is done in gloomy tone with the implicit notion that the player is likely to be back in a week or two.
The news of concussion obviously did not get better. Last year, Phillip Adams, a former NFL cornerback, shot dead six people and himself. Doctors later reported that Adams had “an extraordinary amount of CTE” Vincent Jackson, a former wide receiver, was found dead in a hotel room last February. His widow said he suffered from memory loss and depression. Dr. Ann McKee, one of the leading experts at CTE, examined Jackson’s brain (he had never been diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career) and found he has CTE These stories have been reported, but it has not pierced the larger sports conversation as they may have had only seven or eight years ago.
A season of empty stadiums and the toll of the pandemic have hurt sports across the board. But the NFL emerged relatively unscathed. Viewership on TV and digital is the highest they have been since 2015; 91 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts of the year were NFL games. Football – which has gone through domestic violence accounts and the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s black ball, in addition to constant concussions – is as strong as it has ever been.
The league has been talking about head injuries for decades and has made a handful of rule changes, but there was nothing that would qualify as drastic action. The number of concussions did drop to 214 in 2018 from 281 in 2017, after many of those rule changes took effect, but the number went back to 224 in 2019 before dropping again to 172 during the 2020 pandemic year, when no preseason games were played not. .
The league has made a big deal about these recent figures, but the series of rises and falls mostly reflects what happened before the rule changes, when there were, for example, 261 concussions in 2012 and 229 in 2013. More importantly, these figures are mostly along the point. Researchers believe CTE comes not only from concussion but also from the repeated collisions that are intrinsic to every football game, whether or not they result in concussion. There are no rule changes or special helmets that will eliminate those collisions from the game.
I was working as an editor at the sports website Grantland when the concussion story came to the forefront of the media almost a decade ago. We, like most of our colleagues in the sports entertainment industry, did not know what to do with the story. The typical, hectoring recordings about the immorality of the game quickly fell on deaf ears. We also found that concussion stories did not get particularly good traffic. While there was certainly no assignment I knew to pursue views, everyone who works at a website wants their stories to be read.
At one point, it became clear to me that although every concussion story we published would be passed on by our colleagues on social media, this is where the engagement ended. This did not mean that other people were not aware or worried; it just seems like they did not feel the need to learn anything more about it. In 2017, long after I left the site, The Washington Post a poll published which showed that nine out of 10 sports fans thought head injuries were a problem in professional football, but that 74 percent were still football fans.
I’m not here to scold people because they continue to like football. Like many of you, I watch the NFL on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. On down days I watch the screaming sports programs. I mostly tune in to “NFL RedZone,” a hyperactive, adrenaline-pumping, seven-hour show that flips through games and graciously cuts away when a player is knocked out (usually after a grueling, slow-acting replay of the hit) . The host of the program will then say something about a worrying situation and promise the viewer that he will monitor it before going to another match.
The way we look at football today feels like a capitulation that is interesting because of how common this kind of giving has become in modern life. We, the public involved, can inflame our indignation for a short period of time when faced with an obvious problem – from school shootings to Covid policies – but there is no real sense that we can do anything about these issues that makes us angry. not. This does not mean we are unconscious or even particularly apathetic. Again, nine out of 10 sports fans believe concussion is a problem in football; it is more that we have no faith that we can change our institutions and, with sufficient evidence and good reason, have abandoned the belief that we should even have any input on how they choose to do business. What usually remains is the empty expressions of concern we see every Sunday: the collective crying when the inevitable happens, the hope that the disadvantaged will be right, and then the quick move to another topic.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), an author for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”