My own nagging injuries? I smashed the back of my head into a gym wall when I was 6 years old. When I went to the hospital—after lying down for an impromptu nap in midday sunshine on a pebbly concrete walkway—the doctor said I didn’t have a concussion; I just had a bruised brain. Obfuscation starts early. Either way, I lost the ability to spin around without getting dizzy. And that was just one collision.
Is it good or bad for the NFL that this is how anticipation of the season plays out—in a discussion about brain damage and the rest of the toll that pro football takes on its players for our amusement? Are we getting it all out of our system before the games begin so we can put the guilt in the background, like an unread concussion-warning poster in the locker room?
When you watch boxing (if anyone watches boxing anymore), you are always aware that the point is for one person to hurt the other. The sport indulges in a few self-protective myths, like the idea that Muhammad Ali just happened to catch Parkinson’s by coincidence, but nobody’s surprised when someone gets badly hurt or killed in the ring, or when an ex-pug ends up broke and crazy.
But the NFL’s destructive forces are partly hidden. We see the snapped leg bones, the brutal kill shots, the ritualized anxiety when the cart comes out. But players like Mike Webster don’t leave it all on the field in one horrifying highlight clip; the game chips away at their heads one snap at a time, every time. The documentary of what happened to Webster would be hours long, and it would be as tedious as a Warhol movie: big bodies banging into each other and banging into each other and banging into each other some more. Not bloody Roman-circus action, but what we think of as guys doing work, and what the doctors have learned to call repeated subconcussive trauma.
Still, you know, a lot of stuff wrecks lives. The Mickey Mouse Club wrecks lives. Pop culture wrecks lives. I feel so guilty about the pleasure Andre Waters brought me, on his road to despair and suicide, maybe I’ll turn off the TV when football starts and listen to some Nirvana. Or read Infinite Jest.
So it’s probably worth mentioning that the NFL’s injury culture is also bad for football. I don’t expect the immoral, greed-crazed scumbags who run the NFL to care about the fact that expanding the season to 18 games would leave even more young and middle-aged ex-players crippled and addled. Nor do I expect them to have the basic arithmetic skills or sense of fairness to pay the players one-eighth more money for making them play one-eighth more games.
But is it too much to ask them to understand that those extra two games each year would be lousy to watch? It’s not just lives and careers that are cut short by the accumulated brutality of the game—teams’ seasons are cut short, too. Every week, some of the most exciting players in the game are going to get carried off the field. And the ones who stay behind will move a little more slowly.
Take this process of attrition too far, and you end up with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens—a team that had a great defense, an incompetent offense, and a butter-soft schedule that left it the healthiest team in a depleted playoff field. And so Trent Dilfer has a Super Bowl ring.
Or you have the 2009 New York Jets, who sloshed into the postseason because the Colts decided to stop trying after 14 and a half games. The Colts figured it was more important to rest the starters—a euphemism meaning “avoid getting the starters maimed”—for the playoffs than to close out their own undefeated regular season.
Then the Jets, bless their hearts, made a fun little playoff run, and now everybody loves them, even though their quarterback is terrible. But that is the funny thing about this offseason: Last year, two excellent teams—led by two of the best quarterbacks in the league—each threatened to go undefeated, then met up in an entertaining and fiercely contested Super Bowl. So as we head into the 2010 season, everyone is talking about … Brett Favre? Aaron Rodgers? Joe Flacco?
I saw a piece this week arguing—no, not even arguing, but stating as fact—that the Ravens have already won the upcoming Super Bowl because they picked up T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Cancel the regular season! Then again, I saw somebody else saying the Colts would be good because, this year, Bob Sanders is healthy. What do you think, Josh? Is a healthy Sanders going to stop your beloved Saints? (Hint: The Colts have played 96 regular-season games since drafting Bob Sanders; Sanders has been able to play in 47 of them.)