A couple months ago I watched the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith. It’s about Nigerian doctor, Bennett Omalu, who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that he found after examining the brains of ex-football players who had died, usually by suicide. He drew a link between the high number of concussions suffered by football players over the course of their careers and an overproduction of tau protein in their brains, which essentially choked their neural pathways, leading to Alzheimer’s-like symptoms with a twinge of violent rage, and then ultimately drove them to do crazy things like taser themselves to the point of suffering a heart attack, drive the wrong way on the freeway, or drink a gallon of antifreeze. It was super, super gnarly. As you can imagine, the NFL was not thrilled about this guy telling everyone that football was dangerous and low key tried to ruin his life but I’ll let you watch the movie to see how that unfolded.
Okay so this was a really tough movie for me to watch for a few reasons. Aside from Will Smith’s complete hack job of a Nigerian accent (still recovering), I had a hard time with it mostly because I love football. Like. L O V E. Now I know whenever a girl says she loves football everyone looks at her sideways and low key thinks sexist things like, “She’s probably just saying that to impress boys” … “I bet she only cares about the uniforms” … “She’s only watching because she thinks the players are hot” … “I bet she can’t name any stats”. *side eye emoji*. To be honest, you can think whatever the fuck you want, doesn’t change the fact that football is mine (and God’s) favorite sport.
I know a lot of people—like a LOT of people—think football is barbaric. They think it’s boring, they think it’s dangerous, they think it’s exploitative. And like okay maybe some of those things are true lol. But it’s also so beautiful. I can’t fathom the presence of mind and awareness of body it takes for these VERY LARGE MEN to be cognizant of the placement of even the tips of their toes as they come crashing to the ground. I watch in awe of back-bending, half-blind, one-armed catches that snatch a ball like a speeding bullet out of mid-air. I see the explosive freedom when a receiver breaks away and heads down the field for an 80+ yard rushing touchdown. I love hearing the fervor in the announcer’s voice against the backdrop of the crowd’s roar. The seconds as the play clock winds down before the snap provide a tiny buildup of adrenaline that’s like heroin. I told you guys, I love this game. I feel like it at once appeals to our basest levels of aggression and our highest echelons of intelligence and strategic thinking. Like Alec Baldwin’s character says in the movie, “It is a mindless, violent game, and then it’s like Shakespeare.”
But what happens when the poetry kills the players? Every snap, every play, every tackle, these men are getting hit REAL hard. Titans by no exaggeration, clashing and colliding with every bit of their enormous might. Not to mention what happens when that might is multiplied by momentum, as these men run at full speed in an effort to knock their opponents of their feet, and sometimes it seems, their opponent’s heads off their necks (I’m looking at you, Odell Beckham Jr.) And yeah you can say that these players know what they’re getting into, that they signed up for it. But I’m like… did they? Do they actually know the dangers present? Because even I would say I didn’t take concussions seriously enough before this point. Like of course getting a concussion isn’t GREAT, but I don’t think its dangers are even nearly accurately represented. Boys are told to shake it off, rub some dirt in it, you know the drill. And even now I can feel my brain wrestling to assimilate the new information into my existing paradigm.
Simultaneously though, it seems to be common sense. Don’t get hit in the head. If you accidentally do, don’t do it again.Certainly not on purpose. CERTAINLY not multiple times a week, months at a time, for decades. That can’t be right. That can’t be safe. But then Ira Casson (former co-chair of the NFL’s Concussion Committee) goes on TV and tells us “There is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long-term brain damage,” (CBS News) and we’re like, welp he’s a doctor so. Must be legit!
I find this so compelling because it dances into the arena of willful ignorance. Like how much are we prepared to overlook in order to continue enjoying the things we enjoy. My friend sent me an article the other day written by a white woman whose 5 year old son had just recently learned about that one time white people killed a bunch of Native Americans and stole their land, aka the foundation of this country. He was concerned (justifiably so), that his house specifically was built on such ill-gotten terrain (probably true). And the author described the visible war within himself as he tried to reconcile his love for his house with his disdain for murder and theft. As she put it, the conflict between “I’m comfortable with the things I have, but I am uncomfortable with how I came to have them”. I imagine this is the thorny bush that pops up when white people are confronted with their privilege. And even though I’m not white, on some level I feel I can understand the discomfort. Taking it back to football, as I’ve made abundantly clear by this point, I love the sport. It is quite literally the highlight of my week, I am VERY comfortable sitting on my couch all day watching nine hours of it. But I am uncomfortable with the idea that, in order to keep me consuming their product, the NFL might be purposefully withholding information from players that could save their lives.
And you know what, I have no idea what to do with that. I wish I could tell you that since watching Concussion and subsequent documentaries on the matter, I’ve had a complete change of heart, but like, I 100% didn’t. I came home from that movie and watched the Redskins game a few hours later—which also I can’t believe calling them the “Redskins” is still a thing but that’s a whole other blog post. In my own defense, I DID feel a little weird about it? But I definitely still watched. And you can bet your ass that I’ll be tuning in along with millions of other people to watch the 50th Super Bowl this Sunday (Let’s go Peyton! Even though I’m real proud of you Cam!) I dunno, I guess there’s no real conclusion here. There’s no resolution, sorry if you were looking for one. It’s just provoking to think about willful ignorance, and consider the numerous areas of our lives where we may have turned a blind eye because we wanted to remain comfortable. Yikes.
Well on that note, ENJOY THE SUPER BOWL FRIENDS! CONSUME IN EXCESS! DRINK TO FORGET ALL THE UNCOMFORTABLE WAYS BY WHICH WE’VE ACQUIRED THE THINGS WE’RE COMFORTABLE WITH!