Let Elite Athletes Destroy Their Own Brains – But Stop Turning High School Players into Tackling Dummies

by Irvin Muchnick on May 9, 2012

During the 1981 major league baseball players’ strike, I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, to watch the New York Mets’ top farm club at the time, the Tidewater Tides. As I would confirm over the years in attendance at more minor league games at all levels, there are only a handful of genuine prospects on the field at any given time, even in Triple A. The overall skill level is such that routine relays, rundowns, and double-play balls get bungled, and baserunning is atrocious. Why, the ’81 Tides even had a first baseman named Ronald McDonald!

In the developmental product, a good 80 to 90 percent of the roster consists of filler: guys either chasing delusions or playing for the love of it, who are under professional contract only because every team needs 25 players. They’re cogs in the machine. They’re part of the cost of refining those one or two or three diamonds in the rough.

This principle – the meritocratic bell curve of God-given talent – applies to all sports. But as we are now learning with accelerated alarm, only in football does it have profound public health implications.

Football is more than a game – and in case you’re wondering, that is not a compliment in this context. Football is a kind of lifelong lifestyle, burdening its enthusiasts with the unintended dead weight of long-term mental disease. It is a game meting out not just wins and losses, but quite literally, life and death.

And that is why I say, with gathering conviction supported by crystallizing science, that any fellow parent who lets his son play public high school tackle football, at an age clearly before both his brain has developed and he has agency to decide for himself, should have his own head examined.

In a recent radio interview, I was accused of advocating a “nuclear option” when I reject the idea that youth football can be saved from itself through a combination of better helmets, new rules, more careful coaching, and abracadabra state laws, which will force public school systems to turn their sports fields into triage centers and their locker rooms into neurocognitive testing laboratories. But the only thing I’m really calling for is the dissemination of better information in support of better choices.

The toothpaste of “concussion awareness” is out of the tube, oozing like spinal fluid. When all the solutions have been implemented and (mostly not) paid for, more or less the same critical mass of bad outcomes will happen anyway. These include, silently, insidiously, the killing of brain tissue over time. And if I happen to be exaggerating a tad, who among us really want to volunteer their sons for the next generation of guinea pigs in the “control groups” of NFL-underwritten “peer-reviewed literature”?

Yes, football promotes some good values, such as teamwork and community. So does the marching band. So does the school drama group. So do basketball, volleyball, and crew, not to mention math study gangs. (Oops, that last example was a rhetorical mistake – it exposes me, once and for all, as a “pussy.”) Let’s seek our bonding opportunities elsewhere, and let’s leave the risks and astronomical preventive and medical costs to private clubs catering to the genuinely elite, the unambiguously professionally tracked jocks.

Last week I got a call from Tom Farrey, the fine investigative reporter for ESPN’s Outside the Lines. We spent some time picking each other’s brains, so to speak, on concussions. But as the conversation moved along, I told Tom that I thought he’d already spotlighted much of the problem in his book Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.

A lot of people believe the trouble with youth sports is that they aren’t professional enough, in the sense that too many of the coaches don’t know what the hell they’re doing, in terms of both athletic technique and sports medicine and safety. For my money, these activities are, instead, too professionalized: rather than pushing the bodies and minds of our young people toward some larger purpose, they become obsessed with the mannerisms, recklessness, and brass-ring-grasping of the one-dimensional superjocks, the celebrity wannabes.

In every healthy society there’s a mix of elements of patriarchy and matriarchy. Only in Football America, it seems, have our mothers been reduced to enablers. If these voices of pragmatism and safety have not been drowned out altogether, they’ve been channeled into the cottage industries of Concussion Inc.: desperately trying to make an untenable state of affairs just a little less untenable.

Meanwhile, the national male football death and disability toll mounts.

Irvin Muchnick investigates public health, promotes a line of ebooks, and pisses off fans and shill journalists at http://concussioninc.net.

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