Spartacus and Pulling Gods

This is your very breakable brain on NFL Sunday.

I opened an otherwise innocuous copy of a magazine the other day, and my shoulders leapt up in a shudder. Couldn’t help it. I was being confronted by the snout of a tiger snake, a closeup snapped from a low angle, so that a good third of the son of a bitch’s body seemed to be hovering off the ground—coiled, tense, about to strike. I have no idea if tiger snakes are poisonous, but that didn’t matter: before my conscious brain could react the fear had already shivered outward from somewhere in my own reptile brain. The same thing happens if I dream about sitting in a tall swaying tree or imagine cleaning windows on a skyscraper. Brrr. Obviously I’m in no danger from a picture or fantasy, but again, the frisson is a reflex, uncontrolled behavior when I glimpse something potentially perilous.

Broken helmets Shudders like that don’t have to be inborn instinct, either; they can be the result of conditioning, too, something learned over time from the coupling of vivid images and nauseous stimuli. All of which is to say that I’m starting to feel the same snaky shivers, subtle but growing, each time I sit down to watch football nowadays. Not quite to the point of having to look away yet, but I’m always slightly relieved when someone just runs out of bounds, and I don’t chuckle anymore when the body count gets too high on gang tackles. The worst are kickoffs and punts, when bodies hurtle in from crazy angles, whipping around like bats. I feel the snags because with every hit I can imagine—sometimes practically hear—the splat of the players’ brains inside their helmets.

Head injuries have dogged the National Football League since its very early days, since even before facemasks. But, donning the proud mantle of tobacco scientists everywhere, the NFL’s experts refused to admit until just a few months ago that it wasn’t a coincidence so many former players ended up with neurological damage by the time they turned fifty. The word going around is that a few skeptical medical men in charge of the NFL’s official investigation into the matter, a team led by one Dr. Ira Casson, had been dismissing the link between concussions and cognitive difficulties. Casson seemed obviously full of crap, and after Congress hog-piled onto the issue to scold the league, the NFL finally dismissed Casson and reevaluated the evidence. It was damning. In one study, coroners discovered that twelve of thirteen former NFL players had a buildup of a plaque in their brains—a plaque—called tau, a snarl of protein that disrupts neuronal function and that has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Many of the NFL players died in their forties; another autopsy revealed the beginning of tau tangles in an 18-year-old.

Saints crushed But in a way, focusing on concussions—the dangerous hits—misses the point. Danger hits are rare, and it was possible before to remain pious right after big hits, to stop making cracks about smelling salts or the “Troy Aikman face,” and go right back to cheering when players got their bells rung at not-quite-concussion levels dozens of times per game—because, hey, it wasn’t actually a concussion. It was clean. Nowadays, though, it’s exactly that accumulation of little hits that makes football so creepingly uncomfortable for some people. It’s not clear how many fractions of an IQ point or days off a full life that each blindside hit from a pulling guard will cost someone, but it’s a non-infinitesimal amount, and it’s harder with every new revelation to believe we’re watching some sort of fantasy with no consequences, just pretend amusement. (Helmets and pads obviously help football players stay safe; but not being able to see their faces also make them seem less human, less real.) Ethicists and anthropologists sometimes talk about a pattern in history of increasing circles of empathy—that the definition of which people are considered worthy of decent treatment has continually expanded. Back in caveman days, the circle was barely bigger than someone’s clan, but it has slowly and not without some reversals widened to encompasses tribes, kingdoms, other races, other nations, and so on. It might be the sine non qua of humanity. Sports fans aren’t noted for their empathy, especially for opposing teams, but it seems our circles of empathy might soon have to stretch wide enough to embrace even Ray Lewis.

A few years back, I met a team of engineers and neuroscientists in St. Louis who were doing some odd experiments on g-forces in the brain. For one trial, they rigged up this contraption: You’d lay on your stomach, and lay your forehead on a small platform held up by a short arm. A string was tied around the arm, and once you got your head set in the contraption, one of the scientists would yank the string. This caused the platform to fall, and, with it, your head. The machine was rigged so that your head fell only an inch, but the scientists could measure (by doing this 150 times in a row in an fMRI machine) that even the inch-long freefalls produced forces on the brain that were double the force of gravity, 2 g. Using another contraption (sort of like the halo they put on football players who might be paralyzed), the team determined that a soccer header can induce forces up to 20 g. Other work by other groups determined that the threshold for a concussion is 80 g, which is roughly the force you’d feel standing on Saturn.

The St. Louis scientists also wanted to refine the model used to determine brain injuries, and what they discovered was scary. The classic physical model for brain injury is a ball (the brain) sloshing around in a fluid and smacking the sides of a container (the skull). But of course brains don’t float freely; our spinal cord tethers them at the base. It turns out a better analogy for brain movement is shaking a leafy branch. Unlike with the ball, one part of the branch can be going much faster than other parts, and anything above a few g’s will cause the ends of the branch—the most highly evolved parts of the brain—to snap back and forth more quickly than the base. Even at the low g forces of the head-bobbing experiments, fMRI pictures show different parts of the brain being squished and stretched at the same instant. And those sheering and crushing forces obviously grow more violent and intense after a really strong impulse—like, say, a 250-lb. man pile-driving you into the turf. If you think about these things long enough, and start to hear words like concussion and football and brain damage enough times in conjunction, then you might even start to see these vectors of force colliding on real people, people with impressive muscles but brains and skulls no more durable than a child’s. Worst, once the vectors start drawing themselves, you can’t unsee them. The shudders follow pretty quickly afterward.

Packers flying All of this becomes even more poignant when you consider that playing high-level football requires more intelligence (bull-rushing nosetackles and pantywaist punters excepted) than playing almost any other major sport. Let’s face it: not all basketball or baseball or soccer players are dummies, obviously, but a dummy can BS his way through a free-flowing basketball or soccer or baseball game far more easily than an elite football player can. The NFL is too choreographed. I’m not saying this intelligence is genius—it has to be disciplined, and certainly can’t be original—but it’s smarts all the same. Football gets a bad reputation because dumb hyperhormonal oafs can dominate teams in high school (the last time most people are exposed to football players) and occasionally college, but most of those guys fall through the sieve in the NFL. There’s a reason the league administers an intelligence test to draftees. Because if you can’t figure out how your unglamorous role fits into the larger good of a blocking or coverage scheme, or see through the other team’s feints and decoys, or figure out how to translate the codes whispered in the huddle into where your body needs to be and in what direction it needs to be facing and at exactly what second it needs to be doing all this, you’re going to detonate the entire play for ten other people. (If you don’t believe me, hunt down and try listening to a high-level analysis of game film, something where the people are really talking X’s and O’s on a technical level. You might as well walk into a conference on cosmology or molecular biology. And then remember that these people have to see and react to all this literally on their feet, in half-seconds.) The point is that football ends up damaging some of our most mentally gifted athletes in exactly the place that separates them from the oafs we despised long ago.

Is it all worth it? From the player’s point of view, it’s a decided maybe. If you last sixteen weeks in the NFL, even if you don’t play a snap (and thereby confine your brain damage to weekday practices), you will earn at least $325,000 next year, the league minimum. Play any kind of significant time, and you’re probably talking $1 million. There are also the fringe benefits—living in a cool city, free meals at restaurants, cutting to the front of lines at night clubs, television time, people screaming “I love you,” and, well, other ancillary benefits for young single men. Especially for some kid who grew up in the projects or in Appalachia or on a go-nowhere farm, places where the average life span might not much exceed fifty anyway, fifteen years of NFL glory—even if negated at the end by dementia and seizures—might be worth it.

Kid crushed For fans, it’s harder to justify. We ultimately pay that $1 million salary, but I can’t imagine that fact will salve anyone’s conscience. Fans sometimes argue that football players are more or less just voluntary gladiators, out there competing for our amusement, and occasionally winning our admiration or contempt for their deeds. But if the epidemic of tau tangles and brain damage continues to spread and entangle more NFL and college and even high-school football players—and with bigger, faster, ‘roidier players coming up every year there’s no reason to think afternoon weekends during the fall are going to get any softer—than the metaphor of gladiators, the kind who get eaten by lions, may prove a more apt metaphor than we want.