They keep telling us they’re going to find a safe way to do it — a way to play football that doesn’t result in Tre Mason’s mom telling the police that her 23-year-old son just isn’t acting right, that her boy, who couldn’t bring himself to turn up at Rams training camp this summer, now has the mind-set of a 10-year-old. They keep telling us they’re going to find a way that doesn’t end with Bruce Miller, all 248 pounds of him, wandering lost and angry and confused, looking very much like someone exhibiting the symptoms of long-term brain damage, and then attempting to enter a family’s hotel room and allegedly beating a 70-year-old man.
In Thursday night’s 2016 NFL season opener, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s head bounced. It quivered; it jerked; it got knocked this way and then that way and then this way again. If you watched the game, you heard the cold click of helmet-on-helmet impact and saw Newton arcing sideways like a deer hit by a car. You saw this many times. Some of the Broncos’ hits against him were never called as penalties; Newton was never taken out of the game for medical staffers to ask if he was seeing double or triple or quadruple, to check if one of those crashes had managed to make Newton’s brain do somersaults inside his skull. The team said afterward that he was fine, but in the moment didn’t even stop to find out. You can watch the hits, all of them, and when you come up for air you can wonder if this time there’s any way to deny that football is doomed.
Every time the NFL promises us that football is going to be safe, we get to hope for a second that it’s true. Maybe there is a way to play safely. Maybe the game isn’t incompatible with the physiology of the human body. Maybe we — fans and people like me who pay our bills, in part, because of this sport — aren’t cogs in a system that encourages young men to do horrible things to themselves for the sake of our entertainment. Maybe it’s not a problem that those who follow football probably know more about CTE than the people actually at risk of developing it. Maybe it’s fine that some players started to realize how totally fucked they might be — how totally fucked the system allows them to be — only when they sat down and watched a Will Smith movie. Maybe the league, the teams, the referees, the colleges and high schools, and the Pop Warner coaches who this weekend are going to direct the budding neurons of thousands of this country’s little boys straight into a wall of their peers — maybe somewhere in this process, someone with a rule book or a whistle is going to figure out how to keep all those bodies safe. Maybe football doesn’t have to mean damage and pain.
So we cross our fingers and hope. You can recite the promises, mantras to chant on the way to the fridge to get some more salsa. This time, you tell yourself, the concussion protocol is going to work. (It isn’t.) We will build dummies so at least players aren’t hitting each other so much in practice. (The dummies break.) Perhaps there is some new kind of helmet we can use to keep heads safe from all that hurt. (None of them work.) Starting now, the NFL is really serious about taking care of players’ brains. (It isn’t.)
Recently, I met a guy on a ferry, and we got to talking for a while. He asked what I did for a living, and when I told him, he asked without missing a beat: “So, is there any way to make football safe?” I didn’t really have an answer. Surely they’ll figure it out … they’re working on it … they got rid of Elliot Pellman, league-appointed quack, so you can tell they’re actually serious this time …
Is there a way to make football safe? Today, the answer sure isn’t seeming like yes.