George F. Will: Football's big problem

Published: August 5, 2012
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Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?

The opening of the NFL training camps coincided with the closing of the investigation into the April suicide by gunshot of Ray Easterling, 62, an eight-season NFL safety in the 1970s. The autopsy found moderately severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), progressive damage to the brain associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE was identified as a major cause of Easterling's depression and dementia.

In February 2011, Dave Duerson, 50, an 11-year NFL safety, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest to spare his brain tissue for research, which has found evidence of CTE. Brain tissue of 20-season linebacker Junior Seau, who was 43 when he killed himself the same way in May, is being studied. The NFL launched a mental health hotline developed and operated with the assistance of specialists in suicide prevention.

Football is bigger than ever, in several senses. In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. In 2011, according to pro-football-reference.com, there were 352, including three 350-pounders. Thirty-one of the NFL's 32 offensive lines averaged more than 300.

Various unsurprising studies indicate high early mortality rates among linemen resulting from cardiovascular disease. For all players who play five or more years, life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less.

After 20 years of caring for her husband, Easterling's widow is one of more than 3,000 plaintiffs — former players, spouses, relatives — in a lawsuit charging that the NFL inadequately acted on knowledge it had, or should have had, about hazards such as CTE. We are, however, rapidly reaching the point where playing football is like smoking cigarettes: The risks are well-known.

Not that this has prevented smokers from successfully suing tobacco companies. But, then, smoking is an addiction. Football is just an increasingly guilty pleasure.

Still, football has bigger long-term problems than lawsuits. Football is entertainment in which the audience is expected to delight in gladiatorial action that a growing portion of the audience knows may cause the players degenerative brain disease. Not even football fans, a tribe not known for savoring nuance, can forever block that fact from their excited brains.

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