Head Games

Man, we love our football in Wisconsin.

Autumn and winter without the Badgers and Packers is difficult to imagine.

More than a game, these teams bind us as a community in ways politicians will never, ever be able to do.

But Saturdays and Sundays now require some serious thinking from fans.  Perhaps even action. There is a truth we cannot dodge. As great as the game is for those who watch, it is dangerously damaging to those who play it.

Of course football has always had danger. That is its appeal. There is speed and mass and testosterone.

Any guy who ever played remembers the heightened adrenaline in the locker room, with the noise of the fans outside, the cleats echoing on the cement floor, your own breathing amplified inside your helmet. Sitting on that bench in those minutes before the game, wrapped in your gear and colors, you know that during the next two hours you will be hurt. Not necessarily injured, but bumped, bruised, shoved, pushed and flattened. Most plays, you get back up.

But the game of football has changed because the physics have been altered. The players are bigger, faster, more muscular and better trained. The turf allows for more velocity. The gear is lighter and sleeker. And so the collisions have more impact.  

Mass plus velocity is an unalterable equation.

Although knees and backs and shoulders get hurt in the game of football, it is the brain damage that is the crisis for the sport. The players we loved to watch are displaying terrible damage—damage that is not always evident during their playing careers.

Madison has had a ringside seat for this growing national story. Our own Al Toon, a remarkable athlete and man, was one of the first brain trauma victims in the new era of football to draw national attention to the problem. Later, Mike Webster’s sad, early death sounded further alarm. Now athletes we watched on Sundays only five years ago are exhibiting shocking neurological disabilities or deaths today.

In the short term, this isn’t going to get better. It is going to get worse. Because the players of the new era, an era of year-round training and diet, are just entering retirement. More mass. More velocity. Greater impact.

So what can fans do? Simple. Support change. Don’t grouse over tighter controls on cheap hits. Encourage rule and equipment improvements that make the game safer at the grade school, high school, college and professional levels. 

Encourage better thinking from all. Not all football people are smart. Shun fans who amazingly still cheer when an opposing player is injured. Curb the blood lust of the fat guy next to you, or the ignorant youth football coach. Appreciate the game for its grace, skill, teamwork, sweat, complexity and beauty as much as for its violence.

And help those who own the game understand that we want improvements to protect those who play it. They are more than just names on our fantasy roster. We like a lot of these guys. We know them. They have to be protected in the sport they play. In some cases they have to be protected from themselves.

Over coffee, I asked a retired college and NFL player if any solutions exist. He offered a subtle, smart suggestion: Make the turf longer. It would slow the game and soften impact. It wouldn’t stop all injuries, but it would reduce velocity. There will be more ideas like this.

Football is our most watchable, profitable sport. The masters of the game—those who run the NFL, specifically—are capable of incredible arrogance. ESPN and the networks tremble when the NFL clears its throat, because that rumble is the sound of billions of dollars. But that entertainment, drama and joy is created by the players on the field, not gyrating coaches on headsets, old owners in luxury boxes or league executives in bad suits. Some of these guys have dodged the problem long enough.

In this crisis, there is opportunity. Fans have money and power they can leverage. They should use them for the good of the players. We aren’t Romans and this ain’t no Colosseum.

A good fan, a smart fan, will use that power to protect those who play the game we love and the future of the game itself.

And in that way, each fan becomes a star.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

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