What Is Missing

Feb 11, 2010 by

“So, Dan, can you tell us the difference between pass interference and a block that’s not?” our friend Mel, resplendent in her gorgeous black sweater with gold polka dots, asked Dan.  “After all, you are the only guy here.”

The rest of us looked ’round Edie’s living room and giggled.  Seven women, two kids, and one man watching the Super Bowl.  Who’d’a thunk this would be happening?  But it happened, and there we were, with food enough to make the dining room table groan, watching the pregame spot on Drew Brees that was on Edie’s new flat screen TV and listening to Amy, a teacher at the school he visited, telling us about the kids featured in the spot from her perch on the leather couch.

I had to be here, according to Edie.  She became convinced over the course of the season that, if I didn’t go to her house to watch the Saints games, the Saints would lose.  I didn’t have the heart to remind her about the pig roast I went to near the beginning of the season, or the tenth game of the season, when I was up in Chicago and they still won.  I went anyway because I loved watching the games with her.  We both got into the season as it went along, embraced and jumped around when the Saints clinched the division and then the NFC Championship, and exchanged Saints-related tchotchkes.

It started for her when she went to the Saints’ training facility in Metairie early in the season on an errand for a friend.  At the front desk, she got into a conversation with a nattily dressed guy in a fedora about the socks the Saints wear and what enables them to stay up on their legs.  At some point in the chat, she asked the guy if he was a player, and he said yes.

“Well, what’s your name?  I’ll be watching for you,” she asked.

“Tracy Porter,” he replied.

The day she told me that story, Porter made a key interception in the game we were watching and had Edie yelling, “That’s my MAN!”  We knew Porter was a game changer on defense and were sad to see him being driven off the field in St. Louis sitting on the back of the small truck headed for the bowels of the stadium and for X-rays, his head in his hands.

But there he was, in the Super Bowl, positioning himself in just the right spot to pick the ball off and run it back for a touchdown, pointing himself straight to the end zone.  Edie bounced around and put her hands on my shoulders so hard, I felt I could barely breathe, but I was yelling at that point, anyway.  It was amazing.  He’d helped clinch a world championship for the Saints.  Now, if we could just find his jersey for Edie…

So we are still riding on the high this team has given us, the ways that they’ve put the team back in “team sport”, their giving back to the community here in so many ways, their recognition that that silver football on a pedestal means more than just a big gold star on their career stats, even the standard they are presenting for our newly elected or reelected city officials.  But we also have to be mindful of the risks those guys take each time they set foot on a football field…

Watch this first.

What’s wrong with football? It’s written in the pain on Greg Hadley’s face. The senior from Colgate University, a two-time all-conference linebacker on the school’s football team, is sitting in a Bedford, Mass., laboratory, staring at shattered brains of dead football players. On this Friday afternoon, Hadley has come to visit Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neurological researcher who has received a dozen brains donated from former NFL, college and high school players. In each one, it’s simple to spot a protein called tau, which defines a debilitating disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Common symptoms of CTE include sudden memory loss, paranoia and depression during middle age. The disease is also known as dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome, because until recently the overwhelming majority of its victims were boxers. Not anymore. Researchers like McKee have found a deep and disturbing association between CTE and America’s most popular sport.

…Hadley lets out a quiet “Jesus” and sinks in his chair. His girlfriend stares at him, looking as if her cat just died. “I had no idea it was all over the place like that,” Hadley says. He glances at a picture of a normal brain next to the stained brain of a deceased player. “You look at something like that and think, This is your brain, and this is your brain on football.”

I’m not saying we should be completely rid of football – at this point, it’d be like preaching complete abstinence to teenagers.  What I can’t help thinking about is how much this team that has brought this city so much joy is going to be suffering from this disease.  People like Jeremy Shockey, Jon Stinchcomb, Pierre Thomas, Scott Fujita, Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer…even Edie’s man Tracy Porter will be helpless in the face of this in twenty years or so, or even earlier.  It’s almost enough to kill any enthusiasm for the game one might have had.
What do we do?  What can we do?
We take care of these guys as best we can, by advocating for further research that can lead to safer training methods for kids on up to the adults who play the game.  As fans, we encourage the NFL to take care of these guys while they are still active players by getting better equipment in and possibly changing some rules in order to minimize head-to-head contact; when the players are retired, make sure the health plans they have cover any neurological problems that may crop up – their families need more than just the trophies and the trappings of a pro career to sustain them.
As a parent, I can see also that we are nurturing a culture among our boys that minimizes pain in much less violent circumstances as part of just being a boy, so we need to treat someone who’s had his “bell rung” much more seriously than we have been in youth sports – it’s reminiscent of how much mental illness has been regarded over the centuries, and, even with greater acceptance and more avenues of treatment for it than ever before, of how much it is still regarded.  Concussions shouldn’t be brushed off in the name of glory on the field anymore.  Train those youth coaches not to truck in head-to-head contact drills, sure, but this also takes monitoring from parents.  You know your kids best.  Make sure they live to be healthy adults as much as you can.
If the way New Orleans fans got the NFL to back down on their attempted co-opting of the phrase “Who Dat?” is any indication, we can do this.  It will take lifetimes, but it can be done.

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