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News » Private Eye

Play Attention

It will take someone big and famous to die young to bury football


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About the only thing that spurs more passion in individuals than sports rivalries is writing about them. We mortals like to vicariously think we, too, are destined for the same sainthood as the loveable former Utah Jazz head coach and general manager, Frank Layden. We also take decades of frustration out on a school and religious body thanks to the mouthy misgivings of a certain BYU quarterback named Max. Or we can quit paying attention altogether.

If you are paying attention, you've certainly realized by now that, in this age of shrinking newsrooms and newspaper resources, most newspapers kept their sports sections pretty much intact. That tells you something, doesn't it? We are told there were 25 percent to 40 percent editorial layoffs at both The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. But neither newspaper let go of the same ratio of its sports reporters or columnists. The message is clear: Sports moves the reader needle; reporting on dog-leash ordinances does not. A good quarterback controversy trumps a city council hearing every time.

Even City Weekly succumbs here and there despite the fact that there are plenty more important things to write about. In this world of being an alternative newspaper, we don't follow the mold of writing about what passes for importance to everyone at every turn. We don't do that. That's what Twitter is for, which is another reason we seldom write about sports (and why I personally no longer read sports columnists except for the Deseret News' Brad Rock). On Twitter, I get a mostly unwelcome and unimaginative play-by-play of a game by the very writer who will write tomorrow's story, and who is tweeting about the same thing I'm watching on TV.

That all said, here's the most important reason why writing about football (as I also did last week) is so painfully lame: Football is an increasingly dangerous and deadly sport. Ignoring that fact—as I did last week—is a shame on me and others who promote the game without acknowledging the damages associated with it. I wear surgical scars on both knees and my right shoulder due to injuries sustained while playing high-school-level football. I know how messed up my body is, how those injuries changed my life, making me a terrible boyfriend and a very good drinker, so I should have considered that.

As sore and cranky as I've been, at least I never had a concussion. I remember a game we played against Orem and our fine QB, Brad Oakeson, got his "bell rung" as we used to say. I played center, so I gathered our guys into a huddle, and we all looked around dumbly at one another, waiting for a play to come from Brad. But Brad was over on the Orem sideline. This was the era when coaches gave their players salt pills during practice to fight dehydration. No wonder they sent Brad back in the game a few plays later. Brad came out OK.

Many others do not. Ninety-one former and now dead NFL players were autopsied, and 87 of them—96 percent—were reported to have evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease attributed to repeated head trauma and concussions. In just two weeks during the current NFL season, over a dozen players were removed from the field after suffering concussions. We cheer now that Utah quarterback Travis Wilson is back leading the Utes, but we damningly forget his serious head injuries in 2013 and 2014.

If football were a cigarette, it would be banned. Ten percent of all smokers eventually develop lung cancer—and polite society spits a shitstorm, despite smoking ails being mostly self-inflicted. Yet 30 percent of all NFL players will eventually develop dementia or Alzheimer's—also killer diseases (see Mike Webster or Cookie Gilcrist)—and society claps its hands, sings out of tune, burns a burger, swigs a beer and goes all Caligula while the players below them bash each others to shreds.

When John Wayne died of lung cancer, he took the cigarette industry to his grave with him. Who will be the John Wayne of football? It won't be the high school kid who died on the field in Florida a couple weeks ago. It wasn't even that Detroit Lion who died on the field when I was young, Dick Butkus standing over him (which only added to the badass Butkus storyline, but Butkus didn't hurt that guy, it was just a poor camera angle). We simply shrugged it off and waited for the next Sunday's games.

Nor will it be the scores of permanently disabled or paralyzed former players from every level, who sadly become fodder for documentaries that only make us cringe for just a little bit of our precious time. It will take someone big and famous to die young to bury football. It may never happen. Meanwhile, the damage is measureable and predictable: If you played football, you got hurt. If you let your kid play today, when the competition is bigger and faster and meaner, you're crazy. You must be eliminated from all Parent of the Year awards.

I'm more than a little ashamed to have groused about not having season tickets to Ute football these past years. It took a simple email to me after last week's column to realize that—to comprehend that my support of football is akin to lighting a cigarette for a smoker outside a cancer ward. Yay, team! Right. It was an unintended consequence of writing that column that I'm writing this one. I'm thankful for the wake-up-call email. I am also warm to his suggestion that someday there should be a professional flag football league. Yeah, that would be cool.