Maybe the beginning of a new football season isn't the best time to consider the damage that football does to players' bodies. In fact, if you'd rather not think about it, turn the page. Otherwise, consider this:
The American football player's stock-in-trade is his body, and every game demands that players be willing to sacrifice a part--great or small--of their physical and mental capital. Football is an inherently violent sport; those unwilling to risk their health won't last long in the modern game.
In short, football's violence consumes its players. And just as players must be willing to sacrifice themselves for the game, so its many fans must be willing to sacrifice the players who make the game possible.
My guess is that the average fan doesn't spend much time thinking about the toll football takes on its players. Of course, games are paused when a player can't leave the field under his own power. Teams drop to a knee and spectators murmur worriedly while trainers determine the severity of the injury.
An injured player who gives the crowd a thumbs up as he is carted off the field garners a great cheer from the fans, reflecting either their gratitude or their relief at the illusion that everything is fine and the game can go on. Which it soon does.
But most of football's damage is invisible to the fan in the stands. It occurs among the thousands of unseen players who sustain injuries of various severities, many of which will affect them for their lifetimes. Some players are paralyzed and a few die every year. These stories don't linger on the sports pages.
And in recent decades we've learned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the unsurprising consequence of hard blows to players' fragile brains or of repetitive sub-concussive blows. Some evidence indicates a staggering prevalence of CTE in professional football players, which results in life-devastating effects long after the fans have moved on to other players.
We rationalize the damage that football does to its players in various ways: They choose to play the game. They're well paid. They love football.
In fact, football requires from its fans considerable denial about the harm the game does to its players.
That's why Matthew Walther's column in The New York Times last week was a refreshing dose of candor. Walther argues against a new National Football League rule that permits any player to fair catch a kickoff between the goal line and the 25-yard line. The hope is that the rule will result in fewer kickoff runbacks and therefore less damage to players during one of football's most dangerous plays.
Walther calls this "a terrible idea" that threatens "the ethos of blue-collar toughness that once defined this great game." He argues the virtues of the kickoff and minimizes the dangers it presents for players. He agrees with Cardinals fullback Ron Wolfley that football "by definition cannot be safe."
One wonders if this casual dismissal of the value to each individual life is too fatalistic. But we'll think about that after the game. Or not.