Why football won’t go up in smoke

Leonard Marshall, the former New York Giants’ defensive end, who “didn’t sign up” for NFL-induced brain injuries.

Leonard Marshall, the former New York Giants’ defensive end, who “didn’t sign up” for NFL-induced brain injuries.

The cover story for the Nov. 9 New York Times Magazine asks the provocative question: Is football the next tobacco? 

The answer is “No,” and the key to that answer lies not in football or tobacco but in something else – influenza.

Like the flu, tobacco is airborne. If you were to smoke in let’s say an NFL arena, you would be subjecting not only yourself but the people all around you to carcinogens. Tobacco lost its household brand identity, because enough people came to understand that it wasn’t just about other people smoking themselves to death. It was also about how secondhand smoke could kill you.

But when you go to that same NFL arena to watch a game, you’re not risking a brain injury; someone else is. And for many people, that is, selfish or not, an acceptable risk.

President Barack Obama, a Chicago Bears fan, may have voiced the sentiment of a nation when he said that if he had a son, he would not let him play football. And yet, he says, he will remain a fan.

“At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” Michael Sokolove quotes him as saying in The Times Magazine piece. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret.”

The president is a rational, compassionate man. So are we all – rational, compassionate people who are comfortable with other people bashing their brains in for our amusement, because, hey, they know what they’re getting into, much like a prostitute or a stripper or a porn star. It’s just another meat market.

Of course, the poor, dumb slobs who played years ago didn’t necessarily know what they were getting into.

“When you get into football, you think about hurting your knees, your back, even your neck,” former New York Giants’ defensive end Leonard Marshall says in The Times’ piece. “But your brain, man, no. We didn’t think about that. I didn’t sign up for that.”

Those who discovered too late that this is indeed what they signed up for will be sharing in a $1 billion fund established by the NFL for the brain injured or their heirs. (It’s a good deal for the NFL, whose teams make a total of $9 billion annually.)  

Should enough players draw on that fund – and enough parents decide that Pop Warner football is not for their little Johnnys and Jimmys, as seems to be the trend – then the football audience might shrink to the size of that of boxing or horse racing. But I doubt it. Football is now entwined with the American identity and the ever-changing technology.

And it feeds our atavistic attitude toward violence.

“People like violence, because it makes them feel good,” the persecuted mathematician Alan Turing says in the new, Oscar-buzz worthy film “The Imitation Game.”

But that is a story for another blog post.