San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Steve Young lies motionless on field after suffering a concussion in a game against the Arizona Cardinals in 1999 in Tempe, Az.  (Photo by Scott Troyanos/The Associated Press)

The recent surprising success of our traditionally hapless Redskins kept football excitement in the air in the Washington region deep into the season, until their playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers last weekend.  Although we can still look forward to the Super Bowl, right?

But stop and think a minute.  Have you noticed just how violent professional football is? Does it strike you as odd that so many are excited about  a game in which players are knocked senseless and many are maimed? The players strike each other with such force that the collision sounds can be heard high in the stands and on TV. The quarterback position is acknowledged as the most important, but rare is the quarterback who is able to play a whole season without significant injuries.

[The counterintuitive idea that could drastically reduce concussions in football]

More important than the broken clavicles, the shoulder dislocations, and even the gruesome orthopedic disasters like the career-ending injury of star quarterback Joe Theisman, are the injuries to the brain. Yes, to the brain. It is now crystal clear that high speed collisions—even when “protected” by a helmet and other gear that would make a gladiator proud—do very bad things to the brain.  The recent Concussion movie helped bring the hard facts of traumatic brain injuries in football to the forefront.

As psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst whose specialty is scanning the brain using a technology called SPECT that looks at brain function, I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole football enterprise—especially on the professional level—is unethical at its core.

Brain SPECT is ideally suited to reveal brain damage caused by blows to the head. In my clinic we have seen many football players, at all levels, who have suffered serious brain injury caused by the sport. Plus, we’ve done the largest study on retired NFL players, which revealed remarkably high levels of brain injury and many associated problems.

The good news is that brain injury often can be ameliorated with aggressive treatment. The bad news is that most individuals who suffer brain injury, including professional football players, are not appropriately assessed, diagnosed, and treated. How many former football players have ruined lives because of brain injury? And consider remarkable individuals like Junior Seau, the former San Diego Charger, who took his life by a gunshot to the chest, so that his brain would remain intact after death and available for study.

This video from the CDC illustrates and explains the science behind a concussion and the importance of recovery time for the human brain. (CDC via YouTube)

My conclusion about football has been painful. I’ve loved the sport. Even during the many years of their mostly mediocre performance on the field, I’ve avidly watched each Redskins game. And other football games, too. I feel like a hypocrite. But the reality is that I grew up in football-crazed rural Pennsylvania. I played in a midget football league for boys age ten to twelve. Full contact. I loved it. And I played on my high school team too. I know the “thrill” of hitting another player so hard that they are knocked unconscious.

Sigmund Freud wrote about human beings having both loving and aggressive instincts. It is well-known that the positive, loving instinct is called libido. My psychoanalyst colleagues and I—in a play on words—have nicknamed the aggressive instinct “destrudo.” Nickname or not, it is clear that we all do have aggressive, destructive drives within us. For centuries, this instinct has been showcased in sports around the world. Think of the gladiators in ancient Rome, the bullfighters of Spain.

A key appeal of football and other rough sports is that they provide a channeled and sublimated outlet for our aggression. Regressive tribal instincts (us vs. them) are strengthened. And we don’t have to put ourselves at direct risk, it’s our hired gladiators, err, football team. Is football violence a kind of “safety valve” for society, in which we spectators put others at risk in order to vent our aggression by proxy?

Can’t we find another way to channel our aggression? Is it fair to have our young people—typically young men whose prefrontal cortices are not even fully myelinated—put their bodies and brains at risk to that we can watch at home from our recliners? Or watch in the stadium? My experience attending Redskins games in person is that they seem like a drunken orgy at which a sporting event broke out.

Is it ethical to seduce our young men to put their mental stability, emotional welfare, and their whole futures at risk, by offering them dollars and fame to risk maiming the most important organ in their bodies? The brain is key to everything we are, everything we do. As a society, we shouldn’t get our aggressive rocks off through our hired hands—our football players—even if they are paid handsomely to endanger the soft tissue in the cranial vault. It’s not right. And, that many of the players are from minority communities makes it even less right.

Can’t we do better as a society? Can’t we do better as humans? Let’s find another way to handle our innate aggression. Let’s end this football madness. We look back at Roman gladiators and are repulsed. My prediction is that future generations will look back at our obsession with our violent national pastime—professional football—with similar incredulity and repulsion.

If football at all levels is to survive, it will need to evolve into a sport in which athletic grace becomes key, rather than jarring and brutal tackles that risk life-shattering injury. Will tackle football evolve into flag football? And would the rooting public accept a version of football in which life and limb are not constantly at risk? I hope so.

Dr. Joseph Annibali is Chief Psychiatrist for the Amen Clinics, Reston, VA. His book Reclaim Your Brain: How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Under [amazon.com] is published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House. 

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