Like millions of other Americans, I spent Sunday night watching the Super Bowl. And like millions of other Americans, I did so with a pang of guilt.
Football is a cruel sport that permanently injures the brains of its players. A "great hit," the kind that elicits "oohs" and leads to instant replays, is a trauma. The brain slams into the skull. Hard. At the University of North Carolina's Sports Concussion Research Program, they put six sensors into the helmets of their players. Malcolm Gladwell reported the results for one young defensive lineman, who in a simple day of practice, sustained four hits ranging from 63 to 96 gs. To put those numbers in perspective, Gladwell writes, "if you drove your car into a wall at 25 miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs."
But worse than the big hits, we're learning, are the small ones. The lineman took 31 measurable hits to the head that day. He probably took 30-some hits to the head the day before that. And the day before that. And because those hits weren't bad enough to concuss him, he was kept in the game, where he could get hit again and again and again.
Those hits injure the brain over and over again. And what we're learning is that even as the brain heals, it degrades. A protein called tau begins to loop through it. Tau is the protein we associate with Alzheimers and dementia. Now we also associate it with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That's the dementia that afflicts football players. That's the dementia many of us now think of when we see the big hits, the great tackles, the fierce sacks.
The NFL doesn't want us to watch the game thinking of that dementia. They want to assuage our guilt. And so they've begun a campaign called "NFL Evolution." And over and over again, they play this ad:
This ad is supposed to make us feel better about watching football. It's meant to show us how the game has gotten better. Instead, it shows us how it has, accidentally, gotten much worse.
The ad takes you through time. It begins with a bunch of early football players. The shots are black-and-white. There are no pads or helmets. "Didn't look like much," the announcer says. "Just a bunch of guys running around in a pile of mud. So they strapped on leather and introduced a few rules, just to keep the peace."
"Suddenly, we had a game on our hands," the announcer says, the players now in color. "So we added more rules, and better equipment, like hard plastic helmets." Now that the players in the ad have pads, the hits get harder. The runner crashes into a would-be tackler at full speed, knocking the defender back, and staggering down, catching himself with a palm on the field, and pushing back up into the rush. It's a great shot. The hit feels real, and big, like two trucks colliding.
"And facemasks," the announcer continues. In the next shot, a defender lunges horizontally across the field, grabbing the runner's facemask, dragging him down headfirst. "Followed quickly," the announcer adds, "by, 'nah man, you can't grab that!'" Of course, even with the rule against grabbing facemasks, it happens all the time. It happened on Sunday night, at the Super Bowl.
"We certainly have come a long way," the ad continues, as the runner, now outfitted in thoroughly modern gear, sprints towards the end zone. "Thing is," the announcer says, "we're just getting started." With these words, a defender pulls up behind the runner, clamps down on the collar protecting his neck, and tries to use it to pull him straight backwards onto the ground.
The ad is meant to make you feel better about watching football. It's meant to show how the NFL has made the game safer, with pads and helmets and rules. Instead, it shows how it's made the game more dangerous, making it easier for the players to hit harder, last longer, endure more trauma. And it shows how we're complicit, too. Even as the ad is meant to assuage our guilt about the game's violence, it's all about the game's violence -- it's one big hit after another, because that's why we tune in, that's why we like to watch. The ad celebrates the NFL's sobriety by ordering everyone a round of shots.
The NFL hasn't evolved to be safer. It's evolved to be more lucrative, which means being more fun to watch, which means having bigger and more spectacular hits.
“If you want to prevent concussions," said former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, "take the helmet off: Play old-school football with the leather helmets, no facemask. When you put a helmet on you’re going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon.”
In other words, don't evolve. Devolve. Go back to the beginning of the ad. But early in the ad, you can see the sidelines. There's almost no one there. "It didn't look like much," the announcer said. It's only late in the ad, when the field is full of armored gladiators jackknifing over one another, that the stands are full. No one wants to watch a game that doesn't look like much.