Once again the football season concludes on an upbeat note with a fantastically entertaining Super Bowl — if you didn’t like Denver versus Carolina, you don’t like sports. And once again the season concludes with the N.F.L. sounding cold and callous about neurological harm.
There’s a distinction to be made between football, which is in the main a wonderful sport — the most American of games — and the National Football League, which is insufferable. Subsidized by taxpayers, rich and arrogant owing to antitrust waivers, caring for naught but power and profit, the N.F.L. couldn’t look worse. The game itself remains fantastic for audiences and, for many high school and college players, a good experience.
To understand football’s outsize role in American society, we need to make the distinction between the N.F.L., which has no positive qualities, and the sport, which has many. High school and college football games create civic spirit in a fractious world, help teenagers learn teamwork and self-discipline, and can open the door to college for many who wouldn’t otherwise go.
Other sports also create civic spirit and college opportunities, but because football involves so many more people than other sports, its positive impacts loom larger. Focusing on the small number of former professionals who experience cognitive decline is the wrong way to think about the social impact of football. What happens to the very large numbers of youth and high school players — and how to reform the sport to reduce their risk — ought to be the first concern.
Below I’ll suggest three reforms that could make football less risky right away, aiding mainly children, who form the bulk of the nation’s football players. Never forget that there are roughly 1,500 children — minors under age 18 — playing organized football for each one N.F.L. professional.
Let me preview those reforms by citing the most important one — youth tackle football must end. This would drastically reduce neurological risk without diminishing the appeal or quality of the sport in the slightest.
Six years ago, your columnist wrote on ESPN.com: “No one under the age of 12 should play tackle football. The brain case has not finished forming at that age — pediatric studies show that those under age 12 are far more prone to concussions than those over age 12, and also that head trauma in youth has longer-lasting aftereffects than head trauma after roughly age 16. There’s an emerging theory that many of what manifest as concussions in high school or college actually began as blows to the head in youth football, when the brain and brain case are more vulnerable.”
All research since has backed the conclusion that many sub-concussive hits before middle school age are more dangerous than occasional knockout hits in the N.F.L.
In 2014, The Atlantic added details to this view. A year ago I proposed, “If the N.F.L. and its former players would confer prestige only on flag football, hundreds of thousands of kids would benefit.” I have two boys and did not allow either to put on football helmets until eighth grade; one went on to be an N.C.A.A. starter. Last month I noted in this space: “But don’t take my word for it, take Archie Manning’s. He did not let Peyton and Eli put on helmets till they reached seventh grade. In youth, these two future Hall of Famers learned football by playing flag — which is how all kids below middle-school age should learn.” I make the argument against youth football every chance I get, including over Super Bowl weekend on NPR.
It’s the thought I want to leave you with — do not allow children to play tackle football before middle-school age, and support the outlawing of this mistaken enterprise.
A generation ago, it wasn’t known that sub-concussive hits to little children could have lifetime neurological consequences. Now that this is known, youth tackle football must stop. To have huge numbers of young boys, and a few young girls, bashing heads simply cannot be a good idea, especially in a society increasingly based on education. Flag football is just as much fun as tackle, with almost no risk. It’s what those below eighth grade should play; there will be plenty of time to learn how to tackle later.
I offer more on neurology and football reform below, plus Super Bowl analysis. And I hope you’ve enjoyed this column, which concludes its run at The Upshot.
Stats of the Super Bowl. Denver became the fourth team to reach the Super Bowl eight times. Their records: Pittsburgh 6-2, Dallas 5-3, New England 4-4 and Denver 3-5.
The Manning brothers are 4-2 in the Super Bowl, 22-16 in the postseason.
The last five teams with at least 15 regular-season wins did not win Super Bowl — the 1998 Vikings, 2004 Steelers, 2007 Patriots, 2011 Packers and 2015 Panthers.
Those five teams opened a combined 82-4 and then closed a combined 0-5.
Defenses ranked first over all are on a 8-1 Super Bowl stretch, which would be 9-0 had Seattle not called a pass at the New England goal line in the closing seconds a year ago.
Super Bowl Turns Blue. Texas is the center of football culture, yet it’s going on 20 years since the Lone Star State sent a representative to the Super Bowl. California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the other football-culture havens, have combined to provide just seven of the last 40 Super Bowl entrants. In recent Super Bowls, Massachusetts, Colorado and New York have been overrepresented — bearing in mind that for N.F.L. purposes, New York is located in New Jersey — while the football-culture states were underrepresented.
As for politics, 18 of the last 20 Super Bowl winners hailed from states that voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Two of the three most recent Super Bowl winners hail from states where marijuana is legal.
More Proof Defense Trumps Offense. Two of the last three Super Bowl have featured the league’s highest-scoring offense being shut down by the league’s best defense — Seattle over Denver and now Denver over Carolina. The 2013 Broncos, highest-scoring N.F.L. team ever, were held to 8 points in the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots, second-highest scoring team ever, were held to 14 points in the Super Bowl. Carolina, highest-scoring team of 2015, was held to 10 points in the Super Bowl.
The Panthers’ 500 regular-season points made Carolina the 16th-highest scoring N.F.L. team. Of that top 16, only four — the 1994 49ers, the 1998 Broncos, the 1999 Rams and the 2009 Saints — won the Super Bowl.
Why does defense trump offense at the last? T.M.Q. believes this is because trophy games are played at maximum intensity. Up till the Super Bowl, players must hold something in reserve for next week. In the Super Bowl, max crank-up is achieved. Quarterbacks are hit harder, receivers are jammed, tackles are more jarring — detracting from offense but not from defense.
Unified Field Theory of Superhero Creep. Summer movies keep creeping into spring: “Batman v. Superman,” the initial summer movie of 2016, opens March 25. “Captain America Civil War,” the second summer movie of 2016, opens May 6, which is 45 days before the start of summer in North America.
Once these mega-flicks are on shopping-mall screens, viewers will have recently encountered at the movies Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, Iron Man, Ant-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Spiderman and Green Lantern, plus the too-many-to-count X Men, plus the Fantastic Four, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Watchmen.
On network prime time there’s the Flash, Supergirl and Green Arrow; on Netflix, Jessica Jones and Daredevil. These television and cinematic figures are backed by auxiliary superheroes including Atom, Falcon, Firestorm, Hawk Girl, Luke Cage and Maria Hill, and there’s a literary version coming of Black Panther, penned by no less than Ta-Nehisi Coates. With all this superpower, it’s a wonder there is still a cat stuck up a tree.
CBS just rolled out the less-known superhero J’onn J’onzz, who possesses all of Superman’s powers and can also read minds, shape-shift and teleport through walls. He’s practically omnipotent yet constantly frustrated by failing to achieve his goals. Just like America!
Computer animation renders possible the preposterous action associated with superpowers: energy bolts, collapsing skyscrapers, doorways to other dimensions. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the supervillain levitated an entire city, in order to — this was never really explained, which perhaps was just as well.
It’s risky to impute symbolism to pop culture. Lovelorn teen vampires, for example, probably tell us more about Hollywood desperation for material than about contemporary sexual mores.
To the extent the current superhero profusion means anything, it may be that the United States post-Sept. 11 is a nation keenly concerned with might. Our national sport, football, is the most musclebound game while our favorite entertainment fantasy, superheroes, involves being invincible. Though all superheroes have bad luck in romance: They can do anything except get the girl/guy. Maybe that says something about America, too.
Football-Caused Dementia in Perspective. Stories of star football players, once proud athletes, reduced to debilitation in old age are heartbreaking. Here is such a story, by Bill Pennington, about Willie Wood, a key player in the first Super Bowl, now unable to care for himself. But huge numbers of people have heartbreaking experiences as the bright promise of youth gives way to debility. Wood is 79 years old, an age at which enfeeblement is hardly rare. In his birth year, life expectancy for an American male was 60. Pummeled by football, Wood nonetheless enjoyed a significantly longer life than actuarial tables forecast.
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has found that aging former football players experience more cognitive decline than men of their birth year. The Centers for Disease Control has found aging former players live longer than comparable men and, despite the media impression, are less likely to commit suicide. For the current generation of aging N.F.L. players, football was bad for their brains but good for their health in other respects. Thus the arrow of reform should point toward brain protection.
Reforms in football as played (mainly banning the deliberate helmet-to-helmet hit) and practiced (fewer contact hours) in addition to how head hits are treated (players no longer sent back into the game or practice) create reason to hope that when today’s football athletes reach Wood’s age, they will experience less cognitive decline.
The Next Stage. Last week in The Times, George Lundberg, a pathologist who, in 1982, prominently called for the abolition of prizefighting, did not call for the abolition of football, but warned that such calls may be coming. Here are three reforms that could be put in immediately.
Football Reform No. 1: Boot the Kickoff. This 2010 study found the neurological injury rate is highest on kickoffs. During kickoffs, players collide at full sprint while running in opposite directions. Many collisions on punts occur with players running in the same direction, while on scrimmage downs, most players don’t reach full sprint. These factors add up to the kickoff as being football’s peak danger moment in brain-trauma terms.
So let’s quit messing around with the spot — a few years ago the N.F.L. moved the spot from the 30 to the 35 in order to reduce the number of returns — and eliminate the kickoff.
Ever-better kickers sail ever-more kickoffs through the end zone anyway. This year in the conference championship round and Super Bowl, there were 30 kickoffs, 22 of which were touchbacks. Let’s cut out the middleman and make this result automatic. After a field goal or touchdown, the opponent takes possession at its 20-yard line. After a safety, the opponent takes possession at its 35. (The post-safety free-kick spot is 15 yards behind the kickoff spot.)
Eliminating the kickoff wouldn’t matter much to reducing N.F.L. head injuries, since already so many kickoffs aren’t run back. But eliminating the kickoff would be a huge progressive reform in high school, where most kickoffs are returned because few teen kickers have enough leg to reach the end zone from the standard spot at the kicking team’s 40-yard line.
Prep kickoffs are especially bad news given that special-teams units — some coaches insist on calling them the “suicide squad” — are composed of reserves who try to impress by recklessly hurling their bodies. A worst-case result is achieved: Brain trauma (and orthopedic injuries and plain old pain, a neglected consequence of football) happen to the backups who have no chance of a college recruiting boost in the first place.
If the N.F.L. eliminated the kickoff, college and high school would follow. Purists would grumble, but purists grumbled about the forward pass. Once the kickoff was gone, no one would miss it. There was a time when basketball staged a center-court jump ball after each field goal. The made-basket jump ball was eliminated, and many decades later the jump ball for simultaneous possession was eliminated by the N.C.A.A. Basketball improved after both changes. Kickoffs belong in the sports museum, next to the jump ball exhibit.
Bonus: Eliminating the kickoff would end the television tedium of a touchdown followed by numerous commercials, then a kickoff that goes into the end zone for a touchback, then more commercials.
Football Reform No. 2: Everybody Standing. Eliminate the three-point and four-point stance, such that players begin each play with hands off the ground.
Take a look at linemen on both sides just before the snap. Their heads are pointed at each other’s heads, and at the snap, collide. If hands could not be on the ground, heads would be up at the snap. Helmet-to-helmet collisions would diminish.
Today many coaches have offensive linemen place hands on their thighs anyway, since the two-point stance is better for pass-blocking. Defenses once had four players in three-point or four-point stances. Today it’s common for defenses to have most of their front seven standing: The standing stance is needed for the zone-rush schemes that are all the rage.
The Denver Broncos, with the best defense of 2015, typically had only two players in a down stance in long-yardage situations — everyone else standing. This season Arizona, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington were among N.F.L. teams that at times had 9, 10 or even 11 defenders standing. (All-standing is known as the “radar defense,” and like many football ideas perceived as innovations, it’s been around for a while — 1970 in this case.)
Since the trend is toward hands off the ground anyway, let’s make it official and ban the three- and four-point stances. As a nod to traditionalists, the down stance could be allowed on fourth-down or goal-to-go situations.
Football Reform No. 3: Ban Youth Tackle. Nobody wants N.F.L. players to be harmed or forlorn late in life. But the focus of concern should not be on N.F.L. players, who are few in number and are highly compensated for the risks they assume. The focus should be on the large numbers of youth and high school football players whose names and stories we’ll never know.
This bombshell Mayo Clinic study, published in December, found that about a third of deceased men who played contact sports in youth had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, while deceased men who never played contact sports did not develop the condition. This Mayo Clinic study finds that playing football in high school appears mainly safe, not associated with late-life neurological problems; it’s youth tackle that triggers bad outcomes in late life.
If one Mayo Clinic study was a bombshell, this 2015 Boston University study is a guided missile: It finds that aging players who began playing full-pads tackle football before age 12 “performed significantly worse” on tests of mental acuity than those who did not don helmets until after age 12. For the latter group — those who waited till after age 12 to play tackle football — the sport was not especially damaging to later life.
Speaking in the voice of a medical journal, the Boston University researchers conclude: “These findings suggest that incurring repeated head impacts during a critical neurodevelopmental period may increase the risk of later-life cognitive impairment. If replicated with larger samples and longitudinal designs, these findings may have implications for safety recommendations for youth sports.”
The “safety recommendation” should be to ban youth football. Ken Belson reports that even in Texas, some communities are replacing youth tackle with flag football, which offers all the fun without hits to the head. The N.F.L. should stop endorsing youth football; the N.C.A.A., the Power Five football conferences, ESPN and Sports Authority should stop supporting it; state legislatures and Congress should ban it.
There are complex arguments about the risk-reward situations for college football players who receive scholarships in return for risk, and for pros who receive large amounts of money and a glamorous lifestyle in return for risk. There is no complexity about the situation at the youth football level. It’s all risk, no benefit, and should be banned.
Whimsical Reform Proposal. As a break from all the worry about brain trauma, here’s a whimsical idea. Nobody seems happy with the N.F.L. overtime format, not Green Bay Packers fans or anyone else. The college format (alternating possessions at the 25) and the high school format (alternating possessions at the 10) have their detractors, too. Why not take a page from soccer and resolve ties with a shootout?
Each team gets five field-goal attempts off a tee — no one on the field except the kicker — from the 40-yard line. If both kickers hit the same number, the ball moves back five yards and five more attempts. Repeat until one kicker prevails.
A penalty-kicks overtime format would reduce injuries — it’s exhausting to play a fifth quarter — while creating the supercharged excitement of a soccer shootout. Plus, finally fans would notice the kickers’ names.
Can’t Judge a Book by the Authors’ Middle Name. The ambitious new novel “City on Fire,” by Garth Risk Hallberg, has drawn considerable attention. What if everything about the book was exactly the same except the author was Jerry Hallberg?
Triple names sound literary, especially if with a haunting middle name like Garth Risk Hallberg or Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. The foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead produces outstanding analyses: if everything about his thinking were exactly the same but he went by Wally Mead, he’d be perceived differently. If Jonathan Safran Foer went by Johnny Foer, if Isaac Bashevis Singer had gone by Izzy Singer, if Doris Kearns Goodwin were known as Dotty Goodwin, their reputations would be less even if their work were the same.
This is one of the reasons T.M.Q. believes books should be published anonymously — not to deceive readers about authors’ identities, but to remove same from consideration of the work. After an interval of, say, five years, the author’s name would be revealed. That way readers would respond exclusively to the writing, not to the authors’ reputations, lifestyle, politics or promotional campaigns.
Dateline Santa Clara. In three postseason contests the Broncos allowed a total of 44 points — outstanding defense. Denver was able to win the Super Bowl with its offense generating just 194 yards and 11 first downs. When the Panthers scored to pull to 16-10 with 10 minutes remaining, the Broncos staged a listless three-and-out that, because of the no-huddle, took a mere 1:14 off the clock. It was as if Gary Kubiak was eager to get the defense back on the field as quickly as possible.
Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips capped his peripatetic coaching career with a near-perfect game plan. The Broncos shifted linebackers repeatedly, often just before the snap. Danny Trevathan, an inside linebacker, often began the play outside, which seemed to confuse the Cats’ offensive line.
Things went downhill for that line when left guard Andrew Norwell departed with an injury in the second half. Cam Newton went from being under pressure to getting pounded, and by the endgame it showed in his tenuous behavior, including his odd leaping away from a loose ball. After leaping away, he simply sat on the ground watching, making no attempt to chase down the Denver players trying to recover the fumble.
Twice in the first half, Denver showed a double-overload with three players rushing wide of each offensive tackle. This blitz is nearly impossible to block, but leaves the short middle unguarded. Newton didn’t react to the unguarded middle from this set until the second half, a major missed opportunity for the Cats — who seemed tight early, dropping passes and missing blocks. Ted Ginn Jr. turned back into a pumpkin, dropping two catchable balls while Newton badly missed him once when he was open deep.
Denver’s defense neutralized Carolina’s most important weapon, tight end Greg Olsen, who gained just 41 yards. Olsen was jammed on almost every play, often by the Broncs’ Darian Stewart, who at 5-11 is notably shorter than Olsen. The Panthers did not react by putting Olsen in motion or having him fake blocks for a moment before starting a pattern.
Especially puzzling was the absence of design runs by Newton. Denver totally shut down Carolina tailback Jonathan Stewart; when Newton ran, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Why did he stand in the pocket exposed to the fierce Broncos rush 51 times (that’s attempts plus sacks and scrambles) but run by design just three times? Denver often showed press corners with just one deep safety, daring Newton to throw. Carolina coaches took the dare but it didn’t work — Newton runs might have.
In the regular season and playoffs, the Broncos appeared in 15 close games — victory margin a touchdown or less — while the Panthers appeared in eight close games. Coming into the Super Bowl, Denver had compiled an average scoring margin of 3.8 over opponents, while Carolina posted a 13-point average. This meant the Broncs were accustomed to tense contests decided in the closing minutes while the Cats were accustomed to walkovers. When the Super Bowl reached the fourth quarter with the score close, that favored the Broncos.
“San Francisco.” CBS constantly referred to the “San Francisco Super Bowl,” showing views of iconic city images like the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable-car turnarounds. My bus from a downtown San Francisco hotel took a full hour to reach the stadium, and that was with light freeway traffic. In Santa Clara, there sure were no cable cars. Game tickets said in tiny type that the contest would occur in the “San Francisco Bay Area.” Though you knew it was California because every concourse in Levi’s Stadium had a concession stand labeled VEGAN HOT DOGS.
Tickets also read EXEMPT FROM ALL STATE AND LOCAL TAXES, meaning California taxpayers helped fund the event but realized no revenue on the gate, the N.F.L. keeping whatever premium otherwise would have been expressed as a lower ticket price plus tax.
The coin toss was accompanied by the Bay Area Super Bowl stars Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Jim Plunkett and Steve Young — nary a lineman to be seen. Harris Barton, Charles Haley, Ted Hendricks, Jesse Sapolu, Art Shell — Super Bowl-winning seasons of the 49ers and Raiders produced several terrific trench players who are still among us. None were honored as the quarterbacks and ball carriers paraded.
Lady Gaga Goes Corporate. Didn’t Stefani Germanotta used to be a counterculture figure? Early in her career, Lady Gaga separated herself from other pop singers by defying convention, denouncing consumption of beef and backing gay rights around the world. Now she has sung at the Super Bowl, which can only happen if the football establishment loves you. Why did the football establishment decide to love Lady Gaga? Her most recent project was the FX series “American Horror Story Hotel,” in which she played a sadist who stabbed helpless people to death for pleasure. Now that Lady Gaga’s selling glorification of violence, the N.F.L. thinks she’s great.
Several times the stadium videoboard showed scenes of American soldiers overseas, always to huge cheers. During commercial breaks when the national audience couldn’t hear, the P.A. played the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the David Bowie song “Rebel Rebel,” whose lyrics include, “She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” Then during the halftime show the crowd — holding up colored cards whose purpose was not announced in advance — formed a rainbow with a heart, the Super Bowl apparently symbolically endorsing gay rights. Only the N.F.L. could combine gyrating pop stars, combat aircraft flyovers, public subsidies, brutal physical contact and endorsement of gay marriage into the most-watched event of the year.
The new Hall of Fame members introduced at the game weren’t just honored. According to the N.F.L., they are about to be “immortalized.”
Football Meets Grammar Snob. After gazing into the replay monitor, N.F.L. referees always say, “Upon further review…” But it isn’t further review, it’s the first review. “Further review” is like “preheating,” which means the same thing as “heating,” or “pre-existing,” which means the same thing as “existing.” Referees also announce the “third and final timeout,” a phrase apparently dictated by the Department of Redundancy Department.
Preposterous Punt. Trailing 24-10 with 2:08 remaining, the Carolina Panthers punted. Sure it was fourth-and-24, but they were down two scores with two minutes to go in the Super Bowl and punted! Drastic measures were the only hope at that juncture. When the punt bounced around then went out of bounds at 1:57, that even cost Carolina the two-minute-warning clock stoppage.
Since Carolina’s goose was cooked at 2:08, Ron Rivera’s consequential kicking decision was the failure to perform an onside kick after pulling to 16-10 with 10 minutes remaining. Because the Denver offense was sputtering, there was little risk in not recovering the onside kick, while getting the ball right back would have created a chance to seize the momentum of the contest.
Hidden Play of the Super Bowl. Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. Denver leading 13-7 with three minutes remaining in the second quarter, on third-and-10 the Cats’ Corey Brown dropped a well-thrown pass that would have positioned Carolina deep in Denver territory. This was a major missed opportunity for the Panthers.
Adventures in Officiating. Last week, Von Miller took the coveted Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-Quarterback Non-Running back N.F.L. M.V.P., then added the slightly better known Super Bowl M.V.P. On his sack of Cam Newton that caused the fumble Denver recovered for a touchdown, Miller smacked Newton’s helmet. That should have been a penalty — it’s illegal to contact the helmet or facemask of a quarterback in a passer stance. The game might have unfolded very differently.
Eggheads Like the Super Bowl, Too. Michael Mandelbaum, a chaired professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, is an example of the contention that smart people are every bit as obsessed with sports as anyone else. In the American Interest, he notes of the incredible popularity of the Super Bowl, “Americans, perhaps the most competitive people since the ancient Greeks, with a penchant for turning everything from architecture to eating into a contest, are inordinately fond of games.”
Mandelbaum supposes one reason football engages us so is that it reminds of the individual combat that characterized human history for thousands of years, before the advent of modern weapons. Kevin Schultz of The San Francisco Chronicle notes that because ancient humans evolved shoulders capable of throwing rocks and spears — chimps are much stronger than people but have little ability to throw — first longer-range hunting and war and now the N.F.L. was in the cards for us. The relationship between American attitudes regarding the military, and enthusiasm for professional football, is explored in my new book “The Game’s Not Over,” which also goes into detail on the reforms this column proposes.
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