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Head Games

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UMASS MEDICAL CENTER sits high on a hill on the Worcester side of Lake Quinsigamond, not far from the high school at which my father was the assistant principal, and even closer to the state park where he first taught me to swim. He'd grown up swimming at a pond near where he lived and, during World War II, the Navy taught him even more strongly. He was a great swimmer, until he couldn't remember how to do it anymore. Later, he forgot how to play golf, feed himself, speak, and, ultimately, be the person he was in the world. He had Alzheimer's disease. Ultimately all four of his siblings did too.

At UMass Medical Center there is a white filing cabinet with long metal drawers. In one of those drawers are the slides containing what is left of my father's brain. Under a microscope, you can see the plaques and tangles that are characteristic of the disease that killed him. They are black, deadly things, as though someone had put out cigarettes in my father's hippocampus. Later, I wrote a book about the whole thing—my father, our family and the disease that hangs over us like grapes in a poisoned arbor. There are two things I learned from my experience and through my research. One is that I do not want to get Alzheimer's, or anything like it. The second is only a fool or a madman would volunteer to get Alzheimer's, or anything like it.

In an article in last week's Journal of the American Medical Association, the team at Boston University's School of Medicine which has been researching the effect that playing football has on the brain, produced an extensive study under the authorship of Dr. Ann McKee, who has been ringing the fire bell on this issue since 2009. The team studied 111 brains donated by former NFL players. Of these, 110 showed damage characteristic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which seems to work on the brain the same way that Alzheimer's does. (Accumulation of a protein called tau is seen in brains affected by both diseases.) An individual with CTE disappears into the disease. Someone else emerges—angry, frightened, impulsive, lost in a deep and infernal fog.

There were 202 brains studied by the team at BU, and CTE showed up in 87% of them. The argument, for all practical purposes, seems to be over.

The old paradigm of how we follow football revolved around the joy of watching people who loved hitting other people, the ecstatic celebration of vicarious violence. Too bad about all those knees and shoulders and elbows. Going to a luncheon with Hall of Famers at any Super Bowl always looked like those black-and-white films of reunions at Gettysburg. It was uncomfortable, but tolerable, and you could always convince yourself that these guys "gave 100%" to keep you entertained. There was a moral calculus that at least came out somewhere close to even. That's not the case any more.

If there is going to be chronic denialism on this issue, it may not come from the NFL, although some of it surely will. It's going to come from the people in the game, the fans of the game and many members of football's kept national press, who are unwilling or unable to change their moral calculus and who become aggravated when somebody suggests that they should. For example, in 2015, Jim Harbaugh, the coach at Michigan, suggested that football was "the last bastion of hope for toughness in America, in males." (So much, one supposes, for the SEALs.) Coach Bruce Arians of the NFL's Cardinals expressed concern that mothers were refusing to let their sons play football because of the head injury issue. (Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be safeties.) Danny Kanell of ESPN called attention via Twitter to the peril he perceived from the folks he called "concussion alarmists."

Let us be clear. I am not suggesting that we ban the game. That kind of thing never works in America and, generally, the attempts to do it end very badly for society at large. But I do find myself wondering if the shift in the moral calculus is profound enough to shake the purchase that football has on the culture in so many different places—from high schools in Texas to gambling floors in Las Vegas. And I think of my father, who could swim for hours, when he was still who he was born to be.

There was a moral calculus to watching football that at least came out somewhere close to even. That's not the case anymore.

Is playing football too dangerous?

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