Stuff I Thought While Reading

Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football? by Malcolm Gladwell

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/10/19/091019fa_fact_gladwell

I always like the stuff that Malcolm Gladwell puts out for The New Yorker and this was no exception. The article left a chilly feeling, especially when he describes the number of hits a lineman may take to the head during the course of his career:

The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage.

When I played football in high school, I didn’t like to hit or get hit. That’s why I was a subpar blocker and never played any defense. I played the little tailback who ran away and tried to avoid tackles. I didn’t mind getting tackled while trying to run away, but I never sought out contact. I do remember one time my junior year during a scrimmage when I collided in the middle with a large nosetackle. He must have been close to 300lbs., almost twice my own weight. I remember taking a shot at the line as soon as I received the handoff and then being piled on by several defenders. I must have lost a yard or two but I was able to get up on my feet after the play. I remember as I returned to the huddle seeing yellow spots and feeling pretty dizzy. I’m not sure what happened next, but it took a few plays for my head to come back around.

Thankfully, our team mostly ran sweep plays to the outside during my playing days so I was able to avoid large linemen altogether and minimize the impact of the hits by linebackers with jukes and cut-backs. But I can see how, even in high school, it’s possible for players to experience continuous trauma to the head, especially if they embrace an aggressive, all-out style of play. I always envied the guys who had no fear and hit like hammers, but I’m also glad I never felt the need to prove myself in such a way.

So — if I had a kid one day in the future, would I allow him to play football? If he truly wanted to, I wouldn’t say no (and his mom would probably have a say in the matter before anything could be decided), but I would definitely be concerned and worried. I really enjoyed football and it probably shaped me in many ways, but virtues like teamwork, practice, and discipline can be found in other less violent sports. And what if he becomes a superstar lineman or linebacker or safety who thrives on making huge hits over and over again? It could present a difficult scenario in which success could also spell great dangers. Soccer, anyone?

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