Just when you had your opinion all packaged and tucked away in life’s foot locker, along comes a Boston medical team to breathe new life into the Aaron Hernandez story.
Things were simpler for fans and casual onlookers when Hernandez was simply deemed “a bad seed.” A convicted murderer, after all. Out of football at 23, dead by suicide inside his prison cell at 27. End of story, we figured.
But now we’ve learned that he not only had the brain of a 67-year-old man, but the brain of a 67-year-old man who’d been hit in the head a lot. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is what the medical journals call it; CTE is the easier choice for others.
The iceberg in football’s path, necessitating a sea change in how the game is played, is how the history books will someday view it. Aaron Hernandez may some day be just a footnote in this CTE story, but today his story helps build a growing wave of concern.
By and large, it seems most of us — a very large majority, actually — can still watch the NFL on Sundays without worrying much about the future health of the competitors. If they’re willing to play it at a certain risk, who are we to be concerned? (Gotta point out that “willing to play it” is aided by the dangling of the type of paycheck you won’t find back home at the loading dock or farm.)
But callous disregard is a rarity, and we should consider that as progress.
Some will continue comparing football to the old Roman gladiators and the spectacle they provided the masses. The Romans didn’t have cable, and the jugglers grew tiresome, so blood-sport was a natural alternative.
In modernizing societies, boxing was the closest we came to the ancient gladiators. Then came mixed martial arts and we got a little closer. Football is very different because its violence is a byproduct, not the product.
But the violence is there, and while the celebratory nature of that violence has dimmed, a big hit still draws your attention. Nowadays, however, while many are celebrating the distributor of that hit, many others instead turn their attention to the recipient.
At best: “Is he gonna be OK?”
At worse: “Is he done for the day?”
At worst: “Will he be eating solid food on his 50th birthday?”
The NFL, in its role as America’s football leader, appears to be fighting this health issue in a multi-faceted manner. Helmet technology is an obvious area. Quick detection and immediate treatment of concussion syndromes is another.
But the longest-lasting and most effective strategy focuses on the way the game is played. “Targeting” has become the attention-grabbing announcement from referees. Anything remotely resembling a blow to an opponent’s head — even a glancing blow or mere brush to a quarterback’s head — will bring out the yellow flags.
This philosophical shift leads to some uncomfortable situations, since one man’s targeting or blow to the head is another man’s hard-nosed tackle or harmless happenstance. Barring some sort of breakthrough to make football 99 percent safer, this current transitional stage — game-day officials employed to take the head and highlight-reel violence out of play — will eventually lead to a different form of football.
There will still be hard blocks and tackles and collisions across the middle, there will still be outstanding athletic moments and plenty of drama and heroics. Hopefully, though, there will be less risk to immediate and future health.
But will the fans hang in there during this transition? That’s the question creating headaches to a lot of the stakeholders.
— You can r each Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @HeyWillieNJ.