Of all the disappearing stories in the American consciousness, none has receded from the public eye quite like football concussions. It's hard to remember now, but less than a decade ago, President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, he would have to think "long and hard" before letting him play football. Stories were published about parents pulling their children from youth and high school football; obituaries were written for the future of the sport. In 2015, Will Smith, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, starred as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist whose research first linked football with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a brain disease that leads to memory loss, erratic behavior and depression. One study found C.T.E. in 110 of 111 deceased N.F.L. players .
That alarm seems to have been replaced by a type of theater around concussions. In the first quarter of last night's thrilling playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs, Tyrann Mathieu , a defensive back for the Chiefs, took a hit to the head at the end of a play. What followed was a version of the concussion ritual we see almost every Sunday: A player is knocked out, the TV announcers say, "Well, you hate to see this"; the player gets carted away or staggers off to the designated blue medical tent; the sideline reporter tells the audience that the player will not be returning to action. All this is done in somber tones with the implicit understanding that the player will probably be back in a week or two.
The news about concussions hasn't gotten any better, of course. Last year, Phillip Adams, a former N.F.L. cornerback, shot and killed six people and himself. Doctors later reported that Adams had "an extraordinary amount of C.T.E." Vincent Jackson, a former wide receiver, was found dead in a hotel room last February. His widow said that he had been suffering from memory loss and depression. Dr. Ann McKee, one of the leading experts on C.T.E., examined Jackson's brain (he had never been diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career) and found he had C.T.E. These stories were reported on, but they didn't pierce the larger sports conversation as they might have just seven or eight years ago.
A season of empty stadiums and the toll of the pandemic have hurt sports across the board. But the N.F.L. has emerged relatively unscathed. Viewership numbers on TV and digital are the highest they've been since 2015; 91 of the top 100 most-watched telecasts of the year were N.F.L. games. Football, which has gone through domestic violence reckonings and the fallout from the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, in addition to continuing concussions, is as strong as it's ever been.
The league has talked about head injuries for decades and has made a handful of rule changes, but there has been nothing that would qualify as drastic action. The number of concussions did drop to 214 in 2018 from 281 in 2017 after many of those rule changes went into effect, but the number went back up to 224 in 2019 before dropping again to 172 during the pandemic year of 2020, when there were no preseason games played.
The league has made a big deal about these recent numbers, but the range of rises and drops mostly mirrors what happened before the rule changes, when, for example, there were 261 concussions in 2012 and 229 in 2013. More important, these numbers are mostly beside the point. Researchers believe C.T.E. does not come only from concussions, but also from the repeated collisions that are intrinsic to every football play , whether they result in a concussion or not. There are no rule changes or special helmets that will eliminate those clashes from the game.
I worked as an editor at the sports website Grantland when the concussion story came to the forefront of the media almost a decade ago. We, like most of our colleagues in the sports entertainment industry, didn't know what to do with the story. The typical, hectoring takes about the immorality of the game quickly fell on deaf ears. We found that concussion stories didn't get particularly good traffic, either. While there certainly wasn't a directive I knew about to chase views, every person working at a website wants their stories to get read.
At some point, it became clear to me that while every concussion story we published would get passed around by our colleagues on social media, that's where the engagement ended. This didn't mean that other people weren't aware or concerned; they just didn't seem to feel the need to learn anything more about it. In 2017, long after I left the site, The Washington Post published a poll that showed that nine out of 10 sports fans thought head injuries were a problem in professional football, but 74 percent were still football fans.
I am not here to scold people for continuing to love football. Like many of you, I watch the N.F.L. on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. On off days, I watch the yelling sports shows. I mostly tune in to "NFL RedZone," a hyperactive, adrenaline-pumping, seven-hour show that flips among games and graciously cuts away whenever a player is knocked out (usually after an excruciating, slow-motion replay of the hit). The host of the show will then say something about a concerning situation and promises the viewer he will monitor it before moving on to some other matchup.
The way we watch football today feels like a capitulation that's interesting because of how common this kind of giving in has become in modern life. We, the concerned public, may flare up our indignation for a short period when faced with an obvious problem — from school shootings to Covid policy — but there's no real sense that we can do anything about these issues that make us mad. This doesn't mean we are unaware or even particularly apathetic — again, nine out of 10 sports fans believe concussions are a problem in football; it's more that we have no faith that we can change our institutions and, with ample evidence and sound reason, have dropped the belief that we even should have any input into how they choose to do business. What usually remains are the empty displays of concern we see every Sunday: the collective wincing when the inevitable happens, the hope that the harmed will be OK and then the quick move to a different subject.
Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected] .
Jay Caspian Kang ( @jaycaspiankang ), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of "The Loneliest Americans."
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