About 35 years ago, I read a story about the late Carlos Monzón, one of the two greatest—Sugar Ray Robinson was the other—middleweight fighters of all time. In it, his manager said that the best place to find a good boxer was not the slums, but the jails. As I recall, he said that jails are where you’re most likely to find men who are both tough enough and desperate enough to make a living taking a beating.
Monzón came to mind when I read Frank Bruni’s column about someone to whom the word “desperate” doesn’t seem to apply: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
Brady, who recently turned 40, has spoken about playing until he is 45. To that end, he follows a strict diet, and employs, in Bruni’s terrific formulation, an “injury-preventing, youth-preserving ‘body coach,’ who’s apparently some Ponce de León of the pectorals.”
What’s missing, as any viewer of the movie “Concussion” can tell you, is the biggest football-related threat to Brady’s (or any other player’s) medium-to-long-term health and well-being: concussions and brain trauma. No diet or body coach can protect you from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Get hit in the head enough times, suffer enough concussions, and you are definitely at risk.
And as Brady’s wife, Gisele Bündchen, told “CBS This Morning,” Brady “has concussions pretty much every year. . . . We don’t talk about it, but he does have concussions.” She even added that he suffered one last season.
As Bruni points out, if Brady had one last year, then he and the Patriots were in violation of the NFL’s “concussion protocol,” which, at a minimum, requires that the injury be reported and the player be evaluated and monitored before being allowed to return to action.
(I use quote marks around “concussion protocol” because for a variety of reasons, it’s largely a farce. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote, “Key players in crunch time rarely ever get removed for an evaluation, probably because the [person charged with identifying potential concussions] doesn’t want to be blamed for creating a competitive disadvantage.”)
Yet less than four months after Brady’s wife spilled the beans, the episode (with a few exceptions, like Bruni’s column) has been forgotten. Instead we marvel at Brady’s conditioning below his neck while ignoring what may be happening above it.
Well, not all of us. Beside Bruni, there’s Malcolm Gladwell. Commenting on Bündchen’s revelations, Gladwell told Bill Simmons of The Ringer that, instead of talking about Brady’s body, we should be concerned about what’s happening to his brain. “[If] he is getting concussions at the age of 40— concussions—and playing the next week, there are so many danger signs. I do not want to see Tom Brady at 55 drooling into a cup. But that is a real possibility if he continues to do this.”
And that brings me back to Carlos Monzón and desperate men. Eight years ago, Malcolm Gladwell posed a question that seems more pertinent the more we know about football’s toll on those who play it: “How different are dog-fighting and football?”
The question was directed more at fans than at either the players or the NFL. We love football, but, as Gladwell points out, it’s a love that wields “destructive power” for many of those who play the game.
We know this. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of kids in youth football programs (ages 6-14) dropped from 3 million to 2.2 million. While we are happy to watch football, fewer and fewer of us want our kids to play the sport.
Apologists for the game insist that these signs of decreased participation are unrelated to concussions and head trauma. But as George Will pointed out in a recent column, “Today’s risk-averse middle-class parents put crash helmets on their tykes riding tricycles.” (Emphasis in original.) Do we really believe that their reluctance to let their kids play football has nothing to do with reports about its impact on kids as young as eight?
When Hall of Famer Harry Carson tells PBS’s Frontline that “I cannot in good conscience allow my grandson to play [football], knowing what I know,” you don’t think that this has an impact on countless middle, upper middle, and just plain class Giants fans everywhere?
It’s not just Carson and Giants fans: Scarcely a month goes by without some former NFL player expressing sentiments like Carson’s. More recently, Chris Borland of the 49ers and John Urschel of the Ravens, who were both at the beginning of their careers, retired due to concern about potential brain injuries. Are we supposed to believe that all those middle/upper-middle/upper-class parents switched their kids from football out of a newfound love and/or appreciation for lacrosse and soccer?
But even if, as Will says, football “will never again be . . . the subject of uncomplicated national enthusiasm,” it’s not going away, either. And just because they won’t let their kids play the game, that doesn’t mean that these parents will stop watching football. As Will rightly notes, “Football participation will skew to the uninformed and economically desperate.”
And that’s where Carlos Monzón and Malcolm Gladwell come together. George Will asks whether “informed spectators [will] become queasy about deriving pleasure from an entertainment with such human costs.”
A few may, but the overwhelming majority won’t. Our way of life, at least for us WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—folks, is, in significant part, made possible by outsourcing the harmful consequences of what we enjoy.
We bought hundreds of millions of Apple products, Nike shoes, and countless of articles of clothing without giving a second thought to the conditions under which they were made. We ate shrimp that was produced by slave labor in Thailand.
Closer to home, a lot of the meat we eat is produced by some of the most vulnerable members of our society in conditions, including “exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and traumatic injuries from machines and tools,” that none of us would voluntarily accept.
I’m not trying to be a scold. I am as complicit as, if not more than, the next person in this regard. I also understand that, for many people, there aren’t that many workable alternatives to our modern globalized supply chain, although as theologian William T. Cavanaugh reminds us in “Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire,” there are more than we are led to believe, especially in urban areas.
But football isn’t part of the globalized supply chain. Not only is it uniquely American, it’s optional and voluntary, at least for viewers. Ignore what we know about the sport’s impact on the people who play long enough, and we risk becoming the modern equivalent of the people Maximus Decimus Meridius asked, “Are you not entertained?” (Warning, that clip is violent. Even more than football.)
Whatever we do, we can’t plead ignorance about the “destructive power” of our love for football, which, if you think about it, doesn’t deserve to be called “love” at all.
Image courtesy of fredrocko at iStock by Getty Images.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.