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The NFL's Head Game

Sadly, the league has a fatal environmental problem: It kills its workers

Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots is sacked by Craig Marshall and Mark Herzlich of the New York Giants.
Rich Schultz /Getty Images
September 3, 2012 2:00 PM ET

Game on! The NFL – the last thing in America that really works – is coming back into our lives. Except there's one problem. In the course of the past few years, the NFL has joined the Social Security trust fund, the federal deficit, the ozone layer and America's white majority as beloved national traditions with clear expiration dates. The NFL, sadly, has a fatal environmental problem: It kills its workers.

Having Olympic-level sprinters running full-speed and head-first into 300-pound sex criminals running full speed in the other direction, it turns out, is unavoidably harmful to human brain tissue. The resulting collision appears to cause a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which generates confusion, dementia and tragedy. We all heard about Junior Seau's ominous heart-shot suicide (an invitation to study his brain?). But did you know about former Steeler Terry Long killing himself by drinking antifreeze? Or another Steeler, Justin Strzelczyk, who was killed fleeing from police when he crashed his truck into a tractor-trailer? Or former Cardinal Andre Waters, who shot himself in the head? The list goes on.

And these are just the fatal incidents. The CTE lawsuits piling up against the NFL now involve thousands of plaintiffs. The league has countered with some fairly radical rule changes – there's now a 15-yard penalty for "looking askance" at a quarterback after he releases the ball – but it isn't enough. It can never be. As long as it's legal somewhere on the field for world-class athletes to run into each other at full speed, concussions are going to be unacceptably common, and we're going to have guys drinking antifreeze and fleeing cops.

Which is going to leave us with a choice: Either we completely change the game, turning it into a wrap-tackling non-contact sport that'll be about as exciting as a Stay-Puft version of rugby, or else we just get all those penniless kids coming out of the SEC to sign waivers before they join the league. Then we'll sit back as fans and pretend that what happens to them after they retire is not a problem.

Almost certainly, Americans will choose the latter. It's the American way, ignoring stuff: As a nation we're like the wives of serial killers, ignoring all those weird stains and mounds in the backyard (after all, he is great with the kids!).

It's us miserable reporters that are the real problem: We've drilled so many holes in sacred cows that nothing bears scrutiny anymore. The Army's rep has been trending downward ever since My Lai; since Kennedy we've assumed that every president bangs actresses and interns in his spare time; every senator is sucking schlong in train station glory holes, every TV preacher is an instant suspect for Craigslist hooker romps, and the public image of your average Wall Street titan is now somewhere between white slaver and child molester. And now we can't even look at the NFL too closely without discovering an ugly truth. First-week kickoff on the way – fantastic! What a hit! And . . . oh, man is that guy okay? That's how it's gonna be, from now on, forever. We better get used to it.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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