How many hits?
Concussion awareness has changed perceptions of football at every level
I’ve been a football fan for almost twenty years. When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing the game myself, despite the fact that I was clearly not built for it. I had a brief career: about two weeks of practice as a freshman in high school. That’s as far as I made it before one of my teammates snapped my arm like a twig, cluing me into the fact that—at five-feet-tall and 100 pounds—football probably wasn’t my game.
Before that, I had loved watching VHS tapes of highlights and bloopers with my friends. Our favorites were always the big hits, but that firsthand experience changed the way I saw the game. I started to wince at bone crunchers and feel woozy when someone took a shot to the head. I had to stop thinking about what playing the game meant for guys who played it. That veil of ignorance was the only way I could keep watching.
In the decades since I was in high school, we have learned much more about the devastating effects that playing football has had on some former stars. Many of these greats are suffering from mental and physical problems that have cropped up well before they normally would in otherwise healthy men. Hall of Famers like Ken Stabler, Frank Gifford, and Junior Seau have all suffered mentally from the effects of the game and were all posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. They are far from alone. Thanks to a lawsuit a few years ago, the NFL is currently paying out almost $700 million dollars to former players who suffered from concussions.
For the first time, we are seeing players trying to retain their health by leaving the game early. Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement just before the start of this season is the most prominent example, but he is far from alone.
That brings us back to the veil of ignorance, and the Bills new center Mitch Morse. Morse hit his head in practice at the end of July and was diagnosed with the fourth concussion of his four-year career (this season will be his fifth). That doesn’t take into account any head injuries he might have gotten in high school and college, and, while there may be arguments to be had about degrees, the science is clear that repeated concussions are major risk factors for CTE.
Here’s Morse after he had just cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol again in September, after missing the entire preseason: “When you look at the grand number of them, you get over the fact that, if you take care of yourself, and I do everything the right way, I know for a fact that I’ll be fine in the future. If it happens again, I’ll be fine, and if it happens again after that, I’ll be fine.”
He followed that up by declaring that the people he was talking to said that the information out there is wrong: “You always wonder, but every single [specialist] I talked to said the outside perception of these things is kind of far off. We’ve done all the tests you can do, and everyone was tip-top and all the specialists said I’ll be just fine.”
Concussions can cause long term damage, and multiple concussions increase the risk. Those are facts. He may end up “just fine,” but with his history he has a better than average chance not to be.
To hear Morse talk like that scares me. I’d never presume to tell him what to do, but the consequences that he and so many others face are pushing me toward a decision point of my own.
I don’t know how much more I can learn about the devastating effects of playing professional football and still enjoy watching it. The camel’s back hasn’t broken yet, but Morse was definitely another straw.