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It was a punishing number of hits every game, but the guy was tough.
As author Louie Robinson described him in a December 1968 Ebony Magazine profile, O.J. Simpson was six feet, two inches tall, weighed 207 pounds and could run 100 yards in 9.4 seconds. A transfer to the University of Southern California in 1967, Simpson had previously played an iron-man style at City College of San Francisco, a style characterized by playing both on offence as a running back and in the defensive backfield.
Simpson, Robinson wrote, had astonishing durability: how else could he carry the ball 48 or 49 times in every game, getting hit between 200 and 230 times?
Simpson believed that he had a technique for managing all that contact. “Generally, I try to take it to the guy,” he told Robinson. “Instead of letting him hit me, I’ll hit him first. If I know I’m going to get hit, I try to bring the force on him. I don’t think I get hit hard enough or often enough to be punchy or burn myself out. I like carrying the ball a lot.”
If I hit you, then you didn’t hit me, right? But this is not a sound theory of biomechanics: a hit is a hit is a hit, and each one rattles the brain. But the folk notion Simpson described, like so many of our myths about American football, is older than we are.
It is part of how we got to a place where young men who played football, and often played it well, are being diagnosed with early onset dementia.
American football has been nationally popular since at least the Eisenhower Administration. It was made for television, coming of age with a form of technology that would shape the second half of the twentieth century. Football is sublime because it combines fun, competition, rivalry, and violence together into what are often presented as heroic, mythic struggles, where ordinary men become wealthy through their own hard work. Football, it is said, brings Americans together.
Generally, it is difficult to talk to fans about the dangers of football—the damage it does to bodies and to brains. O. J. Simpson’s youthful bravado is a perfect example of how we maintain our charming naiveté. Yet increasingly, over the years that I have studied the history of brain injury, fans of violent sports have told me they feel guilty for loving football, a game that may be too dangerous to play.
I always tell fans: don’t feel guilty. Just be radically transparent with yourself about what football does and what it can cost those who play it.
That transparency could save lives. Kids starting out in football don’t ask questions about its risks, and too often their parents don’t either. College football players, especially talented ones like Simpson was in 1968, are often under pressure to believe fairy tales about wealth and fame which only sometimes—alright, rarely—come true.
But this lack of transparency is also structural. Coaches, high school principals, and university presidents cannot seem to accept, or even admit to themselves, that football—part of higher education’s business model—hurts students and may injure them for life. Besides, players know what they signed up for, right?
Apparently not, since experts have worried about the dangers of American football for over a century, and America’s college authorities have been among them. It is well known that President Teddy Roosevelt liked the macho sport, but even he could not accept football casualties in the years before the First World War: Roosevelt insisted that it be reformed to reduce the gruesome injuries and deaths that the sport was producing.
What is less well known, as historian Emily Harrison has written of Roosevelt’s time, is that among the most frequent injuries in college football were cerebral concussions. But even a reformed game in his day did not eliminate concerns about football’s dangers. As historian and public health expert Kathleen Bachynski has shown, throughout the twentieth century, families, doctors, surgeons, public intellectuals, and politicians debated what could be done to make the sport safer. Journalists criticized coaching aimed at inflicting maximum punishment on opponents.
But the results of these debates from the 1940s to the present were mixed at best, because the idea of football safety at times seemed more rhetorical than practiced. Football fatalities are no longer common, but they still occur. More frequently, chronic injuries and chronic pain are, for many, the price of playing football—even just in high school.
Students today may be more aware of the injury risk, and new protocols about head injuries have been implemented at all levels, but the dream of going pro remains, and that awareness often gives way to the football mentality of playing through pain as an ennobling sacrifice, something you do for the team.
Here’s the truth: a single concussion, not to mention the multiple concussions many football players experience, can send a high school or college student into an academic spiral. Champions of the game promote the values and lessons that American football inculcates for a lifetime, but bad grades have a long legacy too. Is academic failure a reasonable trade-off?
But lower grades aren’t the worst of it. Repeated hits to the head from football (or other violent sports like rugby, soccer, hockey, boxing, and mixed martial arts) considerably increase the chances of developing a neurodegenerative disease, often while the athlete is still relatively young.
These diseases have already appeared among past heroes of the game, and over the next two decades more and more former football players—many of whom did not make much of a living from it—will be living with dementia, motor neuron disease, and other neurological impairments.
In short, regardless of the precautions and protocols that have been implemented in the past decade, football probably cannot be made neurologically safe.
As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has written, every year as many as 300 college players who played between 1956 and 2008 will someday be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an umbrella term for all disease and damage in the brain. In Murphy’s estimate, “nearly 16,000 condemned former athletes will suffer.”
How did we get here? Why are there not huge posters on high school and college locker room doors reminding coaches and players that “repeated hits to the head are known by doctors and psychologists to cause ALS, Parkinsonism, and dementia.” That would be at least a token gesture towards transparency.
American football is not going away, so don’t feel guilty above loving the game. But do stop quibbling about whether football is dangerous—and be radically honest about how dangerous it is.
Feel guilty if you can’t do that.
Stephen T. Casper is a Professor of History at Clarkson University. He is writing a history of brain injury, violence, and sports in modern society, and is a testifying expert for plaintiffs in pending concussion litigation against the NCAA.