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Don't Feel Guilty for Loving Football (Just Be Honest About It)

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?  

Read entire article at Public Seminar