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Baseball is America's pastime, but football is its true passion. The Friday-night lights bond towns across the heartland; on Saturdays, fans forget their worries to worship at the altar of the campus tailgate, smoke rising above grills like incense. On Sundays, we park our posteriors on the sofa to cheer the sublime spirals, miraculous catches and riveting runs down the sideline. It is one of our most lucrative forms of mass entertainment, celebrated not just on ESPN but in prime-time soap operas (Friday Night Lights) and Hollywood blockbusters (The Blind Side). The NFL's players and owners and the myriad industries associated with the game--fanzines, websites, merchandisers, fantasy leagues--have all been beneficiaries of the tens of billions of dollars the sport generates. But it is irrefutable that those profits have come at the expense of the long-term mental health of those who play football. And perhaps more important, the young people emulating the actions of their NFL heroes are putting their futures on the line as well. "We need to do something now, this minute," says McKee, the brain researcher. "Too many kids are at risk."
Football has been a rough sport since the leather-helmet days, but today's version raises the violence to an art form. No other contact sport gives rise to as many serious brain injuries as football does. High school football players alone suffer 43,000 to 67,000 concussions per year, though the true incidence is likely much higher, as more than 50% of concussed athletes are suspected of failing to report their symptoms.
The human brain, although encased by a heavy-duty cranium, isn't designed for football. Helmets do a nice job of protecting the exterior of the head and preventing deadly skull fractures. But concussions occur within the cranium, when the brain bangs against the skull. When helmets clash, the head decelerates instantly, yet the brain can lurch forward, like a driver who jams the brakes on. The bruising and stretching of tissue can result in something as minimal as "seeing stars" and a momentary separation from consciousness.
Repeated blows to the head, which are routine in football, can have lifelong repercussions. A study commissioned by the NFL found that ex--pro players over age 50 were five times as likely as the national population to receive a memory-related-disease diagnosis. Players 30 to 49 were 19 times as likely to be debilitated. Of the dozen brains of CTE victims McKee has examined, 10 were from either linemen or linebackers; some scientists now fear that the thousands of lower-impact, or "subconcussive," blows these players receive, even if they don't result in documented concussions, can be just as damaging as--if not more so than--the dramatic head injuries that tend to receive more attention and intensive treatment.
There is every reason to believe that the concussion crisis will get worse. The speed and size of pro athletes have made the game more dangerous. Offensive linemen now average nearly 315 lb.--65 lb. more than they did 40 years ago. They launch that weight from a three-point stance, headfirst, at opposing linemen of nearly the same size. There are no small collisions in the NFL.