The Collision Sport on Trial

Concussion

a film directed by Peter Landesman

Requiem for a Running Back

a documentary film directed by Rebecca Carpenter
Richard Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers catching Aaron Rodgers’s seventy-yard pass to win the game against the Detroit Lions, December 3, 2015
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Richard Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers catching Aaron Rodgers’s seventy-yard pass to win the game against the Detroit Lions, December 3, 2015

1.

Of the many sayings attributed to Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, the one that seems most relevant to football today is not about winning, the pursuit of excellence, or the importance of will and character, but rather this: “Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport.”

Collisions are the essence of football. They are intended to occur on every play in every game. Football, Lombardi would say, comes down to blocking and tackling. Every block and tackle is a collision, and every collision could bring some measure of pain. When Lombardi was a boy in Brooklyn, his father, Harry, a tough little man who ran a butcher shop, pounded into him the notion that pain was all in his mind.

The truth is that Lombardi himself had a low pain threshold. He was often disabled with injuries when he was a member of the Fordham line romanticized in the 1930s as the Seven Blocks of Granite. But like many effective leaders, he drew on an understanding of his own weaknesses as a means of eliminating them in others. When he was a prep coach at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, he would line up across from his young players and order them to charge at him while he bellowed “Hit me! Hit me!” At Green Bay, Lombardi would cackle with delight during training camp when it came time for the one-on-one collision drill known as the nutcracker.

I grew up in Wisconsin during the 1960s, when Lombardi’s Packers were winning five championships in nine seasons, and later wrote a biography of him, which might explain why, although baseball is my preferred game, the Packers are my favorite team in any sport. The seasonal progression from radiant fall Sundays to frostbite playoff games in the darkening winter and the superstitions that come with watching the Packers are part of my emotional life, bringing joy and anguish, and if that is pathetic, it is a condition I share with millions of National Football League fans. But my attachment to football has been loosened by an increasing sense of guilt about whether I am complicit in supporting an unacceptably debilitating and duplicitous enterprise. America’s superpower game has never been more popular, yet evidence against it is amassing on many fronts, none more troubling than what science now says about the long-term ramifications of those collisions. I’ve wondered whether I could resolve the conflict between my attraction to the game and concern about what it does. On a larger scale, I’ve wondered whether…


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