Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question
Friday, September 7, 2012
I heard Charles Barkley, interviewed at Wimbledon, remark that now that the word is out about the frequency of concussions in football more young black athletes will begin playing tennis, golf, and other sports where the life-shortening element isn’t so serious. Is this, I wonder, true? I have no notion, though, contra Sir Charles, the number of African Americans currently playing major league baseball, last I had heard, had dropped from 33 percent to roughly 8 percent.
The concussion question reminds me that boxing—one of the great sports of my boyhood in the 1940s and early ’50s—is, if my interest in it is any measure, moribund. Every so often, channel surfing on HBO or on one of the ESPN channels, I come across a prize fight and pause. The spectacle on view is generally two Hispanic-surnamed guys, heavily tattooed, in garish shorts, flailing away at each other under sad and swollen faces. Truth is, I feel a little unclean watching it; it feels, more precisely, like viewing pornography, something one shouldn’t be doing.
How did boxing go from the premier American sport to its wretched current condition? Baseball may long have been the national pastime, but nothing drew the excited attention of sports fans the way a heavyweight title fight did. I recall, at 14, sitting in the Nortown movie theatre on the northside of Chicago on a Friday night in the autumn of 1951 when the movie was stopped to announce that 28-year-old Rocky Marciano had knocked out 37-year-old Joe Louis two and a half minutes into the eighth round of their fight in Madison Square Garden. Movie-stopping—that’s how big boxing was in the United States in those days.
So sad that watching a boxing match has begun to resemble watching a human sacrifice.
Every boy of any athletic pretension knew all the boxing moves: Jabs, hooks, crosses, uppercuts, the bolo punch (devised by a welterweight named Kid Gavilan, née Gerardo Gonzalez). Playground fights always began in boxing posture, with one’s guard up. My father, Canadian born, and hence a man with no interest in baseball or football, liked boxing, and bought two sets of boxing gloves with which he taught me, at roughly age seven, the rudiments of the sport. (My own last fight, let me insert here, was at age 11 with a boy named Barry Pearlman in the Eugene Field School playground, and it ended in a draw.) He also took me to the Golden Gloves, the intercity amateur competition of three-round fights in all weight divisions that served as a minor leagues of sorts for professional boxing.
From Notre Dame Street in Montreal, where my father grew up, he had two friends named Sammy and Danny Spunt. The Brothers Spunt had come to Chicago and opened Ringside gym, on Dearborn Street in Chicago’s Loop, and many of the leading fighters of the day trained there. When I was ten or so, my father took me to the gym—a second-floor walkup—introduced me to the Spunts, and ever after I was persona grata, allowed to hang around. In their office, the Spunts kept a file cabinet of 8”x10” glossies of all the fighters of the day, and they told me to take any I wanted.
I listened to Don Dunphy announce the Friday night fights for Gillette over the radio. I knew the names of all the fighters of the day—Tami Mauriello, Gus Lesnevich, Billy Conn, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler, Marcel Cerdan, Joey Maxim, the great Sugar Ray Robinson. (Today I can name only two boxers, Evander Holyfield and the charmless Mike Tyson.) I knew all the weight divisions, from bantamweight on up, and the champions and main contenders in each of them. I was neither precocious nor exceptional in possessing such knowledge. Most boys my age knew these things as well as I did.
‘Hi, Champ,’ I managed to emit to the man seated on a bench, leaning against his locker, his leather Everlast belt and cup over his sweatpants.
Danny, the kid-friendlier of the Spunt brothers, one day took me back into the locker room to introduce me to Tony Zale, then famous for his three brutal fights with Rocky Graziano. “Kid,” Danny said, “I want you to meet the middleweight champion of the world.” “Hi, Champ,” I managed to emit to the man seated on a bench, leaning against his locker, his leather Everlast belt and cup over his sweatpants. “Hi, kid,” he replied. Thus did I brush up against greatness.
A fighter named Johnny Bratton, stylish and quick and briefly welterweight champion, trained at Ringside. He had a manager with a gold tooth, a green corduroy suit, and an orangish homburg with a prominent feather in its band. Years later, Bratton would be found wandering around Chicago Stadium, trying to sell a stolen fur coat, when he was picked up by the police and eventually sent off to Manteno, Illinois, where there was a state-run psychiatric hospital.
The problem with boxing was that there were too many Johnny Bratton stories: Handsome, elegant young men turned into pugs with flattened noses, cauliflower ears, and disordered brains, whose managers used them up and tossed them away. Even the dashing Muhammad Ali—floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee—came to grief, or so it is now believed, through boxing. Ali has Parkinson’s, a disease said to be caused or abetted by severe head trauma, which could not be avoided even by an athlete with Ali’s finesse. The moral of the story was clear enough: No happy endings in boxing, only sad ones—so sad that watching a boxing match has begun to resemble watching a human sacrifice.
Now that the talk of the inevitability of concussions in football has become the received wisdom, will football begin to take on the same uncomfortable feeling that accompanies watching boxing? Last year, I heard a running back in the NFL, when asked what it was like playing in a pro football game, reply: “It’s like getting in thirty car accidents in one day” (“without seatbelts” was implied). Not only games but football practices—including high school football practices—are now thought to endanger football players because of concussion. Will parents soon refuse their sons permission to play football? Will football one day go the way of boxing and become a sport too brutal even for watching?
We are, not to put too fine a point on it, watching young men play a game that will likely shorten or otherwise destroy their lives.
New on-field tests for concussion have been devised, and doubtless sports equipment companies are at work attempting to develop concussion-proof helmets. For now, though, a snake has been let loose in the autumn Saturday and Sunday afternoon Edens of those couch potatoes among us who love to watch football. We are, not to put too fine a point on it, watching young men play a game that will likely shorten or otherwise destroy their lives.
One could shunt all this off by saying that at least the professional football players know what they are getting into, and besides, they are paid more than handsomely for the risks they are taking. Those who play in college do so, after all, with the hope that they will one day play the game for the same financial rewards. The players know the risks, and our watching the game does not compromise fans, ethically or otherwise. Ethics doesn’t enter into it. Or does it?
A couch potato’s life is sometimes more complicated than it seems.
Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato. His new book, Essays in Biography, will be published by Axios Press this fall.
FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “The Long, Hot Summer,” “Anyone for Tennis?,” and “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato.” Chad Hill says “It’s March Math-ness!” Kevin A. Hassett and Stan Veuger argue “The Saints Ain't Sinners.” Peter A. Coclanis asks “Are There Hidden Virtues to Bowling Alone?”
Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group