I’ve never been a NASCAR fan. The idea of watching cars drive around in circles for three hours wasting gas while listening to guys with severe southern drawls describe someone changing a tire just never appealed to me.
But way back in 2001, after reading an article about how technology had been integrated into racing coverage (presumably making it more interesting) — and with a few minutes to kill before heading to lunch — I switched on the TV to catch the end of the Daytona 500. Literally seconds after I turned on the set, Dale Earnhardt crashed his No. 3 car into the wall. It didn’t look like much of a crash, not the least bit alarming.
Michael Waltrip won the race. I didn’t stick around to see what happened with the wreck. Later, I found out that Earnhardt had died in that accident. The only 30 seconds that I watched NASCAR in years and I see a guy die on the track.
There are people who watch auto racing for one reason only: To see the crashes. In most cases, they get what they came for. There’s always at least one spin-out during every race, but almost always the drivers walk away unharmed. The last time someone died during a NASCAR event was Carlos Pardo on June 14, 2009, somewhere in Mexico.
When you think about auto racing, death just seems to come with the territory, though it rarely happens.
So what’s this have to do with football?
Like auto racing, you expect to see (though you certainly don’t want to) at least one or two players either limp off the field every game or get carried off by his comrades or driven off in “the cart,” hopefully giving the crowd a thumb’s up. In too many cases, the injury you’ve just seen was a season-ender or a career-ender.
They get the player off the field; they resume play as if nothing happened, despite the fact that somewhere in a locker room or ambulance a guy is writhing in pain being jabbed with hypodermic needles, wondering what he’s going to do with the rest of his life.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Last week former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett said during an ESPN report that his memory is going and he’s losing control of his temper more and more. “My daughters say they’re scared of me,” he said with dull, dead eyes. He said he’s had thoughts of suicide.
Then there’s Brett Favre. A few weeks ago the former Green Bay Packers quarterback mentioned off-hand during a radio interview that he couldn’t remember seeing his daughter play youth soccer, though he knows he went to a number of her games. “That put a little fear in me.”
I bet it did.
It’s bad enough most of these guys who played football won’t be able to walk without a severe limp — or worse — when they reach their late 40s, but now they have to deal with the specter of perhaps suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy — or CTE — as the result of “getting their bell rung” all those years.
And the worst part — no one seems to give a shit.
As much as we love to watch it — and I watch pro football just as much as any of you (Go Giants! Go Chiefs!) — you have to admit football is not a normal and/or healthy activity. No sport where you have to wear a helmet is probably good for you.
Imagine taking a bowling ball and slamming it with all your might against your knee or your shoulder or your head. Even wearing padding you wouldn’t try it, even once. Now think about doing it continuously until you don’t feel it anymore, until bits of bone or tendon or cartilage begin to pull away from your flesh. Until blood spots begin to appear throughout the material in your brain.
That’s what we’re talking about when it comes to football. Every one of those guys you see on the field will suffer some sort of physical aftermath from playing the game. Every time you see the lines crash against each other, you’re witnessing what will be the ultimate source of physical agony in those players’ golden years.
We all know this. And god help us, we could care less. No one put a gun up to anyone’s head and told him to strap on the pads and helmet, or else. In fact, these guys do it because they love it.
A few years ago I was having drinks at O’Leaver’s with a pal of mine who played college ball at Iowa. He talked about the brutality of the game and the injuries, including the ones he suffered and is still suffering from today. I said if I had a son I’d never let him play football. He looked at me like I was out of my mind.
“You got to let them play,” he said. Why? “Because it’s fun. How could you deprive your son of having fun?”
Maybe he’s right, but isn’t there a way to make the game safer? The only way that comes to mind is to take away helmets — literally play the game without helmets on. Players would be forced to slow down, to hit without such violent contact. They’d have no choice lest they kill each other. And no one wants that, right?
But we’re never going to see football played without helmets. It wouldn’t be the same game. America would not stand for it, despite the fact that we’re killing our kids, right in front of our eyes. It’s like watching Dale Earnhardt crash into that wall again and again and again.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.