I’m pleased that the New England Patriots made it to the AFC championship game again this year. On Sunday, they’ll play the Kansas City Chiefs at 6:40 p.m., and the winner will advance to the Super Bowl.
I’ve been a Patriots fan my entire life, long before they were good enough to loathe. But I won’t be watching football this weekend. I haven’t watched a single pass or tackle all season.
I don’t remember much about last year’s AFC championship game between the Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars. But I’ll never forget the sound.
The Pats were down 14-3 with 1:23 left in the second quarter when the tight end Rob Gronkowski tried to catch a long, lofted pass from the quarterback, Tom Brady.
He almost had it.
But the Jags’ safety, Barry Church, hit Gronkowski just as he was pulling it down.
Their hard plastic helmets hit each other with such force that — even through the tinny speakers on my television — it sounded like a rifle shot. .
It still echoes in my ears.
As the sound of the hit faded into a commercial break, I realized with absolute certainty that I couldn’t watch football anymore. There aren’t enough yards to gain or Super Bowl rings to win that are worth the cost.
To use a euphemism from the era before we knew about brain damage, Gronkowski “got his bell rung.” Shaken by the impact, he struggled to his feet, wobbled and was helped off the field with a concussion. Church was fined $24,309 by the NFL for an illegal hit.
“I hope he’s all right,” Church said after the game. “If you go low for the knees, you are considered a dirty player, and if you go high, they throw the flag at you. It’s a bang-bang play, and I was just trying to play football.”
“It’s football,” Gronkowski later told the press. “It is what it is.”
And that’s the problem.
The first research into the link between football and traumatic brain injury was published in 2005. Since then, the science has become impossible to ignore.
In 2017, The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of the autopsies of the brains of 111 deceased former NFL players, whose relatives gave their bodies up for study. The group was not a random sample, yet 110 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to concussions. Research published in November estimated that a minimum of 10 percent of all professional football players would develop CTE at some point in their lives.
Professional athletes are well compensated for their dangerous job. But the pipeline is a problem. It can take more than a decade of hard hits to make it to a college team or the pros.
Research published in The Journal of Pediatrics last month found that concussion rates for youth football players were higher than previously reported. In all, some 5 percent of all youth football players receive concussions each year, a figure that may sound low, but compounds with each additional year of play. In 2017, a study found that playing football before age 12 doubled the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning. It tripled the risk of elevated depression.
It’s little wonder that lawmakers last year in New York, Illinois, California, Maryland and New Jersey introduced bills to ban or restrict youth tackle football.
All this isn’t the snowflaking of the next generation of American men. It’s physics. Technology — in the form of, say, better helmets — will not save the game. Researchers note that helmets don’t prevent all concussions and might be making the problem worse, by giving players a false sense of invincibility.
The dangers of the game are clear to the insurance companies that cover youth and professional leagues. An investigation published by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” this week found that the insurance market for youth football is “fundamentally altering the economics of the sport, squeezing and even killing off programs faced with higher costs and a scarcity of available coverage.”
“People say football will never go away, but if we can’t get insurance, it will,” Jon Butler, executive director of the youth football program Pop Warner, is reported to have said.
The report said that the NFL is also having problems finding companies willing to insure against head injuries.
With no safe way to play — short of flag football — it’s little wonder that participation in youth football is on the decline. Some high schools have dropped the sport altogether, while state legislatures are passing and updating concussion laws to ensure schools that do field teams take the issue seriously. Every state now has a concussion law on the books.
Nor is it surprising that some younger NFL players are calling it quits. Gronkowski, now 29, reportedly considered retirement after last season. Reports say he’s considering doing so after this one, too.
There are still Newton deniers, who contest his laws of physics, which explain how the human brain slams into the interior walls of the skull during a concussion.
“Your body gets used to the hits,” the Patriots’ Tom Brady told a sports radio show last month. “The brain understands the position that you are putting your body into, and my brain is wired for contact. I would say in some ways it has become callous to some of the hits.”
Brady’s former teammate, Ted Johnson, spent 10 years in the NFL and told The Times in 2007, at age 34, that he was suffering from symptoms characteristic of early Alzheimer’s disease as a results of concussions. “There’s something wrong with my brain,” he said.
Johnson called Brady’s recent remarks about concussions “irresponsible.”
“I’ll be honest, and I love Tom, it made me throw up in my mouth a little bit,” he said.
Despite all these concerns, there’s little indication that football will be dethroned as America’s favorite sport. Television ratings, which have taken some hard hits of their own over the past few years, have rebounded this season. And the Super Bowl might be the most communal experience the country has in 2019.
This Sunday, I won’t begrudge my father, who’ll watch the game delayed on DVR, so he doesn’t have to endure commercials to get to the 11 minutes of action. Nor my cousin, who’ll bet money on the game. Seeing the occasional Patriots hat or jersey on the street is a nice reminder of the tribe I’ve parted ways with.
Because as long as I can hear the sound of Gronk getting his bell rung, I’ll find something else to watch.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.