by Walt Amses
While the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles have been practicing for a game that may very well eventually kill them, millions of Americans have been preparing to consume enough calories, cholesterol, sodium, and alcohol to contribute to their own untimely deaths as well. Fair is fair after all, and it’s heartening that the expectation for modern day gladiators to risk their lives for our entertainment is reciprocated by fan willingness to jeopardize their own by choking on a chicken wing, drowning in a sea of guacamole, or confusing five gallons of synthetic cheese dip with food.
This Sunday, the National Football League will again magically cram 10 or 15 minutes of actual football into hour after hour of unbridled commercialism interrupted by Justin Timberlake surrounded by carefully vetted fans, enthusiastically bouncing on cue, and mind numbing analysis by ex-jocks and former coaches, who dissect plays, check formations and illustrate strategies as though discussing physics instead of grown men banging their heads together. Face it. Having been a great quarterback does not equate with Terry Bradshaw being Einstein.
Although Super Bowl Sunday is not an official holiday, malls, ski slopes, and even some afternoon church services see their attendance tail off dramatically, while pizza deliveries more than double, with an estimated 12.5 million orders averaging $26 per., making it the food of choice during what has become the second largest food consumption day in America, trailing only Thanksgiving in that department. In 2017, Pizza Hut hired 11,000 additional workers in anticipation of the Super deluge.
This Sunday, fans will endure endless, less than subliminal messages to eat more chips, drink more beer, and drive really, really big trucks faster than they should. They’ll meet the challenge by downing 28 million pounds of chips, guzzling enough beer to compete with New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, and keep the police busy with an annual spike in drunk driving and related accidents.
But the gastronomical risks taken celebrating football’s final curtain call are nothing compared to those faced by the players considering the train-wreck intensity of every play at this level of competition. While the NFL is quick to tout the precautions taken to make the game safer and specifically to prevent head injuries, it should be noted that league spent several decades denying the connection between football and traumatic brain injury and the myriad of debilitating post-football conditions that compromise the quality of life experienced by many former players.
With $13 billion in annual profits, professional football isn’t going anywhere any time soon but there are several warning signs that the league is taking seriously, not the least of which is a small but steady drop in both attendance and TV ratings over the last several years. Coupled with controversy over players taking a knee in protest, wary parents less likely to sign consent forms, and increasingly empty seats, the potential loss of revenue has owners rightfully concerned.
Some owners lamented protests “politicizing” the game, forgetting momentarily that a military color guard raising the flag, Air Force flyovers prior to kickoff, ever-present salutes to the armed forces, and even the anthem itself clearly imply that this is America’s game. The clever juxtaposition of football and patriotism is brilliant marketing, conflating the NFL with love of country and support for the troops. It’s unclear whether fans doffing caps and placing hands over hearts are pledging fealty to the flag or the NFL. Mission accomplished.
As the media circus surrounding Sunday’s game escalates, questions arise over Patriot’s tight end Rob Gronkowski, now in the league’s concussion protocol after absorbing a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit in the AFC championship game with Jacksonville, and the 40-year-oldTom Brady, considered with near unanimity the best quarterback ever to take the field. Of course fans wonder how effective “Gronk” will be and whether Brady’s seeming invincibility will lead to another New England championship.
But as we slather BBQ sauce on the ribs and put the beer on ice, we might remember this weekend’s dietary indiscretions can be easily reversed with a week or two of clean living. In fact, we can join the estimated 1.5 million fans who will call in sick the Monday after SuperBowl or the millions of others who will arrive late, pampering ourselves back into fine fettle.
It’s different for the players. Head injuries don’t have to rise to concussion-level to be dangerous. New research finds that even sub-concussive trauma, which happens hundreds of times during a game, can lead to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) early onset dementia, ALS, and a host of other debilitating ailments down the road. The gift that keeps on giving, long after a player’s final game.
So as we take our seats and charge our glasses for the grand finale, we should be mindful of the fragility of Gronk’s brain and Brady’s aging bones. The tight end’s concussion two weeks ago makes it three times more likely he’ll sustain another; and the QB will be the oldest nonkicker to ever play in a Super Bowl. Opportunity for glory certainly, but as intoxicating as gridiron glory can be, it’s a devil’s bargain, incrementally exacting an extraordinarily high price n exchange for momentary time in the spotlight.