Monday, February 1, 2016

Pro Bowl and the Spectacle of Violence

While most sports have their all-star game halfway through the season, it's different for football. We wait until all but two teams are left to play in the main event, the Super Bowl, and then have the honorary game played when the season is over for everyone else.
Yes, the Pro Bowl is upon us this weekend. It's going to be played at Aloha Stadium - a venue that has hosted it more than any other place since its inception in 1951 - this Sunday. And like Pro Bowls past, a weeklong extravaganza in Waikiki will attract tourists, reporters and onlookers ready to spend money in our state. We hosted the event for 30 straight seasons from 1980 to 2009. After a brief stint on the Mainland, it came back in 2011 and hasn't left.
Our state, like the rest of the country, loves football. But unlike Kansas City, where everyone on your block, at your school or job roots for the Chiefs, or in an entire region like New England that collectively worships Tom Brady, you never know who is a fan of which team. In the islands, you can pick just about whatever team you want. The fan diversity is played out in living rooms, backyards and sports bars across the state.
I remember when I was a little boy everyone was a San Francisco 49ers fan partly because of Hawaii's own Jesse Sapolu and later because of the engrossing combination of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Then there were the years where everyone suddenly became a Cowboys fan. Then the Steelers. And now it seems like we have an abundance of Seahawks fans.
Maybe that's why Hawaii is a nice place to host a game where you'll get 30 teams represented in a single game. The weather and beaches don't hurt either.
Much has changed about the Pro Bowl. The teams are no longer divided by conference. Hall-of-Famers Rice and Michael Irvin get to play real-life fantasy football and pick a team out of players who were selected by the fans.
There are new rules to it too. There will be no kickoff and a coin toss determines possession - each quarter. The game starts at the 25-yard line. The NFL even narrowed the uprights, making it harder to kick field goals and extra points. All of this, according to the NFL, is designed to make the game more exciting.
But all is not well in the world of football. This year the number of players who were selected is at an all-time low. Perhaps it's the all the strange and scary news about injuries and concussions. Perhaps it's because it's not a very good game. Or is it something else?
Let's go back to the 49ers. Steve Young was one of game's greatest players when I was a teenager. 'Niners fans hoped that he would lead the team back to the dominance it enjoyed in the 1980s. Then one day in September during the playoffs, Aeneas Williams of the Arizona Cardinals ran through the offensive line and tackled him to the ground.
Young didn't get up. The camera zoomed into his face. His eyes were closed and he looked almost peaceful like he was asleep. When he eventually got up and walked off the field, the crowd cheered. He never played football again. That was more than 16 years ago.
Players are faster, stronger and bigger. They're hitting harder and faster. This year, another 49er, linebacker Chris Borland, retired from the sport. He's 24 years old and his health and game are not declining. He gets paid millions. So why retire?
It was the risk of permanent brain injury. In the interviews that followed, Borland described the game he loves as "a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you're the actors in it. You're complicit in that." He's done. He won't even coach kids.
There is a growing body of research and evidence suggesting that repeated head trauma and concussions may cause debilitating and permanent brain injury. Former NFL players have sued the league and the litigation is tied up in federal courts across the country.
Even the NCAA has had to deal with similar lawsuits. One of the plaintiffs is former football player Adrian Arrington, who suffered a concussion so severe that he could not recognize his parents. Although the details remain unclear, it appears the NCAA is going to settle with the athletes. The terms will probably include a research fund devoted to studying whether head trauma causes brain disease.

And so while we watch our high school, college and professional footballers strap on helmets and pads, the body of research will continue to grow. So will the debate. But I doubt it will put a damper the festivities in Waikiki and Halawa this Sunday.

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