Rules of the Game

4 minute read

My husband and I don’t have sons, so we never had to ask ourselves how we’d have felt about them playing football. But we have learned through our daughters the toll that head injuries can take, and so I confess to a bias when it comes to weighing whether any sport is worth the risk.

Sean Gregory’s cover investigation explores that question through the wrenching story of Chad Stover, a smart, gifted, well-liked wide receiver and defensive back in Tipton, Mo., who died last year after suffering a traumatic brain injury during a game. We’ve all been watching football this fall–the games as fervently as ever but the headlines as well, about players behaving badly, beaten wives, rapacious owners and a complicit commissioner. But there is also news about the other football scandal, the one involving years and years of adamant denial about the toll the game takes on players’ health. As many as 1 in 3 NFL players will develop dementia, Alzheimer’s or some cognitive problem, the league predicted in court documents in the case of the 5,000 former players who are suing for damages. And the diseases will hit them at younger ages than they will for the general population.

The NFL’s culture of denial is impossible to excuse but easy to understand, given the billions of dollars at stake, so it has taken years for the players to seek justice through the smoke screen. At the high school level the safety question is in some ways more complicated, woven deeply into the fabric of community life and Friday nights and family tradition and the rituals that, gently or roughly, ferry teenagers into adulthood. There is the power of the Team and the lure of the larger goal, the lessons learned from sacrifice and resilience and from the quest to be a hometown hero.

All those dimensions and more are familiar to the Stover family, who have suffered the ultimate, unimaginable loss and yet have not turned away from the game their son loved. They used to organize the postgame meals; they saw how neighbors mingled in the stands, saw the power in high school football’s communal bonds. They don’t want that taken from anyone else. People don’t blame the act of driving for auto accidents. There aren’t calls to ban cars–so why pin this tragic accident on the game? “They’ve decided to share Chad’s story with TIME because they’d love for some good to come out of it,” Sean says. “Parents and players and policymakers can read it and make informed judgments: Should I play? Should my child play? Should we have more medical support at games? Should we change some of the fundamental rules of the game? Often during our long conversations, the whole room was in tears, myself included.”

Tragedies like the Stovers’ make me wonder whether a change is coming. Last year there were more deaths due to football contact than in any year since 2001, and all were at the high school level. Participation for kids ages 6 to 12 is down more than 25% since 2007 as sports like lacrosse have taken off. Some states are changing the rules about contact, when games should turn from touch to tackle and what medical resources should be required at games. But at some point, football’s future will not depend on how it is policed; it will depend on how it is perceived. Can the game be made safer, cleaner, more accountable–or does violence run so deep in the game’s bloodline that it can’t be drained away?


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