(Beware: this is lengthy.)
I love OU football...always have. I grew up in the '70s and remember having to take naps on New Year's Day so that my parents would let me stay up to watch the Orange Bowl that night. I remember the pass to Steve Rhodes and that great pitch from (I think it was) Thomas Lott to Billy Sims about 15 yards downfield while running the option against FSU. I remember oranges tossed onto the field after beating Nebraska. Keith Jackson running around end or catching a huge pass on that push off on the sideline. I remember the Selmons and Tony Casillas and Rick Bryan. I remember Jackie Shipp as a player and fumblerooskies. I remember Lydell Carr running right up the middle for a huge TD to help beat Penn St. I didn't attend OU as I have lived the last 40 years in Texas and got a scholarship requiring me to attend a college in Texas, but I truly am Sooner-born, Sooner-bred and when I die I'll be Sooner-dead.
But the times, they are a-changin'.
Today it was revealed that the NIH's study on Junior Seau's suicide was complete and that his suicide was brought on by a brain disease called CTE. Playing football for about 40 years led to so collisions with his head that he experienced severe memory loss, dementia, and depression that led to his suicide. He shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied to determine the effect that all of these head impacts had on his brain. The damage was overwhelming. Unfortunately, Seau's suicide was not the only football-related suicide in 2012 as former Notre Dame and Chicago Bear star Dave Duerson was similarly victimized by CTE.
The evidence is piling up that football and, specifically, the head injuries that occur during football games are doing tremendous damage to football players all over the U.S. It's bad enough that current NFL players are victims of this tremendous brutality but so are thousands of college kids -- including the 85+ who play football at OU -- and, more importantly in my opinion, millions of kids between the ages of 6 and 18. We are learning that football is a drug whose effects are more damaging to Americans than many that are illegal in this country.
This is not a post suggesting that football be banned. Please don't misunderstand. I have no illusions that a sport as popular as football is -- the most popular in our country -- will remain legal at least for the foreseeable future and I'm not generally inclined to tell adults that they can't do something they know is harmful as long as they are aware of the risks. But let's be honest...if I told you that millions of American kids, starting at the age of 6 or 7, were taking a drug -- legally -- that we knew led to a brain disease characterized by severe memory loss, dementia, and serious depression that has, in many cases, brought on suicide, there would be a movement to ensure that the drug was kept out of the hands of these children. At the very least, we would make sure that people were 18 before they could decide to take that drug legally.
This is something that's been eating at me for some time. I was recently watching the Texas 5A high school championship game between Katy and Cedar Hill. Cedar Hill was scoring a TD late in the game when a Katy LB lost his helmet during the play. The LB continued playing without a helmet and tried to tackle the RB as he was going in the end zone. On the play, the LB's bare head slammed straight into the RB's helmet and the announcers on TV praised how tough the LB was and what a great effort he made. I cringed, outraged that the LB didn't just let the kid score but mostly that the announcers neglected to talk about how dangerous that was to this 16, 17, 18 year old BOY! Even more outrageous was the fact that on Katy's next defensive series, the kid was back in the game! How could the coaches do that to him? Why didn't someone from Katy High School's administration or Katy ISD call the coach and tell him, "I don't care what the score is or what's going on in the game, that boy stays on the sidelines!" During the Cotton Bowl, Damien Williams carried the ball and was headed toward the sideline and an Aggie made a good, clean hit on Williams that nonetheless was a (legal) head-to-head collision. Again, I cringed. What damage did that play just do to a player I've been cheering for all season (to say nothing of the damage it did to the Aggie whose name I don't even know)?
So here is my dilemma: as I said, I love OU football and I get elated when we do well and extremely upset when we don't. But I am finding it extremely difficult morally to continue to support the sport. My conscience struggles with the extent to which I, by watching football games and buying the products that are advertised during their commercials, am enabling this disease among young Americans. I want to make it clear that I am not judging anyone else here or anywhere. This is my own personal moral conundrum. I am not trying to ban the sport. But it has become extremely difficult for me to justify supporting this sport because, in my opinion, by doing so I am enabling the damage that this very dangerous sport is doing to people all over the country.
I am not an NFL fan and haven't really watched the NFL for years. My brother has a Super Bowl party I'll attend and I'll watch the game but I don't really care who wins. It takes a lot out of me to be a fan of a team so I need a break once Sooner football (and, during good seasons, Sooner basketball) season and St. Louis Cardinal baseball season is over. I can give up, I think, other college football games. But I feel somewhat addicted to the Sooners. I don't want to give them up but, at the same time, by continuing to support them I am, even in a very small way, complicit in their harm. I'm not sure I can abide that any more.
The point here is not to place judgment on anyone though, if you feel you must, you can judge me. Sometimes I do feel like a hypocrite. I really feel, however, that I'm not. I'm simply a fan, a human with human failings who wants to do the right thing but can't all the time because Sooner football is such a part of me. I wonder if any of you are confronting similar dilemmas relating to the sport or relating to Sooner football specifically. Am I the only one here who, though a huge fan of the Sooners, feels some obligation to the players -- and to kids playing football all across the country -- to stop supporting the sport because their physical and mental well-being is more important than winning football games. We're not talking about broken bones or torn ligaments here. We're talking about a brain disease that leads to players' deaths.
So I'm interested in your comments, whatever they are. Most importantly, though, is that I wanted to open a dialogue about football and the damage it is doing to people. I can't be the only one conflicted. How far does our fandom extend? Don't we have a moral obligation to, at the very least, not continue enabling this disease. I think we need, as a society, to have conversations about this subject so that we can, at least, improve the equipment that players -- especially kids -- wear when playing.
I don't know what the right answer is. What I do know is that I'm going to pay attention to who OU signs on national signing day and I'm going to be very interested in Sooner football as next season approaches. I don't know if I'm going to be able to avoid watching the games or following the team. Deep down, I feel like I have a moral obligation to quit Sooner football. But it's going to be really hard for this old fan whose been addicted to the Sooners for 42 years.