A few years ago, before "CTE" was as much a part of football conversations as "quarterback rating" or "wild card spot," I had a conversation with some friends about unsettling news stories that linked the sport to brain injury.
As we spoke, an avowed hater of sports piped up. "Football, as it's currently played, is completely indefensible," she said.
I bit my tongue at the moment, but I later talked about it the way any dyed-in-the-wool Eagles fan might: "She hates sports and football! What does she know? These cases could be isolated. And anyway, these dudes play of their own volition!"
I look back on that conversation with a kind of mortification now, given all the stuff we've learned about football-related brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy since then. She was right.
Anyone familiar with the Kubler-Ross model would recognize my defensive apoplexy as denial, the first stage of reckoning with a terrible reality. It's followed by anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
A lot of the football-watching public has been going through the same awkward, somewhat unseemly process. You can watch any NFL game and see how the specter of debilitating (and potentially life-threatening) brain injuries seems to be everywhere, even as almost no one addresses it directly at game time. Announcers speak in hushed tones about coaches being cautious and not putting players back in too soon if they were knocked woozy on the field. They do not often say what's inspiring all that caution.
Anger? That's mostly been limited to former players and their families. Nearly 2,000 ex-NFLers filed a lawsuit last year, accusing the league of knowingly withholding information about brain injuries.
There are some fans — my editor Luis Clemens (who, for the record, did not edit this piece) among them — who have let football go, in a huff. "The game is just too damn dangerous," he said way back in 2009. "From here on out I will not attend a football game. I will not watch a football game. I will not buy a football jersey. I will not spend a dime that may work its way into the coffers of the National Football League."
But that hasn't stopped people from trying to awkwardly thread the needle. This is the bargaining stage, and probably where much of sports fandom currently resides.
We've acknowledged that debilitating brain injuries in football are a real thing, but we hope that tinkering around the edges of the game might make this noisome issue go away. Better helmets and padding? New tackling techniques? More forgiving playing surfaces? (History is inconvenient here. The NCAA was originally formed in large part because unpadded and unhelmeted college football players were dying from injuries.)
If we're keeping it all the way real, we worry this is a farce: None of these things will do all that much, except allow us to feel as if we're doing something, and to feel less complicit when that receiver lays motionless in the middle of the field after being absolutely leveled by a safety.
But the bargaining stage is important. It means we've acknowledged the reality, at least. And it gives us some time to reorient and reprogram. Do you know how hard it is to not cheer when the opposing quarterback gets hit by one of your team's linemen and fumbles the ball? It's a limbic pleasure that's hard to explain to the uninitiated.
Now it's time to consider: What does acceptance look like for the football world? I wonder if football has only two realistic futures.
In one, the game is essentially unchanged. Fullbacks throw hellacious blocks on pass rushers; quarterbacks' heads bobble after they've been slammed into the turf by gargantuan linemen. The NFL keeps all of its martial motifs and metaphors. But more people are turned off by football's human toll, and America's most popular sport shrinks in size and earning power and influence, becoming something of a violent afterthought, like boxing.
In the other scenario, football gradually morphs into some weird, unrecognizable thing: less (or no) hitting, less (or no) tackling — but also far fewer glimpses of our former superheroes profoundly diminished in early middle age. The sport lingers, and maybe remains popular, but not indefensible, as that sports hater said.
If they were to happen, either of those realities would come long after I stop watching.
I'm going to watch the Super Bowl with the friends I usually spend football Sundays with, but I can already feel my affections waning. I can't rattle off how many catches DeSean Jackson had this season, or the Birds' (always sorry) red zone conversion percentage anymore. It's gotten too hard to hold all that trivia, and all that carnage, in my head at once.
I wonder if this is what acceptance feels like.