Will: The Super Bowl's 60 minutes of damage
WASHINGTON – Settling unhappily into his Super Bowl seat, Himalayan high behind the end zone, Joe spots an empty seat low and on the 50-yard line. He descends to it and asks the man seated next to him why the wonderful seat is unoccupied. The man says, "Its mine. I was supposed to come with my wife, but she died. This is the first Super Bowl since 1967 we have not attended together." Joe says: "But couldn't you find a friend or relative to come with you today?" The man replies: "No, they're all at the funeral."
This story (from "Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between," by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein) prepares you for gathering around the national campfire that is the annual Super Bowl telecast. Super Bowls are so august they are usually denoted with Roman numerals. This year's, however, is designated Super Bowl 50 because Super Bowl L looks weird. It should be called the 50th (or Lth) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Bowl.
Last week, The New York Times reported that after Ken Stabler died of colon cancer in July at 69, his brain was sent, as he had directed, to scientists in Massachusetts. His mind, according to his daughter, "was definitely in a pretty quick downward spiral." The scientists determined that Stabler, the Oakland Raiders quarterback in Super Bowl XI (1977), who played 15 seasons in the NFL, had, on a scale of 1 to 4, "high Stage 3" CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head, including blows not severe enough to produce immediate symptoms of concussion. Stabler probably will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making him the eighth member among the more than 100 former players known to have had CTE.
Quarterbacks are somewhat protected, by their offensive line and by NFL rules, from football's worst violence. But the Times also reported that Earl Morrall, the quarterback who helped the Miami Dolphins get to Super Bowl VII (1973), had Stage 4 CTE when he died in 2014 at 79. And last month, Jim McMahon, 56, another 15-season NFL quarterback, said he considers medicinal marijuana a "godsend" as he copes with headaches and difficulties associated with his diagnosis of early onset dementia. He played for the victorious Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX (1986).
How many deceased players had, and how many former players have, or how many current players will have, CTE is unknown because it can only be confirmed by autopsy. Its symptoms, however, are similar to those of dementia.
Football's kinetic energy is increasing as the players become bigger and even the biggest become faster. In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. This season, 354 did, including seven 350-pounders.
Today's game will be 60 minutes of football — an adrenaline-and-testosterone bath stretched by commercial breaks (two of them called "two minute warnings"), replay challenges and other delays to about 200 minutes — embedded in an all-day broadcast of manufactured frenzy. It would be nice, but probably fanciful, to think that even 1 percent of tonight's expected television audience of more than 110 million will have qualms about the ethics of their enjoyment.
The NFL's fondness for Roman numerals is appropriate because the game is gladiatorial, as Romans enjoyed entertainment featuring people maiming and being maimed for the entertainment of spectators. But things change.
Capital punishment was not considered among the "cruel and unusual punishments" in 1791 when the Eighth Amendment was ratified; every state used the death penalty and the Fifth Amendment assumes its existence. In 1958, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Our society would emphatically say the Eighth Amendment forbids ear-cropping, branding and the pillory, punishments used in 1791.
Standards evolve concerning amusements, too. Someday, boxing might seem as repugnant as bearbaiting and cockfighting now do. Or maybe not, given the growing popularity of "mixed martial arts" cage fighting, which is degenerative prizefighting. The phrase "evolving standards" is synonymous with "improving standards."
Are today's parents, who put crash helmets on tykes before they put the tykes on tricycles, going to allow these children to play football? Not likely. This game will be different, or much less popular — or perhaps both — when in 2066 the national campfire is lit for Super Bowl C.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.