When you’ve given the matter a lot of thought.
Photo: Michael Hickey (Getty Images)

A well-respected neuropsychologist once told me he thought the media was getting the concussion stuff all wrong. The headlines are all bad, he lamented, all the “Football is killing kids” doom-and-gloom stuff. His entire professional life, he reminded me, had been dedicated to treating concussions, particularly in children, and while he was glad the issue was getting more attention he thought that we, people who wrote about brain injuries in sports, had gone too far. Parents were coming to him worried their kids would have CTE after bumping their heads. We were creating panic.

Troubled, I did some Google searches myself, but couldn’t find the types of articles he lambasted. For every alarmist article I found, there were another 10 to 15 responsibly reported ones, all of which made clear that the link between football and CTE was not, by the relevant medical definition of the term, definitive. There were quotes from doctors expressing concern, but also caution. There were reminders that the sample of football players’ brains examined for CTE—110 of 111, as you’ve probably heard—are heavily biased towards positive findings because they were donated by high-risk individuals. There was, in short, overwhelmingly responsible journalism on this topic, and I told him as much. That wasn’t the point, he replied. Look at the headlines. Most people don’t actually read your articles.

I thought of this exchange again last week, when University of North Carolina’s football coach Larry Fedora made national news by saying “I don’t think that the game of football, or [that] it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE, but that’s been put out there. We don’t really know yet.”

For all the vitriol directed at him, that part of Fedora’s media-day screed happens to be a factually correct statement. It’s also an obvious one to anyone even remotely paying attention to this stuff. Very few people—and nobody who should be taken seriously—has claimed that football “causes” CTE. Just to make sure nothing had changed since I stopped reporting on the topic a year ago, I Google searched the term “football causes CTE” in an incognito window. The search yielded almost exclusively quotes from experts or articles asserting otherwise. Fedora was vigorously beating the shit out of a straw man.

And then I read more of Fedora’s comments and remembered why I made the decision to stop reporting on brain trauma in sports. Neither Fedora nor many people on either side actually care about what the science says.

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Fedora made his CTE comment during an otherwise unhinged, Red Bull–fueled tirade defending football’s importance to American military might, its culture, and broader national well-being. Among Fedora’s taurine-scented crackpottery was the claim that if we cannot even “recognize” football 10 years from now, “our country goes down, too”; that an unnamed three-star general told him America has the greatest military in the world because our troops play football; and that he thinks “what the game teaches...makes us such a great nation.” Earlier, he stated, “I do believe, we’re involved in the greatest game there is on Earth.” When a reporter asked how football is different or better than rugby, the sport on which football was based, Fedora replied, “I don’t know rugby? So I couldn’t tell you that, I just know they don’t wear helmets, so.”

Which is to say, the context of Fedora’s factually correct statement about CTE is best understood as this: he is a 55-year-old man whose only job has been coaching football, and who is now paid $2.3 million a year by a taxpayer-funded institution of higher learning to do so. That man believes that football—for some reason he either chose not to or could not elaborate upon further when asked to do so—is fundamental to our nation’s military, culture, and broader well-being. He also believes that the country will be diminished, in some vague but terribly significant way—again, no explanation given—if football changes in some undefined way that doesn’t meet Fedora’s approval.

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But that’s Larry Fedora’s problem, and at the most basic level what he’s upset about isn’t about CTE—or head trauma or football—at all. It has more to do with our poisonous and deeply held national tendency to split things in two; Fedora has picked his side in the partisan binary surrounding this issue, and he has announced his willingness to defend that side to the death. It’s not a “national conversation,” as the usual rhetoric would have it. It’s as if a competitive debate was being held in which each side had for some reason been thrown down very deep wells. They react only to the syllables or words that manage to echo out and down the other side. It is noisy, but hard to tell what anyone else is even saying.

Every time I think about defending something Fedora said—he applauded recent safety-focused rule changes such as moving the kickoff five yards, for instance, and thinks kids shouldn’t play tackle football until middle school—I remind myself that Fedora is not interested in an honest debate. At some level he surely cares about making the future of football safer and more responsible than the past, but also he clearly doesn’t care enough to bother getting himself up to speed on what that conversation actually looks like as it exists in this world. I do not doubt his non-financial passion for football matters more to him than his financial stake in the game’s survival, but that’s only more evidence of what he’s about. This is an emotional, personal issue for him. It’s another front in a wider culture war, and he approaches it with a soldier’s limited and necessarily blinkered focus.

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I keep coming back to one portion of the press conference when a reporter asked Fedora to clarify some of his remarks. “Just to follow up with something you said earlier,” the reporter queried, “if football were to go to one super extreme, how would it change America, so how would that happen?”

“I don’t know the real answer to that,” Fedora replied. “I just think we will lose a lot as a nation, I think we’ll lose a lot because what the game teaches. I think we’ll lose so much of that. I really do. And again, I think that’s one of the things that makes us such a great nation.” In the very next answer, to a question about his “football is under attack” comment, Fedora went on about “tak[ing] data and you turn it and twist it any way you want to.”

If you follow politics—if you even are aware of the faintest outlines of how politics gets talked about—these will instantly be recognizable as the comments of a certain type of middle-aged white man who is lashing out at a world that suddenly and certainly doubts his superiority. This man is watching the world change around him and doesn’t know how to react—what used to be so easy that he hadn’t ever had to think about it is now nothing but questions. And so, in Fedora’s case and elsewhere, the man invents people, positions, and arguments, casts them all as opponents, and then holds up those claims as evidence he is the only one dealing in good faith. Some people are saying football causes CTE. But they’re using fake data. They’re trying to ruin our sport. They’re trying to ruin our country. Even military generals say so. Whose side are you on?

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This would be easily dismissed if it were not also the dominant rhetorical strategy of our moment. Anyone can look at this and see that it’s wrong—that it’s stilted and lazy and wimpy in its elisions and childish in its scope. But also it wins elections, it gets executives promoted, it gets people to line up behind real shooting wars, it ends social programs, it shores up the logic of regressive tax structures. For folks like Fedora, this is more than an argument. It is nothing less than a war. He believes he’s going to win, because he played football. For better or worse, he’ll never hear a word to the contrary.