Poe’s Perspective: What will it take to stop the violence in football?

Every time a former football star dies, I ask the same question — when is enough going to be enough?

Yesterday, the Daily Trojan reported on the death of Kevin Ellison, a former captain of the USC football team. Ellison died after years of struggling with mental illness, mainly bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which his family believes in part was caused by traumatic brain injuries suffered playing football.

Ellison’s brain will soon join those of the hundreds of fellow deceased football stars at the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center at Boston University, where Dr. Ann McKee has been feverishly researching CTE for years. When his brain finally lays to rest there, Ellison will become one of the many recent victims of the deadly risks of playing football, the most popular sport in America.

I want to know how many more deaths it’s going to take. I thought, maybe, that the decline and death of Junior Seau would be enough. But it wasn’t, despite the ESPN “30 for 30” and the countless memorial ceremonies. So I thought, okay, maybe it’ll take a kid, or a quarterback, to make this point. Then came Tyler Hilinski’s tragic death a year ago, and the same grief and mourning subsided and gave way to inaction. Maybe, then, it would take a player suffering a grave injury on the field — but no, Ryan Shazier was paralyzed from the waist down on national television, and the football world spun on.

The ugly thing about football is that it’s violent. We like it, most likely, because of this factor, for the same reason that we like watching war movies and playing shoot-’em-up video games. There’s something in our DNA that loves seeing someone get completely pummelled.

I get that. I love football for its physicality, and yes, for its violence. Most football fans are slow to admit it, especially now, but there’s a reason we all let out the same excitable “oooh” when senior linebacker Porter Gustin absolutely drills an opposing quarterback. Somewhere, deep down, violence is what makes football as popular as it is.

That is, after all, why it’s so hard to let go of it all. If football fans collectively, truly disliked the violence, we could cut it out in a second. We could turn the game into touch or flag, strip it down to a game of speed, not strength. If the violence was truly universally abhorrent, we could eliminate it so quickly that we’d wonder why it was a problem in the first place.

But we don’t. In football, we live for the hits, for the tackles, the sacks. Even offensive players love to lay out a good hit (just ask USC’s former star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who makes highlights with his bone-crunching blocks in the open field). We still love this violence, even when we know the pain it’s inducing, even when we know it’s killing the athletes we claim to revere.

I want to know when the turning point will come. I ask myself this question every week. Since coming to USC, I’ve studied CTE for journalism assignments and class projects on-and-off for four years. I know the risks. I know that many concussions come from contact to the body — not just to the head — meaning that no helmet can ever prevent CTE. I know that many athletes begin to forget details in their 30s and 40s, that they die decades earlier than  non-athletes, that many of their final years are spent living in a murky, painful swamp of splitting headaches and unending pain.

And yet, every Saturday, I’m at the Coliseum, in the press box or in the stands. On Sunday, I’m on my couch with breakfast at 10 a.m., tuned into NFL Red Zone, tracking Patrick Mahomes’ statistics. I want to see Gustin and senior linebacker Cam Smith rope up quarterbacks. I want the Chiefs’ defensive line to be the hardest hitting in the NFL. I know what happens with every snap, and I’m painfully aware of what I’m condoning and encouraging every week when I turn on the TV. And yet, I can’t stop.

So I ask this of myself, as much as anyone else. What is it going to take? Who has to die? Will it take a famous quarterback? Will it have to happen on the field? In the Super Bowl? Or will we just keep on moving, keep on watching, content to condemn these players to their deaths because we don’t want to give up our Sunday watch parties?

I don’t have any of the answers. I know that my children will never touch a football, and maybe this is what it will take — a generation of reformed fans putting their foot down when it comes to their own children. But I do know that a change has to come.

A new football season is rolling on, and we’re adding to the body count with every passing Sunday. Someday, somehow, something has to give.

Julia Poe is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.