October 11, 2014


What I Saw as an N.F.L. Ball Boy (ERIC KESTER, OCT. 10, 2014, NY Times)

I lay awake at night wondering how many lives were irreparably damaged by my most handy ball boy tool: smelling salts. On game days my pockets were always full of these tiny ammonia stimulants that, when sniffed, can trick a brain into a state of alertness. After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky. Then, with eyes squeezed shut in pain, he'd scream "Eric!" and I'd dash over and say, "It's O.K., I'm right here, got just what you need."

A sniff of my salts would revive the player in alertness only, and he would run back onto the field to once again collide with opponents with the force of a high-speed car crash. As fans high-fived and hell-yeahed and checked the progress of their fantasy teams, and as I eagerly scrambled onto the field to pick up shattered fragments from exploded helmets, researchers were discovering the rotting black splotches of brain tissue that indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Known as C.T.E., this degenerative disease is the result of players' enduring head trauma again and again. Symptoms include dementia and extreme aggression, and C.T.E. is considered at least partly responsible for the string of recent suicides of former and current N.F.L. players, whose anger, sadness and violence eventually collapsed inward.

Cameramen know not to show players sniffing salts, and I participated in similar acts of cover-up. One of my jobs was sorting through postgame laundry. Cleaner uniforms would be set aside for football card companies to purchase for their line of "game-used inserts." Dirty uniforms, meanwhile, like all the girdles filled with blood and feces because some hits are savage enough to overpower the central nervous system, I'd put in a special bin for disposal.

At one morning practice a player asked me, the smell of liquor on his breath, to run to the locker room and get him some mint gum. For weeks there had been reports that he was going to be released. When I brought the gum to him, he asked me to unwrap it because his fingers were too mangled for fine motor skills. I was later surprised to learn how many players had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and public intoxication (according to a USA Today database, since 2000 there have been 237 alcohol-related arrests, nearly three times more than the next most frequent charge, assault and battery).

It seems extremely likely to go the way of boxing.
Posted by at October 11, 2014 8:04 PM

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