The End of Meat. And Driving. And Football.

9/7/12Follow @wroush

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several hundred thousand dollars. And the end product doesn’t look too appetizing: the BBC compared it to calamari. But if the process can be scaled up, growing meat in labs might eventually be cheaper and more efficient than raising animals for slaughter. And once that happens, eating real animals might become the province of the rich—or might even be banned as unnecessarily cruel and wasteful.

Football In Sudden Death Overtime

As long as I’m listing cherished American institutions that deserve to be swept away on a mounting tide of scientific evidence, I might as well mention football.

The most arresting magazine article I’ve read in months is J.R. Moehringer’s “Football is Dead. Long Live Football,” which appears in the September 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine. It’s a poetic, sad, clear-eyed look at a sport that Moehringer obviously loves. His status as a passionate yet worried believer makes the article far more damning than recent, more clinical critiques from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger.

Moehringer is convinced that the nation needs football at some primal level—in his mind it has something to do with post-industrialism, the wounds left by the Civil War, how men prove their masculinity, and our taste for gladiatorial spectacles. But try as he might to find reasons to stay hopeful about the game’s survival, Moehringer keeps coming back to the unavoidable physiological facts.

And the facts are these: The human brain is basically made of jelly. Modern football is played in a way that guarantees players will be regularly concussed. It’s not possible to invent a helmet that will prevent the jelly from sloshing around inside a player’s skull when this happens. In short, if you wanted to create a way to inflict insidious, cumulative, irreversible brain injuries on athletes, you could not come up with a better system than American football. (Well, maybe boxing.)

The B.C. Lions football team in a scrimmage game

Waiting for the snap...and a concussion

Through modern brain imaging and autopsies (yes, there is a growing collection of brains from deceased football players; Boston University has 60 of them), it’s becoming clear that repeated “subconcussive” injuries like those that occur when players head-bang each other can lead to a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Signs of the syndrome include confusion, memory loss, depression, aggression, and dementia. Six former NFL players have committed suicide in the past two years, and all six were reported to be suffering from some combination of these symptoms.

To be fair, the condition isn’t limited to football players—it’s also common among boxers, wrestlers, hockey players, and military personnel exposed to explosive blasts. But a group of 3,000 former professional players thinks the NFL knows all about the link between concussions and CTE, and it’s suing the league for allegedly ignoring and hiding the evidence.

Moehringer thinks the litigation will eventually be settled—there’s too much money at stake, mostly in the form of TV broadcast contracts, for the NFL to let the issue balloon out of control. But he’s more worried about kids. He notes that 175,000 children wind up in emergency rooms each year for sports-related brain injuries, many of them from football. (I guess there is something riskier than driving after all.)

Moehringer thinks this toll, combined with a drumbeat of stories about suffering ex-NFL players, may already be causing parents to steer their kids into less violent sports. And the exodus, he writes, “might soon become a stampede as the latest bad news becomes more widely known—concussions are far, far more dangerous for children than adults.”

If you take young people out of high school and college football programs (which both Bissinger and Taylor Branch have excoriated for undermining the academic mission of American universities), football will gradually die. Or at least, it will be forced to turn elsewhere for recruits.

* * *

So there you have it. If I were campaigning for office this fall, I’d promise to take away your SUV, your steak, and your Sunday pastime. (And your gun, but I’ll save my opportunity to offend that group for another day.) It wouldn’t mean the death of the tailgate party, but in my proposed future we’d be partying from the back of the robot car, with soy protein on the grill, before the soccer game.

Somehow I don’t think these promises would get me elected—not even here in San Francisco. But we’ll still have to come to terms with the realities behind them. Eventually, we always do.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://twitter.com/jonbierer Jon Bierer

    I would concur with each of those, but not the gun control.

  • Alice

    At the risk of further offending… I can’t help but imagine how much gentler and kinder 50% of the population would be without cars, meat, and football. ;-)
    Signed, a woman

  • http://www.facebook.com/robofhood Robert Hammond

    very interesting read. at the very least, i would love to have my car drive myself and my bbq back from the tailgate :)

  • http://twitter.com/charlie_joslin Charlie Joslin

    Maybe lacrosse would grow in popularity. Not as severely physical as football, but just as fun to play and watch.

  • BW

    Well, let’s see. Oil consumption dropped due to the economy,sure, but now it’s natural gas that is replacing those BTU’s, not staying warm with a hair shirt. And you want to do away with meat? I gotta say, beans give me gas. You can grow my steak in an algae vat, but don’t try to argue that killing chickens and cows is evil. Have you ever tried living with one? Work on an egg farm for awhile, and trust me, fried chicken starts to look like a solution, not a problem. And as for football, what’s wrong with football? OH, you mean American football? I thought you meant the Beautiful Game. Never mind, you can flush football.

  • Jerry Jeff

    I haven’t looked deeply into the synthetic meat issue, but I tend to wonder about manufacturing and quality control. As I understand it, even for high cost specialty products like biological therapeutics it is hard to keep viruses and contaminants out of large-scale tissue culture. Once you are trying to make a product that (1) uses all of the cell mass rather than throwing it away, and (2) costs $10/lb or so, it will be a real challenge to keep all of the cultures clean. As for football, maybe the answer is to play with no helmets–the game would adjust, and the level of concussions would be similar to soccer or basketball.