Football on the Brain

The Superbowl happened this weekend, and I couldn’t stop cringing. Part of that, I’ll fully admit, is my complete lack of knowledge about all things sports, and a mild sense of irritation from the yelling, screaming, and pervasive stench of Buffalo Wild Wings. But most of it is a gourmet blend of appalled horror – how on earth is it a good idea for grown, bulky men to crash head-on and tackle each other to the ground? Why is watching the birth of a generation of concussions such a desirable spectacle?

Football is dangerous. How can it not be, when all of the helmets, padding, and other gear can’t change the fact that the teams are charging at each other like hordes of ravening bulls? The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, or NEISS, which aggregates the levels of consumer injury from various activities, estimates that there are almost 400,000 hospitalized injuries for football every year. In 2009, almost 215,000 children were brought to the emergency room for football-related injuries. 28 percent of children who play football before high school will be injured at some point in their football careers. And these are just the visible injuries – the ones caught right away.

However, football has also been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease found in people who have sustained repeated blows to the head. Since football, to my untrained eye, strongly resembled a race to see who can tackle the most people and administer the most repeated blows to their head, this isn’t surprising. However, this diagnosis lumps football players in the same category of injury as victims of domestic violence – which, clearly, is not a connection fans and players alike would like to have.

So here’s the dilemma: football is incredibly lucrative, if you’re good, and get selected for a good team, and are within the few years where playing football is actually a possibility. However, it tends to favor its players with regular injuries, a very short playing window, and the strong possibility of concussion or a crippling, agonizing, degenerative disease. It doesn’t seem like that hard of a choice. Why set yourself up in one of the most dangerous careers in sports? Why run the risk of brain damage caused by using your skull as a battering ram?

Furthermore, why do we watch it? I realize that as humans, we are drawn to the brutal, primal sense of battle embodied by these heavily-padded teams waging their war over a brown stuffed lump. However, we’ve had lots of other gruesome fads that faded out as we realized that the potential harm to the participants was too great to excuse the entertainment we received from the spectacle. We no longer hold gladiator fights. We don’t travel across kingdoms to watch men in tin cans skewer each other in a ‘heroic display of chivalry’. Maybe it’s time football got the same treatment.

I understand it’s not that easy. To say that football is a large industry would be an understatement – the games, stadium extras, and memorabilia bring in billions of dollars each year, not even considering naming rights, advertisements, gambling or youth leagues. To end football would mean that powerful team owners would lose a ton of money; infrastructure would become unnecessary; merchandise might go unsold. To stop football altogether, immediately, could be disastrous.

To be fair, it seems that the NFL is making steps to help protect their players. This article provides a good analysis of the work they’ve done to move towards greater safety. For example, all players are being asked to watch Concussion, a movie about the dangers of CTE in football players, which is wonderful because it provides a better warning of the risks players might face. But is that enough? The movie is fiction; it has its own story and romantic subplot, and while its information is accurate, it’s probably not a clear and comprehensive factbook on risks. A full understanding of consequences is incredibly important, so that’s definitely a step in the right direction, but is it sufficient? To what extent does the attempt to put in place safeguards mitigate the general danger that already exists?

There is risk to everything, of course, and there’s no way of addressing every potential harm someone might come across in the course of one’s life. You could fall off a bike, or get into a car accident, or even choke while brushing your teeth – the possibilities are endless. You could get cancer from lying in the sun for too long, or by drinking alcohol, or by living in houses with asbestos, or about a million other ways. And yet, we go through these activities, even while cognizant of the dangers. We mitigate these factors as best as we can, by putting on a seatbelt and using turn signals, or remodeling our houses or using sunblock, but some inherent risk still remains, and for the most part, we’re fine with that. It’s quite likely that some people will make the same decision about football – it could possibly cause a debilitating brain condition or some other permanent injury, but on the whole it’s worth it. And at the end of the day, that’s a personal decision each person is entitled to make for themselves.

But as far as the fate of football as a national sport, is that something we as a country should take into our collective hands? It’s one thing to toss a pigskin with friends, and quite another to condone the monetization of groups of young men bludgeoning each other with their bodies. Is it enough to say that these professional players can make their own choices, and not factor in any economic pressures they may feel to take a job that could provide them with huge amounts of money in a short time? Is it safe to assume they’ll be given the information they need to come to an educated decision about their future?

Football is dangerous. It causes broken bones and potentially terminal brain degeneration, with effects we still don’t fully realize. It fosters a culture where people are willing to shell out the big bucks to sit in uncomfortable seats, chomp on greasy hot wings, and watch grown men physically attack each other. But does our enjoyment of the sport excuse the potential long-term effects on the people who devote their youth and health to our entertainment? Or is it time to move past the barbaric violence of football, focus on a more pleasant sport like golf, and put an end to the Coliseums of the world, once and for all?