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Football: National Pastime or Hunger Game?

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A British fellow once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” He was, of course, referring to what Americans call soccer. The same, however, can be said of football in the United States—and by football I mean the head-smashing kind that presently holds 21 of the top 46 spots on the list of most–watched programs in television history.

More and more, we are being asked to confront the question of whether or not football is something that our society should continue to sanction. Only recently has the National Football League, an economic juggernaut in its own right, begun to acknowledge the dangers of repeated blows to the head that its players regularly receive despite DECADES of anecdotal evidence which pointed to the adverse effects of head-to-head contact. For instance, one recent article on discussed the economic impact the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field have on the city of Green Bay:

A 2009 study of the economic impact of the Packers’ stadium estimated “$282 million in output, 2,560 jobs and $124.3 million in earnings, and $15.2 million in tax revenues.” That’s small potatoes for the national economy as a whole, but for a small and somewhat remote city of 104,000, it is a big deal indeed.

The effect is even more pronounced, the piece points out, in places like Norman, Oklahoma or other college towns where football is the major driver of economic activity for five or six weekends a year: merchandise, concessions, restaurants, parking, bookstores, lodging, etc. The NFL alone makes a little more than $3 billion per year on its TV contracts with ESPN, NBC, CBS, and FOX until 2013. In 2014, the number jumps to nearly $5 billion per year from deals that go through 2021.

We are talking about a major economic hub. We are also talking a sport that has weaved its way into the culture of the United States and has become a major part of the sport–entertainment structure that has spawned things like ESPN, extreme sports, and ridiculously priced Super Bowl advertisements. Some would argue that football has supplanted baseball as the national pastime (I can’t abide this because of my love of baseball but I do see how one could successfully make the argument even if I don’t quite want to acknowledge it).

I suppose the pressing question is this: at what expense has this come? More and more, there is evidence suggesting that football players do themselves a great deal of damage by participating in the sport. More and more, we are seeing former football players diagnosed with things like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). One article from discusses the post-mortem diagnosis of CTE in certain retired NFL players:

Other former NFL players diagnosed with CTE are former Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, along with Waters and John Grimsley. Long also committed suicide, while Strzelczyk led police on a 40-mile high-speed chase on the New York State Thruway before dying in a head-on collision.

Other players have experienced severe dementia at young ages, chronic depression, and, in the case of former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, “brain tissue [resembling] that of an 85-year-old man and shar[ing] characteristics of early-stage Alzheimer’s.”

Up until recently, the diagnosis of CTE had been restricted to retired players. In 2010, doctors examined the brain of Chris Henry, an active player who died in a bizarre domestic incident after falling out of the back of a truck driven by his girlfriend. I’ll let the article from the New York Times speak for itself:

The 22nd professional football player to be given a diagnosis of C.T.E., Henry is the first to have died with the disease while active after 2007, when prior C.T.E. findings prompted the N.F.L. to begin strengthening rules regarding concussion management. The fact that he developed the condition by his mid-20s — the youngest previous C.T.E. case was the lineman Justin Strzelczyk, 36, who had been retired from the Pittsburgh Steelers for five years before his death in 2004 — raises questions of how many current N.F.L. players might have the condition without knowing it.

“As we got the results, my emotion was sad — it’s so profound,” said Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia and a former team physician for the Steelers. “I was surprised in a way because of his age and because he was not known as a concussion sufferer or a big hitter. Is there some lower threshold when you become at risk for this disease? I’m struggling to see if something can come out positive out of this.”

The kicker here is that Chris Henry was a receiver, not a lineman who regularly engages in head-to-head hitting with other players or a defensive back who flies down the field to take down a ball carrier or even a special teams player whose sole job on the field is to crush, at full speed, the player to whom he is assigned on the opposing team. He was a receiver. Catch. Run. Or get hit. Sure, there are times when a receiver gets taken down in a particularly vicious way, but much less frequently than the other positions I’ve mentioned.

The single most concerning fact about all of this is that new studies are showing that even sub-concussive contact can lead to brain injury and the development of CTE. Everywhere in football there is sub-concussive contact.

All of the recent findings lead to a fundamental question: what is our society saying about itself by sanctioning something like football? Not just as a sport, but also as an economy. Malcolm Gladwell, interviewed recently on, argues that professional football players assume some of the risk simply because they’re paid to play. If they have a problem with the risk, they can opt out.

Gladwell’s concern is with college and youth football:

Gladwell: The factor that I think will be decisive is the head-injury issue. Colleges are going to get sued, and they will have to decide whether they can afford their legal exposure. That said, the issue ought to be how big-time college sports subverts the academic mission of university education.

Slate: How would you define the culture of college football? Does this culture add to or detract from the sport’s dangers?

Gladwell: College football has become indistinguishable from professional football—which is the problem. The only justification for college sports is that they are structured in a way that enhances the social and academic experience of getting an education. A sports program using semiprofessional athletes, and running on a budget of $50-plus million a year does not fit that description.

Slate: Say banning college football isn’t an option. What reforms would you propose to the system?

Gladwell: If you want college athletes to assume an as yet unknown risk of permanent physical and neurological damage, you should pay them. Properly. It’s a bit much both to maim AND exploit college football players.

All of which leads me to the title of this post: national pastime (for more on why baseball should be the national pastime, read this from David Bentley Hart in First Things) or hunger game? Does football endorse things that our culture ought to endorse? I think the answer, given the recent scientific findings and other ideas (Super Bowl Sunday being the day on which the most domestic violence occurs), is an unqualified no. But does football endorse things that reflect our culture?

That’s where the question becomes a bit more difficult. Football does reflect certain notions of entertainment that Americans value. I remember my dad telling me he was listening to sports radio once in the middle of the afternoon and the host was taking calls on the future of American sports, a typically folderol conceit stored up for a particular moment when there’s nothing much going on in sports like the day after the MLB All–Star Game or some time late in the month of June when baseball is the only active major sport. Whoever the caller was had a penetrating insight that has stayed with me for more than a decade. It goes something like this: “I’m not sure what the future of American sports holds except to say that it better be fast, you better be able to bet on it, and it better be violent.”

Football certainly lines up all three of those—the game is fast and when there’s not action on the field, the networks load up on gimmicks to keep the viewer’s ever–shortening attention; enormous amounts of money are bet on football both legally and illegally; and I think we can stipulate to its violence.

If this has become our national pastime, then I think we have something to worry about. As more and more data emerges, it seems to be the case that our national pastime has become nothing more than a hunger game of the same type found in the trilogy of Suzanne Collins books and the recent breakout film hit: society sanctioning a bunch of people in a stadium jeopardizing their future health primarily for the benefit of those watching. Malcolm Gladwell thinks that’s okay if the players are paid and aware of the risk. I’m not so sure I agree but I can see the argument. What is harder to envision is how anyone could make an argument that college and youth football are acceptable in light of the proven effects.

I’ll leave it to Gladwell to drive the point home: “As long as the risks are explicit, the players warned, and those injured properly compensated, then I’m not sure we can stop people from playing. A better question is whether it is ethical to WATCH football. That’s a harder question.”

If, as I think it’s becoming clearer, even watching football is an ethical issue, how can we possibly allow people to play the sport? The quote I mentioned at the beginning of this piece was this: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

How right he was. On all accounts—life, death, and things much more serious.


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