On the Morality of Watching Concussions: Or, My Personal Battle Over (American) Football
Last fall, Scott invited me to post here at Kulturblog on sports. After promptly forgetting and/or procrastinating for several months, I decided to finally write something. Unfortunately, I don’t think my first post here will be that popular a message with sports fans.
One hundred and twelve million people tuned in to the Super Bowl last week, and I admit I was one of them. (Well, at least the first half of the game; halftime came a little after 1AM here, so I went to bed instead of staying up to watch Madonna and the Giants come out as victors.) I admittedly enjoyed the game, though not as much as I enjoyed watching the BBC commentators try to explain American football to a British audience. (Especially when they attempted to explain the “safety” rule when Tom Brady was sacked in the end zone–that was comedy gold.) But I’ve felt guilty for the rest of the week over watching the game, and I still feel bad for tuning in. Why? Because I’ve been somewhat outspoken in my critique of football as a destructive sport that thrives on legions of fans watching top-notch athletes beat each others’ brains out to a point that many will likely die an early death, or at least suffer serious repercussions for much of the rest of their life. I have increasingly grown more strident in my belief that there is something seriously and morally wrong with American culture’s obsession with football, and yet I still gave in and watched the crowning moment of the sport in question. I have sincerely felt troubled with this hypocritical slip, and one of my cousins even called me out on it on facebook.
The last decade has witnessed a tremendous rise in frightening research results concerning the impact of American football (and sports in general) on the human body. More and more attention has been given to the dangers of concussions. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that close to two million student athletes suffered a brain injury every year. Neurologists have demonstrated that those who suffer multiple concussions risk severe cases of memory loss, a decrease in performance at school, cognitive impairment, and frequent migraines. Even more troubling, research has shown that it doesn’t require a diagnosable concussion to cause serious problems; numerous minor hits that happen play after play after play (the nature of football) can have just as scary results as one or two major hits. To put it simply, the more conclusions that have come out, the darker the picture is. (See a great overview here.)
The most disturbing research concerning the NFL has been in diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Possessing symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s, CTE is the result of the brain crashing into the skull too many times. While research is still young, early results have been spectacularly scary. Middle-aged NFL vets have been tested to be twenty times more likely to display symptoms. Twenty. Times. But official diagnosis can only be achieved through autopsies, so until more NFL vets donate their post-mortem brains to research, we can’t know the exact number for sure. (Fortunately, there have been growing numbers who have signed over their bodies for autopsies after they die, but that still requires waiting for them to, well, die. In one tragic case, an ex-NFL player who was plagued with early-onset dementia, amongst other medical issues, was so fed up with his symptoms and beset with depression that he gave in and shot himself in the heart so that his brain could still be examined.) The medical unit at Boston University that has been specializing in this research have only collected fifteen brains thus far–and guess what? Fourteen of them had CTE. This is serious stuff. (See this excellent summary of CTE, as well as other issues, and how it is likely just as prevalent at high school levels as at the professional level.)
It is tragically ironic that these statistics are becoming more well known at the very moment football has never been more popular. The National Football League likely made over ten billion dollars last year. That’s right, billion. It is the most profitable sport in America, and the competition isn’t really close. College football has been similarly successful, with numerous schools running after new collegiate conferences and tv contracts like high school girls chasing after a handsome jock. And that’s where the problem is: as long as we perpetuate a culture in which football is valorized, people will keep flocking to it, despite the medical risks. Instead, the NFL keeps introducing silly rules that try to decrease serious hits, when in reality they are impossible to follow and ridiculously difficult to regulate. (Do you really think it is fair to make James Harrison decide in a fraction of a second whether a quarterback is about to release the football, and then manage his 270lb body that is flying at full speed to hit a narrow “safe zone” on a moving target? Well, I don’t.) All of these rules are just lipstick on a pig, an attempt to rearrange chairs on the Titanic. If the sport is to be saved, and I’m not sure it can, it has to be modified in a way that will make it not very recognizable to what it used to be.
(And for the record, football is at least three times more dangerous than the next most dangerous sport: girls’ soccer.)
An excellent write-up this past week by Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier examined the different possible ways that football will die as a sport. The quick way would be through legal action, as former athletes or parents of current players will sue leagues and schools for the damage that took place on the field. (The NFL has already faced three high-profile suits this year, and those were just the beginning.) It is not outlandish to imagine a state legislature in the next decade to pull all funding from school districts that maintain a football team. Then there are the economic issues: as the growing awareness of medical issues will cause insurance rates to skyrocket, thus making it impossible for schools to continue their football programs. And finally, and perhaps most importaning, parents will start realizing the risks that come with football, and will stop allowing their children to participate. Registration in youth football has already started to decrease, and I imagine that decrease will only continue. If the legal or economic issues don’t strike soon and offer football a quick death, it will only then suffer a slow decline as less and less youth enter the sport and it becomes, like boxing, a marginalized niche that will be predominantly filled by individuals from low-income families with poor schooling and little support.
But enough prognosticating of what parents, school districts, legislatures, and judges will do in the future. I’m more interested in the moral duties of us, the public consumers. For someone who, like me, finds serious problems with the current football culture, am I complicit in the debacle when I watch the Super Bowl? Are there moral issues concerning entertainment beyond being entertained? Because football players are using their own agency to participate in the sport, and are getting monetarily rewarded for their risks, does it justify our enjoying of their sacrifice? Am I justified in watching the Super Bowl, or in maintaining an irrational interest in the college football season? I often dismiss my concerns by explaining high school players are learning important life lessons, college players are getting free tuition, and NFL players receive a ridiculous salary…but these self-justifications always seem so, well, shallow.
I am haunted by how Malcolm Gladwell closed his brilliant and highly-recommended article on this issue. In response to a statement by Ira Casson, who heads an NFL committee investigating concussions, that it is ridiculous to think football will just stop, Gladwell wrote: “Casson is right. There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.” He then included this poignant excerpt from a scholarly work on dogfighting:
When one views a staged dog fight between pit bulls for the first time, the most macabre aspect of the event is that the only sounds you hear from these dogs are those of crunching bones and cartilage. The dogs rip and tear at each other; their blood, urine and saliva splatter the sides of the pit and clothes of the handlers. . . . The emotions of the dogs are conspicuous, but not so striking, even to themselves, are the passions of the owners of the dogs. Whether they hug a winner or in the rare case, destroy a dying loser, whether they walk away from the carcass or lay crying over it, their fondness for these fighters is manifest.
It’s these words that make me think that we perhaps need more consideration on the morals of watching football. And it is these words that make me feel guilty for, once again, giving in and watching the Super Bowl.