Abstaining From Football For The Super Bowl

Steve Almond, lover of football, writes for the NYT Magazine about why he won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year:

Recently, though, medical research has confirmed that football can cause catastrophic brain injury — not as a rare and unintended consequence, but as a routine byproduct of how the game is played. That puts us fans in a morally queasy position. We not only tolerate this brutality. We sponsor it, just by watching at home. We’re the reason the N.F.L. will earn $5 billion in television revenue alone next year, three times as much as its runner-up, Major League Baseball.

…Just so we’re clear on this: I still love football. I love the grace and the poise of the athletes. I love the tension between the ornate structure of the game and its improvisatory chaos, and I love the way great players find opportunity, even a mystical kind of order, in the midst of that chaos.

The problem is that I can no longer indulge these pleasures without feeling complicit.

Maybe from now on when I have to tell someone I don’t like watching football I will tell them I’m morally opposed. That’s a quick way to make friends, right?

There are two basic rationalizations for fans like myself. The first is that the N.F.L. is working hard to make the game safer, which is flimsy at best. The league spent years denying that the game was causing neurological damage. Now that the medical evidence is incontrovertible, it has sought to reduce high-speed collisions, fining defenders for helmet-to-helmet hits and other flagrantly violent play. Its most significant response has been to offer $765 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by more than 4,500 former players, but a judge recently blocked the settlement. It simply wasn’t enough money.

The second argument is that players choose to incur the game’s risks and are lavishly compensated for doing so. This is technically true. N.F.L. players are members of an elite fraternity that knowingly places self-sacrifice, valor and machismo above ethical or medical common sense. But most start out as kids with limited options. They may love football for its inherent virtues. But they also quickly come to see the game as a path to glory and riches. These rewards aren’t inherent. They arise from a culture of fandom that views players as valuable only so long as they can perform.

Almond goes on to talk about the way many professional sports “monetize hypermasculinity” and serve as an ethically sanctioned way to live out our wartime fantasies of aggression and so on. It is worth a read, if you care about this stuff, and if you have any of your ten free articles left for the month!

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8 Comments / Post A Comment

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

There are similar issues in hockey– right now ten players are suing the NHL over the brain injuries they’ve sustained over the course of their careers.

I don’t know how to embed, but here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/sports/hockey/retired-players-sue-nhl-over-head-injuries.html?_r=0

RiffRandell (#4,774)

@wrappedupinbooks Interesting article. I am more knowledgeable of college level hockey, where you are penalized (for only 2 min, which seems minimal) for head contact. I wonder about recommended helmet replacement- how long and how many hits before you replace them?

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

@RiffRandell I’m not sure if there are any, or if there are, they’re not talked about. Of course, I’m mostly familiar with youth/high school/juniors level play, because of my brother and his friends. At that level, you get in really big trouble for head contact. From my understanding, the NHL’s biggest problems are surrounding the guys who make a career out of being an “enforcer.” Generally, when those guys fight the helmets come right off anyway.

Full disclosure, my limited knowledge of this topic stems from my brother’s experiences. Unlike his buddies, he chose not to pursue hockey after high school in part because he had already sustained two nasty concussions from regular play (not fighting), and has the sense to know that his brain is his long-term meal ticket.

I started watching MMA fights (on TV) when I started dating my boyfriend, and surprisingly to myself, I enjoyed them. But there have been some scary injuries and just this weekend when we had free passes to a boxing match, I hesitated, because I was afraid it might be too real, too visceral to see the fights in person. Realizing that, I feel conflicted about watching fights on tv anymore.

Kthompson (#1,858)

I work at a journal specializing in neurosurgery, and we print a ton of articles about concussions. It really has changed my view of football. And we see it so young, so many reports of kids in middle school and high school, let alone college and pro players. Even one blow at a formative age can have devastating consequences on a developing brain. We’ve had reports of kids brain damaged, unable to walk or communicate, or even worse, comas and later death. It’s rare, sure, but it’s so easy to fix: no football.

Of course, concussions occur in lots of sports–we’ve also had reports on ice hockey, soccer, baseball, cheerleading, auto racing, and lacrosse, to name a few. But the most happen by far and away in football. Of course, they happen in every day life too–falls in the elderly, motor vehicle accidents, abuse cases. You can’t eliminate concussions entirely. And I’ve heard some people on the internet use that as logic for supporting football. “You can get a concussion riding your bike to work–should we eliminate that? You can get a concussion falling out of bed or having rough sex, so what should do about that? So we might as well just watch football.” All true. But football is so…superfluous. It’s one thing to eliminate a purposeless game and greatly diminish the amount of concussions and physical damage in young men (and women), but another entirely to talk about wrapping yourself in bubble wrap and padding the streets in rubber. Which seems more feasible? Neither, really.

The problem isn’t the helmet. It doesn’t matter how great a helmet your wearing. THe problem is this: your brain is sort of floating in your skull. When you head butt into a 300 pound immovable object, your skull stops moving, but your brain keeps going. Back and forth, sloshing around until it’s stew. It doesn’t matter how safe a helmet they make–we don’t see skull problems, we see brain problems.

garli (#4,150)

@Kthompson So if you’ve never had a concussion diagnosed can you assume that you are not collecting these consequences?

OllyOlly (#669)

@Kthompson I played soccer in high school and one of my teammates got a concussion during a game. It really terrified me! I completely lost my ability to hurtle my head towards punts and the like and then lost my starting spot on the team. Perhaps I shouldn’t regret it.

garli (#4,150)

Does anyone have interest in discussing this point:

The second argument is that players choose to incur the game’s risks and are lavishly compensated for doing so. This is technically true. N.F.L. players are members of an elite fraternity that knowingly places self-sacrifice, valor and machismo above ethical or medical common sense. But most start out as kids with limited options. They may love football for its inherent virtues. But they also quickly come to see the game as a path to glory and riches. These rewards aren’t inherent. They arise from a culture of fandom that views players as valuable only so long as they can perform.

I think there’s a lot in there to explore.

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