The point after: Why I’m done with football

If we, as a society, have chosen to keep sugary sodas out of schools, why not football?

That was one of the reactions to yesterday’s blogpost, Why I’m done with football. In the post, I explained why, as a lifelong football fan (and co-author of a book about ABC’s Monday Night Football), I can no longer watch the game. Being a fan of football is being a fan of violence, and self-destruction.

The timing of the post, sadly, was good. It ran on the day when Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ star rookie quarterback, suffered a mild concussion. “Knocked out, left cold” was the headline atop The Washington Post sports page this morning.

After the blogpost ran, my friend Stuart Kerkhof asked by email:

You made it clear that your decision is personal in that you are simply choosing not to support/watch the sport. Does this mean you are against any government involvement? Does it matter whether it is professional versus amateur? If you think schools shouldn’t sell sugary sodas, certainly they shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor and glorify football?

That’s a tough one. Most people, I think, would be uncomfortable if middle schools and high schools had boxing teams. Is football really all that different?

I had a touching email from a reader named Rob Juneau who stumbled across the blog and suffered his own brain injury, although not from football:

Like most of us, I was a different person before my skull was partially caved in on a construction job and life-as-i-knew-it stopped. But I won’t bore you with how much I miss myself, how I lost four years, any sense of belonging and the dreams of a lifetime, or how hard the simplest things have become.

Instead, I want you to know I am aware of at least some of my great good fortune to be alive at all, and that I actually may have become a more powerful agent for beneficial change precisely because I can no longer be who I was.
You have inspired me by so publicly dumping on the shameful institutionalization of brain damage as entertainment.
I asked several friends and relatives to respond because each brings a useful perspective to the issue. As the executive director of WETA Learning Media, my brother Noel Gunther oversees Brainline, a website about preventing, treating and living with chronic brain injury that is funded, in part, by the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Noel has reported on athletes and concussions. He writes:

Violence isn’t just a by-product of football—it’s at the heart of the game. There’s no helmet that can prevent a brain from banging against a skull, no pill that can heal a brain injury after the fact. As the NFL starts to rein in the violence, it’s diluting its product too. New rules mean that most kickoffs result in touchbacks–substituting a boring non-play for what was often the most exciting play of the game. New protocols are keeping star players off the field once they’re injured: Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets recently missed two games with a “mild” concussion that he would have played through just a few years ago. Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins was hurt today and immediately pulled from the game. When top players sit out, the quality of play tails off.

And while the league is now doing a better job of protecting its players, there’s a limit. The sport is inherently dangerous. The brain injuries will continue. There will be more Jim McMahons in years to come. Unlike Marc, I still watch pro football, but it’s become harder for fans like me to follow the game without feeling complicit in the violence. The NFL is still wildly successful, but I think more fans will start to turn away.

And ultimately I think football’s biggest problem is not at the professional level. It’s among the people we hear form every day at BrainLine: the teenagers who get hurt playing high school football, the friends who worry about them and—most of all—their parents. The problem shows up in the auditorium of Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, which recently held a forum of brain injury. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. Five years ago, nobody would have come. This year, though, with concussions in the news, the auditorium was filled with the parents of kids who had already been hurt. One mother named Lisa told me about her son, a wide receiver who had sustained a “mild” concussion a year before. “He still gets headaches,” she told me. “He’s not sleeping. There are days when he can’t do his homework, days when he can’t concentrate at all.” Lisa said that, regardless of what his doctors says, she will never let him play again. His younger brother will never start. They can play tennis or run track, but the family is done with football. How long will it be until Whitman and other high schools start deciding that football is not worth the risk, not worth the toll on all those young men?

The NFL can pay off its former players and protect its current ones a little better. It can vastly improve its health and pension plans. But it can never buy back Lisa or her friends in that auditorium. They, and many of us, will likely move on and for now at least there’s nothing the league can do.

Is pro football facing decline? There’s no evidence that indicates that fans are turning away. To the contrary, a preseason Washington Post poll found that 44 percent of fans say their interest is on the rise, and that football is three times as popular as baseball. The economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier earlier this year wrote a fascinating story for Grantland, called What Would the End of Football Look LIke, in which they lay out a scenario in which liability suits are won against colleges and high schools, parents keep their kids away from the game, some high schools drop the game, followed by Ivy League colleges, then California and the Big Ten, and sponsors gradually pull away. Americans have turned away from sports before–boxing and horse racing were once hugely popular, so I asked sports historian Warren Goldstein what he thought. Warren, my good friend and former college roommate, is co-author with Elliot Gorn of A Brief History of American Sports. He told me:

Football has been, more than anything else in American culture, a kind of juggernaut. It took over higher education at the turn of the 20th century. It’s at the center of collegiate social life. It runs the NCAA. It dominates the sports pages like no other sport. It’s pretty clear that sportswriters and sports pages can’t wait to start covering football. Baseball is a trickle in the spring. Football is a full flood by early August. It has completely crossed racial and class lines. Wall Street brokers and commodities traders watch football as much as African-Americans and working class. The NFL has been the most brilliant marketer. And football has pioneered new forms of being televised and promoted. It left baseball 40 years ago and never looked back.

The only thing that I see that could have an effect is if parents decide that they don’t want their kids getting killed. But parents would have to fight against an establishment that is so enormous. I don’t see them getting organized to make that happen. I can see upper middle class white parents deciding that they don’t want their children paying football. I cannot see working class parents making that decision. It remains one of the few ways their kids can get athletic scholarships. Too much of their social lives and cultural identification seems to be bound up not only with football itself — tailgating, watching games — but also a narrative of their own masculinity and gender identity.

I have a hard time seeing football dying.

Finally, I reached out to my soon-to-be son-in-law Eric Bacaj, who was a star high school quarterback for University High School, in Morgantown, West Virginia, and later played at Denison University, where he met my daughter Rebecca. A big-time Washington Redskins fan, Eric writes:

I still remember images from the video we watched every year before the first day of contact in Pop Warner football, up through high school. It showed violent collisions, ending with a player lying motionless on the field. The message was clear: There is a risk to playing this game. Just because you walked onto the field did not mean that you would walk back off.

The risk of paralysis is not the same risk that today finds itself in the headlines, but the point remains the same. We, as players, knew that there were serious injury risks that we were taking in playing football, and we decided that playing was worth the risk.

I believe remaining a football fan is justified. As a fan, I understand that the players evaluated the likelihood of injury when they decided to play. Hits that comply with the rules tend not to be as damaging to a player’s health.

I can live with the players’ choice to play football. (Sitting in a chair behind a desk all day has long-term harmful effects.) The benefits players receive are real and great. Many play for years without suffering long-term effects. Football is a violent sport, but a beautiful sport. The end-game is not destruction. The players are not gladiators. They choose to play. I choose to watch.

So there you have it. Your thoughts?

Comments

  1. Professional Football’s success is tied to the success of advertising-driven television and content in many ways. It’s a juggernaut because so much of the rest of advertising-driven television is dying on the vine or drastically changing in the face of time-delaying and the like – but not football, where watching it live is still hugely important.

    As long as that continues to be the case, and the sport continues to generate tons of money, you’ll continue to get a steady stream of players into the sport (even if many of them are from poorer backgrounds). Moreover, I don’t think the comparison with boxing is as apt as it is with football. Much of boxing’s popularity was dynamited by decades of corruption in the sport, something which doesn’t really exist to the same level as in football.

    Personally, I’ll continue to watch despite its violence – I’m with your son-in-law. There’s something entrancing about football that I’ve never felt while watching either Basketball or Baseball, and only once when watching World Cup soccer. I think I might have felt the same thing when I was a young teenager playing little league football versus little league baseball and basketball.

    • Marc Gunther says:

      Brett, good point about the distinction between boxing and football. Corruption played a big part of boxing’s downfall. Plus, the violence in the sport is in-your-face in a way that football violence is not. The helmets, pads do make football players safer.

      Of course I can’t disagree when you say that football is exciting!

  2. I’ve never been a fan of commercial sports. If people are paid a great deal of money and want to take the risks I can’t argue with that. However, thousands of kids up to college and pro levels who have no rational potential to cash-in still face significant risks of brain and other injury. I can’t justify that for the future entertainment of people sitting on couches.

  3. Amon Rappaport says:

    Marc,

    Thanks so much for taking a great personal and journalistic approach to this issue. It’s timely for me too: just today I learned that my 17-year old cousin Danny, a star QB at Bullis High not far from you, had his arm broken in a game last weekend. He’s out for the season and probably won’t play again, despite the fact that colleges were already recruiting him. While he’s devastated, the whole family is secretly glad that he’s side-lined by a broken bone now, and won’t endure concussions or worse down the road….

    Thanks, Amon

  4. Really interesting discussion, thank you for articulating your thoughts.

    I’m inclined to agree with Eric. As a long term player and fan of football I’m aware of the risk I, and every athlete in the NFL, takes every time they step on the field. It comes down to risk vs reward and that’s a choice each individual has to make.

    I completely respect your right to decide that this is the end of your time as a football fan, and fully expect a lot more people to follow your decision. However with the global expansion of the game at it’s current rate, I think there’ll always be more fans to take the place of any that leave.

  5. I left a comment on Marc’s article “Why I’m Done with Football,” about the suicide of my grandson after a concussion sustained during a football game. I won’t repeat it here; I only want to say that as long as there’s money to be made, the leagues will continue to support the game. There will always be the bloodlust in society that will keep it, and other violent sports like boxing, alive. I think it’s up to the athletes themselves. We have to take a certain amount of responsibility for our own safety, and until players refuse to take these risks, there will be people who will watch, and promoters who will promote.

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