NFL teams are putting solar panels on their stadiums.
The league’s Play 60 campaign encourages kids to get active.
But the first obligation of a responsible business is to keep its workers safe.
The NFL hasn’t done that. The NFL won’t do that. The NFL can’t do that.
So I’m done with football.* I can’t and won’t watch it anymore.
Partly, this is personal. This summer, I’ve spent lots of time with baseball–my Washington Nationals have had an amazing year–and I need a break from sports. The choice between baseball and football is easy for me. As the late George Carlin said, famously (and you can read the whole routine here):
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.
…In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.
In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!
But it’s more than that. Even the casual football fan now knows that he or she is watching a very dangerous game, and not just because of the bone-jangling hits that bring cheering fans to their feet. Evidence is accumulating that extended careers in football, and the repeated blows to the head that they entail, make people sick. Players who sustain concussions are susceptible to long-term brain damage, in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. Their suffering has evidently led several ex-players to commit suicides.
[To be sure, more study is needed--for a skeptical view of the football-brain trauma connection, see this, as well as a detailed but informal analysis by Grantland found that football players live longer than baseball players. But I've seen enough to persuade me that football is unavoidably violent and dangerous.]
I wrote about the NFL and brain injury in 2007 and again in 2009 [See The NFL's tobacco moment]. But I remained a fan. I’m not sure why. I think it’s partly because of the way we experience football on TV. The players are hidden under their helmets. They move around on screen like performers in a video game, not flesh-and-blood human beings who are inflicting long-term damage on one another. We don’t think of them as sons and fathers, with wives, children and parents.
But anyone who pays even casual attention now knows about the pain and suffering that often come after the NFL. Consider:
The lawsuit. This is not a story about a handful of players who got hurt. More than 3,000 former players have joined dozens of lawsuits against the league, charging the NFL with years of negligence in its handling of concussions. The NFL ignored or minimized the problem for years.
The suicides. San Diego Charges star linebacker Junior Seau killed himself in May. His death came after the suicide the previous year of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson. Both shot themselves in the chest, and Duerson texted his family before doing so, explaining that he wanted his brain to be examined by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which studies post-mortem human brain and spinal cord tissue to better understand the effects of trauma on the human nervous system. Think about that for a moment.
The bounties. Unlike boxers, football players don’t intend to hurt one another–or do they? Last spring, we learned that the New Orleans Saints had a bounty program in which players were rewarded for violent hits on the field. I mean, if we are going to get upset about bonuses for investment bankers, shouldn’t we be even more disturbed by bonuses for NFL players who set out to injure their opponents?
The collateral damage: It’s not just retired former NFL players who are suffering. When former players like Jim McMahon, once the Chicago Bears QB, recently a cover boy on Sports Illustrated, become the walking wounded, their wives and girlfriends and parents and children all pay a terrible price.
It’s not just the NFL. College and even high school players are surely doing damage to themselves as well. The quality of coaching and medical care that they get can’t match that delivered to the pros. In an admittedly unscientific survey, blogger Matt Chaney (“Spiral of Denial’) chronicled 26 fatalities and 193 severe injuries from football last year.
None of this comes as a surprise. Players in big-time football colleges and in the NFL are bigger and faster. The hits are more lethal. Yes, football is artistry and ballet and strategy and game plans and Friday night lights and Saturday afternoon college rivalries and on-any-given-Sunday and all that, but in essence it is controlled violence. Being a football fan is being a fan of violence.
What finally persuaded me to give up football? Several weeks ago, I listened (as I often do) to the Slate sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen. A young sportswriter named Patrick Hruby explained why he was giving up football. Hruby, who has covered the concussion story, wrote a terrific piece called Game Over for the website Sports on Earth.
If you’re a football fan, read it. It’s long, but you can get through it during halftime. You may not want to go back for the second half. Here’s the part that grabbed me:
Brain damage destroys lives from the inside out. Destroys not only what people can do, but also who they are, now and forever. The harm is usually invisible, like an IED buried inside the skull, until it becomes plain. I can’t make peace with it. For much of the past two years, I’ve been reporting and writing on football’s concussion crisis — which is less a crisis than an everyday state of affairs, and hardly limited to concussions. (Big hits, little hits: They’re all an unavoidable part of football, and they all add up). I’ve met parents mourning the death of their teenage son; former players who get lost driving around their own neighborhoods; scientists describing in microscopic detail how proud, intelligent men become hollow, half-mad husks. I’ve learned that the NFL can be callous, and fans even more so, and that for many people, ignorance is bliss, even when it involves the health of their own children. Slowly, over time, I’ve found myself worrying more and enjoying football less; recently, I’ve come to feel that seeing people ruin themselves for entertainment’s sake — so my Saturdays and Sundays are a little more fun — isn’t just sordid. It’s ghoulish.
For me, at least, there is no more escape.
The guy can write. Slate linked to other writers who have examined the morality of football, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Will Leitch, Charles P. Pierce, Bill Simmons, and Dave Zirin. I spent about a hour reading, and a little more time thinking, and I then I knew it. I’m done.
A final thought: Lest you think that the NFL takes the brain-injury problem seriously, the league is talking about adding two more games to the schedule in 2013. This season, it has added weekly Thursday night games, which means less time to recover from pain. Here’s what Browns linebacker Scott Fujita says about that in the current issue of Sports Illustrated:
After you play on Sunday, you don’t start to feel normal again until Friday, Saturday morning. Thursday games are probably good for the bottom line, but they’re not good for the body.
The players, increasingly, understand the risks they are taken. Last spring, Jets linebacker Bart Scott became the latest to say he wouldn’t want his son to have to deal with “getting a concussion and what it would be like later in life.”
“I don’t want my son to play football,” Scott said. “I play football so he won’t have to.”
This is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a coal miner. Or a factory worker in China.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re an intelligent, socially-conscious person who paid attention to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia or to the suicides at Apple’s supplier Foxconn in China. Is the NFL any different?
I’m not starting a campaign here. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m not suggesting that colleges or high schools stop promoting the sport.
I’m just saying that — although I’ll miss football — I’m done.
* In the interests of full disclosure: I’ve hosted a Super Bowl party for family and friends for many years. I may do so again in 2013.
In a day or two, I’m going to share reactions to all this from an Internet executive and journalist who has studied brain injury (my brother), a sports historian (my college roommate) and a former all-state high school quarterback (my future son-in-law). I’ll also speculate a bit about the future of football.