Why I’m done with football

No one can say that the NFL doesn’t take its corporate responsibility seriously.

NFL teams are putting solar panels on their stadiums.

The NFL supports the fight against breast cancer.

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.

Comments

  1. Marc – thanks for writing this.
    While I am not walking away from football completely, these issues have caused me to feel that the game either has to change, or it will eventually fade away. I would like to think that that’s true, although the ongoing relevance of boxing gives me little optimism that human beings are prepared to move away from blood sports that we really should have dropped a long time ago.
    And I say this even though my Angels are not able to distract me into October this year, like your juggernaut Nationals…

  2. Two words.. Okay 3…tulanes Devon walker.

  3. Well said, Marc. Too bad there is so much money involved. Greed overshadows smarts in cases like this.

  4. Jeff Weintraub says:

    Great post, Marc. I played football in junior high and high school (well, maybe it’s more accurate to say I was on the team. I’m not sure one could call what I did “playing.”) Our high school team was always among the top-ranked in the state, and we won the state championship my senior year. I sincerely believe our coaches did everything they could to keep us safe and were sophisticated in their approaches to our well being.

    But 1) we were a pretty wealthy school with unusually good coaching. I can’t imagine that most of the other programs in the country were doing what we were.

    2) In spite of this, our coaches still inspired an aggressive (I won’t say “killer”) spirit in all of us. For example, every week they gave out what they called “The Big Hit of the Week Award,” which recognized someone who put a big (but clean) “stick” on the opponent. It was a big deal. They’d put the awardee’s picture on a large poster in the locker room, and I seem to recall they even publicized it (along with other weekly awards) on morning announcements to the whole school. So much for their compassion, eh? Well, you could say that.

    But the real point is that aggressiveness — or let’s call it violence — is inherent to the game. It’s inescapable. So, in a way, it’s corrupted from the start. That’s your point. Much of the game is beautiful, like when the receiver makes the elegant one-handed catch of the perfectly timed pass from the quarterback. But, unless he makes it to the end zone or the sideline untouched, that sequence will always end with a collision, sometimes one that you can hear from the top row of the stadium. That is how the game is played, and, yeah, it’s hard to believe we supposedly enlightened moderns sit back and cheer it on.

    Jeff

    • That’s a great point about the “Big Hit of the Week,” Jeff. I think it’s hard to encourage “aggressive” play which is an important part of the game without at the same time adding to the risk factor for players.

      Plus, it’s safe to assume that the trainers and coaches at the college and especially high school level lack the training of the medical staffs in the NFL. I’m told (but can’t be sure) that teenage brains that are still developing are also especially vulnerable to head injury.

  5. Jeff Weintraub says:

    PS: I also find all the commercials annoying
    Jeff

  6. Well said Marc. However, I don’t think this game and other violent games (like hockey, ultimate fighting, etc) will ever change or be gone. While reading this post, I started thinking that although people know these activities are dangerous, human beings for years and from all around the world enjoy to watch this type of sports, activities and etc. Why is that? Think about how many people enjoy or enjoyed watching violent sports such as hockey, boxing, bullfighting, football, etc. And we have been doing that for many years, think about the Gladiators – from the Roman Empire. I believe the problem is more with us who still watch this type of violence and not with NFL and other leagues.

  7. Bob Fleshner says:

    Marc:

    Great post! I truly believe that by the time my 21 year old football fan son is my age, the NFL as we know it won’t exist. There is going to be an avalanche of concussion and other serious injury related information. It’s no longer about who’s best either, it’s about who can avoid injury the longest.

  8. Jacob Bagge says:

    Switch to soccer, a non-violent game for all ages and sexes

    • Soccer players also experience many concussions and I wouldn’t call it a non-violent game. Straight from the CDC: “Overall, the activities associated with the greatest number of TBI-related ED visits included bicycling, football, playground activities, basketball, and soccer.” Also, soccer is the #1 cause of TBIs for high school girls. http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/sports/facts.html

  9. Nancy Metcalf says:

    Marc,
    My brother played high school football many years ago, and although I don’t believe he ever had a concussion, he had other injuries — a broken cheekbone (as in bad enough to be hospitalized) from being at the bottom of a pileup wearing a helmet that was too small; and, most damagingly, a torn-up knee. The medical practice of the day was to do open surgery to take out pretty much all the cartilage, and he had a full-leg cast on for weeks afterwards. You can imagine what that knee is like now that he is in his 50s. My mother eventually stopped attending his games. I remember her having epic arguments with my father, who gloried in his son’s small-town sports stardom.

    When my brother had a son of his own, he refused to permit him to play.

  10. RFID technology exists today to automatically track and monitor concussive force by placing wireless sensors in the troops’ helmets. The US Army is using this technology to pull troops out of the line if they’ve experienced a concussive blow – even if the troops aren’t aware of it. The Army is making proactive efforts to address this problem and protect its troops. The NFL, college, high school and other levels can do the same.

    • gala spanogians says:

      most teams (especially in high schools that aren’t anywhere close to “wealthy”) can’t even provide adequate equipment, who’s paying for this?

  11. Chuck Palmer says:

    There’s two parts to this ethical issue: One, as you point out, they have to better protect the players. But secondly, they have to compensate the players for the damage that is done. Unfortunately, in workers’ compensation law in every state, workers are compensated only for their loss in earning capacity and medical coverage. The only workers who get compensated for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life are railroad and maritime workers, thanks to federal legislation. So until the owners pay the workers for the damages their workers suffer, their losses are just one more uncompensated external cost.

  12. My grandson, a high school football and track star, ended his life in January by driving his pick-up into the path of an on-coming train. He’d suffered a concussion in a football game on Labor Day weekend. We don’t have proof that the concussion caused his impulsive, destructive behavior, but there was no sign of depression or any reason to suspect he might do something so rash. It appeared that he had recovered completely from the concussion.

    We play eight-man football here in Missouri, and it has become a joke. Two small schools in our conference went to eight-man years ago because they didn’t have enough players for 11-man teams. We had to travel some distances to find other eight-man teams. Within a few years, all the teams in our conference had gone to eight-man football. Now we have teams with as many as 30 players, playing eight-man football. There’s no way a team with 12 players can compete–the big teams can run in a whole new team each quarter, while our boys are worn out because they have to play the whole game. Of course they’re more prone to injury.

    This may not be a matter for this discussion–it should be addressed by our state’s athletic association. But I don’t believe it ever will be, nor will it be addressed by the NFL or by any college athletic association. As others have stated, society is too bloodthirsty to allow these games of violence to be banned.

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