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chronic traumatic encephalopathy

Can’t Watch Football Players Kill Themselves for Sport

Ever since I learned about the concussion risk associated with American football, I can’t in good conscience support the sport. Not only do these athletes risk their lives during the game, they risk serious brain injury, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the associated problems that can afflict them for the rest of their often too-short lives. It’s devastating to learn about the players to fall into drug addiction and/or attempt suicide.

Rams Football Field by Miss Wetzel’s Art Class from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The more I learn about the CTE and the widespread risk players seem to take, I feel like football is modern-day bullfighting. We watch players accept the substantial risk that participating in the sport will kill them, and this sport exists simply as entertainment. It’s a money-making scheme for the owners, the coaches, and hopefully the players. I suspect those in power have little regard for players once they are no longer contributing to the team’s winning record.

Although I have serious problems with this sport, it seems like a majority of fans are unfazed by disclosure of information about CTE. I kicked a simple anonymous survey to my football-loving friends to try to understand their perspective.

Out of the 30 people who responded to my questions, all of them knew that CTE is a problem facing NFL players. Eighty percent (24/30) knew about the research on the 111 NFL players brains that were tested for CTE – 110 of them were found to have it.

I asked my friends, “How do you feel about watching and loving a sport where it appears that every player except the kicker is likely getting brain damage while they’re playing the game and associated problems after they retire?” Many of them responded that professional players are adults who freely accept this risk (hopefully with full disclosure of the health consequences), just like people who choose to smoke, drive, or participate in other dangerous professions. Others said this situation bothers them and they will likely watch fewer games.

I also asked my friends, “What are your thoughts about players like John Urschel and A.J. Tarpley who retire early to preserve their health?” The overwhelming response was positive. They said these players were “smart” and that they “respect,” “applaud,” and “support” their decisions. One friend responded that these players, “made the best decision for themselves” because they suspected their “long-term financial success was going to be outside football.” Another friend said, “I think it is a great statement to others about the dangers of this sport.”

A friend pointed out a flaw in my questions. Since CTE currently can only be diagnosed post-mortem, we only know about the data in players who have had their brains examined. A lot more than 111 people have played professional football, so the information about how widespread this problem is among current players is speculative.

And I don’t disagree that football is fun – at least flag football – and many players professional and not, love this sport. I suspect most of them started as children, and participation gave them friends, heartwarming memories, and for some, academic and professional opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. With child athletes, it’s up to the parents to decide what activities their kids will do. Note: I’m not saying you’re a bad parent if you let your kid play football. I just hope you make educated decisions about what league they play in and what safety precautions are required. As a former gymnast, I can say when you fall in love with a sport so young, it’s hard to give it up, even when it’s in your best interest.

While others are getting excited for the upcoming Super Bowl, I cringe at the thought of players risking their lives for our entertainment. I don’t watch the game, and it makes me want to ask the sponsors and companies that run ads: “How can you feel good about making money off these players’ lives?”

Can’t in Good Conscience Watch the Super Bowl

I used to like football. I thought I wanted to play football in high school, but I was overruled by the adults in my life. But I played in the powder puff games in high school and played intramural flag football in during undergrad. It was fun.

Football was fun to watch . . . sometimes. The guys who play at the college and professional level are incredible athletes. And then I saw the movie, Concussion:

This film made me more aware of the dangers of repetitive head trauma facing football players. It can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that led to several players’ emotional downfall, and several committed suicide. I knew concussions were a risk in this sport, but I didn’t know it was this bad.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was portrayed by Will Smith in the film, estimates that 90% of NFL players have CTE. Unfortunately, this disease can only be diagnosed after death. What’s repulsive is the NFL seems to care more about the money than protecting players’ health and safety. I was pleased to see several players retire early after learning about the risks of CTE.

Knowing what I know, I can’t in good conscious support full-contact football. I can’t even attend a Super Bowl party because it’s based on supporting a sport that’s killing people.

I could support football again if they changed the rules to flag football. It would change the strategy of the game and what skills and abilities are valued in players. Baseball and basketball are comparatively low-contact sports and people enjoy them.

Goal Post 2 by Matt Denton from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I asked my friends what they thought of the idea of changing all American football leagues (pop warner – professional) to flag football rules. Some of their reactions were disconcerting:

  • Millions of Americans would lose their favorite means of acting physically aggressive by proxy.
  • I honestly think the vast majority of football fans are like the casual hockey fan – they watch to see the “hits”.
  • There would be way fewer head injuries. Many rabid football fans would also cry about their sport being corrupted by liberal worrywarts, no doubt.
  • It would not be worth watching.

I don’t understand how anyone can endorse and enjoy a sport that is slowly and painfully killing its players. Thankfully some of the responses had a different perspective:

  • It would probably be considerably less popular. But it also might attain a following a “strategy” game.
  • It would stop being a professional sport in the U.S. but would still be a popular sport for kids. I’m thinking something like volleyball in the U.S.
  • The sport would die (and it’s about time it did).

If that’s the price for keeping people alive, I’m ok with that. So, what will Rosie and I be doing this Sunday?

Yes, I’ll be gleefully working on my taxes.
“Gleefully” may be overstating it, but I’ll be happy when they’re done.