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National Football League

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?”