Growing up in small-town Alabama has made me intimately familiar with the importance our country assigns to football. Between the NCAA and NFL, football dominates over half of the nights of the week. Given this level of fanaticism, it should be clear that my ideas expressed herein are not popular, but the evidence of the health impacts and their implications for inequality compel me to write.
While it only takes moments of watching football to observe injuries like buckled knees, focus has been shifting to those injuries that are more difficult to perceive with the naked eye. Specifically, conversation has turned to concussions and the long-term effects of sustaining impacts to the head over years of playing football. PBS produced a documentary outlining the mounting research, Hollywood produced a blockbuster telling the doctor’s story of first connecting football and the health effects, and CBS 60 Minutes produced a segment revealing how the NFL is combating these effects. Interestingly, this aired minutes after the station wrapped hours of coverage of the sport.
Information has been spreading for a few years about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative brain disease found in people with repeated trauma to the head. Traditionally associated with the sport of boxing due to blows from opponents, it has recently been found in football players.
Much of the 60 Minutes piece was dedicated to outlining the efforts that agencies within the football community have made to reduce the head impacts and concussions that are associated with CTE. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that restrictions on the quantity and duration of full-contact practices have led to a decrease of concussions amongst high school players. The NFL has changed the location for kickoffs to deter attempts to return the kick because of the danger. They have also made doctors available on sidelines and in press boxes to search for signs of concussions. Still, I was shocked to hear the commissioner, Roger Goodell, boast of the reductions in concussions after 60 Minutes revealed that NFL reports an average of six concussions per week. That means that in about half of the games played, one player suffers a concussion. Beyond that, though, the Boston University researchers leading the CTE research indicate that repeated blows to the head, even below the level of a concussion, can contribute to CTE development.
Perhaps the most troubling portion of the 60 Minutes segment was the interview with former Baltimore Raven Ed Reed. When asked whether he would still play given the research, he invited the reporter to notice the benefits the game had provided. He drew attention to the money and lifestyle he obtained for his family. This is where we must consider the ethical ramifications of our infatuation with football, and similarly with boxing. Fans devote so much money to these sports that even with grave concerns about health and safety, the money is able to entice individuals to sacrifice their bodies and their minds to obtain a piece of the financial reward. Perhaps when we provide enormous salaries to players, we are not providing motivation to perform at a higher level, but we are instead paying them to take increasing risks with their wellbeing so that we are entertained. People claim that boxing is different than dog fighting because boxers willingly participate. However, with the societal structures that keep people impoverished, one might successfully argue that by enticing people with inordinate sums of money, we really deny them the option to decline.
I appreciate that people at all levels of the sport are making an effort to improve player safety, but improvements are not occurring quickly enough. According to Huffington Post, over 100 high school students have died in the past decade directly due to football injuries. The NFL boasts of the money it invested in researching CTE, but it pales in comparison to the billions of dollars that the league takes in. Perhaps if they invested some more of that money in player safety, the salaries would not need to be so high to convince players that it was worth the risk to their lives and wellbeing. It would be nice to watch the sport my friends and family members love without feeling guilty of contributing to the degeneration of young men’s brains.