Another Season of Horror Kicks Off

The National Football League kicks off yet another season tonight — and with it, another season of severe brain damage for players. To confront the costs of football head on, we need solidarity between players and fans that can put the well-being of athletic workers first.

The line of scrimmage of the Cincinnati Bengals game against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Andy Lyons / Getty

The Amazon is ablaze, concentration camps line the nation’s borders, and a recession may be coming. Luckily for us all, tonight, the National Football League (NFL) season begins.

The only thing is, if you look just a little more closely, you might notice that the football circus is looking more like a horror show. That’s because, in order to produce the spectacle, the NFL is systematically sacrificing the futures of its employees in plain sight.

As the 2019 season gets under way, we are light years past the moment of plausible deniability, when “owners” and other profiteers (the television and sports media industries, just for starters) could claim they didn’t have the data to understand the cost of a career in professional football. Now they know, and we do too.

Researchers at Boston University conducted a study of the brains of former football players, including NFL-ers, and found that 110 of 111 of the players in their sample — over 99 percent — showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition associated with a host of symptoms of cognitive deterioration, not to mention increased aggression, depression, and suicidal ideation. Although one can point to a potential selection bias in the sample, the numbers are still beyond damning, suggesting as they do the near inevitability of brain damage as a reward for a career in professional football.

Indeed, recently, the executive director of Pop Warner football, in an attempt to mount a defense of the indefensible, children’s participation in football, inadvertently highlighted the scale of the problem by comparing it to two of the great medical scourges of the last half-century: asbestos and cigarettes: “[W]e have a duty to football. This means too much to people and has for so long we can’t turn our back on it. We figured out tobacco. We figured out asbestos. We’ll figure this out.”

Earlier revelations of this sort forced the NFL to agree to a settlement with former players in 2016. Yet the settlement itself has been deeply problematic, as Dom Cosentino at Deadspin has documented, paying out only 20 percent of claims for early or moderate dementia, although these claims make up 62 percent of the staggering 2,787 claims that have been submitted. The real kicker: the settlement only applies to players who retired by July 2014. But the rules of football didn’t substantively change in 2014, nor did the risks of participation. The legal rationale here, of course, is that now players know what they are signing up for — they are consenting to take on the certainty of brain damage.

That rationale is utter nonsense. Americans, particularly in the South, are being indoctrinated into the cult of football as early as five years old. They are being told that their ticket to otherwise inaccessible and profoundly unaffordable higher education is their ability to take and make hits. Above all, they are being told that the Super Bowl is essentially the highest end in this society to which they can aspire. These problems are compounded for black Americans who face discrimination throughout life. Eminent sociologist of sport Harry Edwards has declared that increasing knowledge about CTE and the persistent lack of opportunity for racialized youth in America mean “that it’s going to become a predominantly black league, because that’s who’s going to be playing football.”

And yet players who have been there and done that with respect to the NFL are beginning to signal with greater frequency that despite all the money, accolades, and social status that come from a career in pro football, it just flat out isn’t worth it. The most notable of these came less than two weeks before the start of the current season, when potential future hall of fame Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired mid-preseason game, despite still being near the height of his powers.

While players are cognizant of the stakes of their labor, the attitudes of consumers — the market that makes the spectacle viable — suggest a different disposition. I’m talking about fans, of course. After a dip in the previous two seasons, viewership numbers bounced back by 5 percent last year. But the real story is in the numbers themselves: an average 15.7 million people watch NFL football games. In addition,12.5 million people participate in fantasy NFL football. Thus, the fact remains that football is the most popular cultural form in America today. And that means that while fans and those who profit off the games without putting their bodies on the line know the cost to players, they don’t actually care. Or, at least, care enough to do something about it.

In my book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, I interviewed fans about their investments in professional sports, principally hockey. Although the sport is beset with a similar concussion crisis to that of the NFL, even the most empathetic of fans I spoke to found ways to rationalize the sacrifice. One told me,

I think, if I was watching a game and I saw a guy get hit and he hit his head, and he was killed, I think that would have a profound effect on me. Now, it’s come close and I’m still watching. But I was grossed out, I was appalled… I think if something happened which was related to an injury … that might cause me to decide I can’t watch this, even although I love it.

There is laudable sensitivity here to the plight of the athlete. But there is also a reluctance to stare reality straight in the eye. Because we already know that the violence that occurs in nearly every play of these games is violence that will leave lasting, devastating harm. These are deaths occurring in front of us — we’ve simply been trained not to see them.

It is too late to reverse the harm that has been inflicted on the legions of athletes who have been brutalized to produce entertaining spectacle. And, indeed, the managerial and ownership class of the NFL will never stop the flow of blood money as long as there are players to sacrifice and fans to celebrate (or ignore) it.

Given the perverse incentives that motivate those who pull the strings, it’s difficult to conceive of a solution. What’s clear is that as a society, we need to confront the costs of pro football head on and without flinching. What we need, then, is a new form of solidarity — between players and fans — that puts the well-being of athletic workers first and last. That’s the task that confronts all of those who love football this NFL season and beyond.