The worst thing about pro football is not its wife-beating, gun-toting, child-beating players, or that the league happily has been willing to ignore these little flaws while promoting such flawed men as heroes to America’s young. Nor is the worst thing about pro football the fact that one of its teams has a politically incorrect nickname. No, the worst thing about pro football is that it makes billions from inducing young men to cripple their cognition long before nature would even consider doing it to them, and corrupts its huge national audience by inducing it to not only cheer this process, but pay for it.
Sally Jenkins, in a frank, stark column for the Washington Post, compared the NFL to the coal industry of yore, when minors were dying of black lung and terrible working conditions, and the government had to step in:
Since the NFL insists on behaving like the coal industry circa 1969, the only solution to its problems is for Congress to step in and regulate the business of these 32 billionaire plunderers. This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs brain bank announced that 76 out of 79 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. The price for owning a team just went up. Jerry Jones, Bob Kraft, Dan Snyder, Steve Bisciotti and all the rest, if you want to enrich yourselves at the expense of the ravaged health of others, be prepared to pay for it. Your future is endless litigation and government interference.
The CTE thunderbolt follows closely on the league’s callous handling of domestic violence cases. A new raft of medical investigations and lawsuits say that CTE caused some of these devastating domestic explosions, such as Jovan Belcher’s 2013 murder-suicide. CTE leads to aggression, paranoia, impaired judgment and depression….Here’s the deal: Concussions are the black lung of the NFL. And the league knows it.
Sure it does, but my problem is, so do its fans. The nation needed coal, still needs it in fact, so regulating that industry was reasonable, imperative, and practical. The country doesn’t need to have a deadly sport to watch every Sunday (Thursday, Monday…). Once it could claim that it was innocent, that helmeted players were protected, and that the tragically crippled were aberrations. Not any more.
The NFL has become a public health issue, and that’s not an overstatement. Here’s why: The league is spending $45 million to sponsor tackle football for children. The league encourages small boys to participate in an activity that beats their heads to pulp and persuades parents that such a thing is okay in order to keep the participation pipeline going. Via the USA Heads Up program, it preaches that tackling technique can limit the risk of head injuries in football — despite the fact that not an iota of science supports that claim. On the contrary, the science shows that tackle football for kids is incredibly harmful. A Virginia Tech project demonstrated that the impact of helmeted 7-year-olds is similar in force to that of college players. Brain expert Robert Cantu has been insisting, in vain, for years that we need a helmeted age limit. The NFL has chosen to build its brand on the broken heads of kids.
I agree that, as this site notes often, when ethics fails, the law steps in. But Jenkins is wrong: the law can’t, or won’t, fix this problem by regulation. As it has in the case of cigarettes, it will, at most, carefully, incrementally, slooooowly attempt to strangle a billion dollar industry with lots of voting consumers, and who knows how many will suffer horribly in the meantime? Congress and regulators don’t have the guts to make football acceptably safe, and the NFL is happy to keep destroying its players brains as long as it is obscenely profitable to do so. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators, meanwhile, use their considerable influence to mock and block any efforts to acknowledge that what is happening on gridirons is a serious problem, calling criticism and calls for reform part of a feminist-driven, progressive war on football. Because it’s a guy thing, you know. Defense!
Football fans like watching athletes get hit, hard, including in the head. We now know, as we once did not, that helmets don’t protect the brain enough, and may even make some injuries worse. Taking away head trauma changes football into something else, something that won’t make nearly as much money for owners, beer sellers, fantasy football entrepreneurs, TV executives, sponsors and merchandisers. Changing football at the college level won’t be permitted by the fat-cat alums who live vicariously though their alma mater’s touchdowns, lord knows why. Maybe if mothers stand up to Homer Simpson dads and refuse to allow their sons—and maybe daughters—to be fed into football’s maw, channeling them instead into some of the many sports that don’t leave its competitors drooling at 45, there won’t be enough players to keep the game cruising profitably. I doubt it.
That doesn’t mean that you, dear reader, or I, or anyone else who can distinguish right from wrong, has any excuse for being part of the carnage.
By sheer coincidence, there is going to be a very engaging, complex and ethically provocative professional sport showing its very best on the television over the next month or so. It doesn’t cripple anyone, except for an arm or a knee now and then. Its players seem to avoid arrest with remarkable success, and the game itself embodies excellent cultural values. The sport is called baseball, and you can watch it without being ashamed.