Football is over — for good?
For Christmas, I received two New England Patriots-themed gifts: a winter hat with the team’s logo on it and a hooded sweatshirt just like the one coach Bill Belichik wears on the sidelines, minus the cut-off sleeves.
The sweatshirt is nice and warm and I wear it at home. I wear the hat when I ski and go for walks, and hope people don’t throw rocks at me or yell nasty things. Up until last weekend, when the Patriots were summarily embarrassed on their home turf and sent packing, I was proud to wear this hat. Now I feel a little silly when I put it on.
The Patriots’ loss marked the end of the NFL season for me. Yes, I’m bitter. And I hate the Baltimore Ravens.
But there’s more to it. I’ve become increasingly troubled by football and what we’re learning about the game’s impact on players. I’ve enjoyed watching games this season, but as the season has progressed, I’ve also felt increasingly guilty.
My guilt peaked early last week when researchers at UCLA reported that signs of the crippling degenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, had been identified in living ex-NFL players for the first time. Using brain scanning technology, the researchers detected the presence of an abnormal protein associated with CTE, which is linked to dementia, memory loss and depression, and is triggered by repeated head trauma, such as concussions.
The study represents a possible breakthrough in the effort to understand CTE.
Right now, the disease can only be confirmed by examining the brain after death, but the researchers believe their findings suggest that it will soon be possible to diagnose CTE in living patients.
The study was released less than two weeks after former NFL linebacker Junior Seau was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. Seau, a Hall of Fame-caliber player who spent 20 years in the league, killed himself last May at the age of 43, just four years after retiring. His family has since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL, accusing it of “acts or omissions” that hid the dangers of repetitive blows to the head.
“We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior,” the lawsuit states. “But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations.”
These are laudable goals.
But football is a violent game.
How safe can you make it?
And do fans care enough about player safety and health to demand changes?
Earlier in the season, I mentioned my growing unease about football to the New England Sports Fan Friend. We were watching a game, of course, and enjoying ourselves immensely. “What do you think of all this research showing that football is causing brain damage and depression?” I asked.
“NFL players are modern-day gladiators,” he said, seemingly unconcerned.
“But if you had a son, would you really want him playing tackle football?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Tackle football is a lot more fun than touch football,” he said.
A few months later, when I swung by the New England Sports Fan Friend’s house to watch the Patriots take on the Texans, he was singing a slightly different tune. The Junior Seau news had just broken and he was bothered by it, as was I. But it didn’t exactly ruin our enjoyment of the game. We had a great time watching the Patriots win, as usual.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates decided to give up watching football this year in response to Seau’s suicide.
A lifelong fan, he described his decision as a personal choice in his blog for The Atlantic magazine, writing, “I’m not here to dictate other people’s morality. I’m certainly not here to call for banning of the risky activities of consenting adults. And my moral calculus is my own. Surely it is a man’s right to endanger his body, and just as it is my right to decline to watch.”
In response to the report about the brain scan study, he predicted that football would eventually go the way of, well, gladiators. “I don’t know if this will change anything, right now,” he wrote. “But telling a player ‘You have CTE’ is a lot different than ‘You stand some chance of developing it.’ ”
I’ve defended my continued enthusiasm for football by noting that the players are consenting adults. But lately I’ve been wondering whether I should follow Coates’ lead — give up a game that appears to destroy people. It’s a fun game to watch. But isn’t that fun somewhat diminished by the fact that brain injuries that can lead to an early death are occurring right in front of my eyes?
Last week my friend Adam noted that in his school district, the “kids with engaged parents” do not play football, opting instead for less dangerous sports such as soccer and lacrosse. “I wonder when the whole game of football will fall off the map,” he wrote in an email. “Already I hear that fewer and fewer kids are signing up for football.”
It goes without saying that Adam’s fourth-grade son doesn’t play football. But it’s not like Adam has given up the game. He has a fantasy team each year, and when we talked he expressed plans to watch at least some of the playoff games. Similarly, I do football picks each week, watch a fair number of games and get excited for the playoffs. But as the bad news about football continues to mount, I find myself questioning the morality of being a football fan.
Whether I’ll ever stop watching football remains to be seen.
It’s the most popular sport in America and I enjoy reading about it and talking about it with friends and family; if I gave it up, I wouldn’t be able to engage in those conversations. But if I had a son, he wouldn’t be playing football, that’s for sure.
So I don’t know.
Perhaps I’ll give up football when Tom Brady retires and the Patriots enter their inevitable decline.
But that seems like taking the easy way out.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.