One Hit Too Many: The Moral Responsibility of Football Fandom

BY MARK DIAZ TRUMAN

I was a junior in college before football fandom got its hooks into me. A few friends and I bonded over my fledgling love for the Denver Broncos, one of the only sports teams close enough to my home state of New Mexico to catch my interest. On Sundays we would watch football all day at Hail Mary’s, a sleazy dive bar. We were the only college kids in sight, drinking cheap beer and eating terrible bar food with the locals.

Toward the middle of that season, the Broncos were forced to start Steve Beuerlein, their backup quarterback who had previously done well playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. During a game against the Minnesota Vikings, a star rookie defensive back caught Beuerlein as he was releasing a throw, knocking him against the Minnesota astroturf hard enough to crush the quarterback’s hand. Beuerlein stood up and held his mangled hand up in front him; it looked like he had two thumbs.[1] He could barely stand and had to be helped off the field. The pain must have been tremendous. I felt sick to my stomach.

When my friends and I turned back to our mozzarella sticks and cheap beer, we all tried to forget what we had seen. The National Football League (NFL) was happy to further obscure our memories, editing out the footage of Beuerlein’s mutilated hand from replays, showing us the hit again and again while leaving out Beuerlein’s tortured realization and his broken digits.[2] The announcers commended him for his bravery, and we all were thankful that nothing more serious occurred. It seemed so civilized.

I’ve learned since that it is precisely what the fans don’t see that shapes the game for professional football players. They get hurt and get back up again, hoping that the injury isn’t so bad that they are called out of the game. And only in those moments before the whole thing is sanitized and reprocessed do fans see the real horror that comes with the territory. We cheer for those who tough it out, who suffer through, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the damage that football players suffer stays with them long after their careers are over. Toughing it out, it turns out, can kill people.

 

Hidden Trauma: The Dangers of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

Recent research has shown that the routine hits football players take can lead to a form of early dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Beginning as headaches and depression, CTE is a degenerative disease arising from repetitive brain trauma that eventually leads to cognitive impairment and full-blown dementia. In other words, every football player, from the quarterback to the linebacker to the kicker, is at risk of enduring some of the worst kinds of brain damage a person can endure—while entertaining people just like me.

To be clear, I’m still a football fan. I spent most of 2011 keeping up with quarterback Tim Tebow’s hijinks in Denver, and I was crushed when the New England Patriots routed my Broncos at Foxboro in the second round of the playoffs that year. I almost bought tickets to that game, hoping that Tebow would pull off another late-game miracle while I stood in the freezing cold next to thousands of Patriots fans. Perhaps there was part of me that knew Tebow’s magic wouldn’t last the season, but I was a believer all the same. Denver’s wins were my wins; their losses were my losses.

The 2012 season was different. Even though the Broncos signed an elite quarterback in the offseason, I managed to catch only a few games. I found other things to do on Sunday afternoons, projects that needed tending on Monday nights. I kept up with my fantasy football league, but there was something keeping me from making football a priority.

I tried to downplay my lack of enthusiasm, but perhaps it’s time to be honest with myself: there is some nightmarish news coming out of professional football that’s making it hard for me to even watch the sport. Amidst the usual news of trades and locker room drama, a steady drip of suicides and damning research studies have revealed that professional football’s dark side doesn’t end with broken hands on rough plays. It ends in death.

 

CTE and Path Dependency

A moral accounting of football fandom used to have several open questions: Is the sport lethal? Are the players able to make informed choices about playing? Does our watching make us complicit?

The answer to the first question is now undeniably affirmative. The research on the brains of athletes, including Junior Seau, the acclaimed linebacker who shot himself in the chest last May, presumably to preserve his brain for exactly this sort of research, is conclusive: “Repetitive mild traumatic brain injury can trigger the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”[3] In other words, just playing professional football, a sport that requires you to slam into other players at full speed a few times a week, is highly correlated with a disease that leaves you with dementia, depression, and aggressive outbursts—a condition so debilitating that suicide seems like a reasonable response.

While we may find some sort of external factor responsible for CTE, the mounting evidence suggests that the normal course of professional football is literally killing people, destroying their brains, and leaving them unable to function. Worse yet, we have no immediate response that can make the game safer; rules intended to reduce the number of damaging hits are highly ineffective against routine trauma, and helmets may be making things worse by encouraging players to hit without fear of acute damage. The league’s response is woefully inadequate, amounting to little more than fines for tough hits—financial penalties that do little to address the everyday nature of the micro-injuries that can kill players. Like boxing, football can now be counted among the sports that are no longer safe to play, even when all known safety precautions are taken.

The research on CTE is game changing. We can easily accept athletes making decisions about their acute health, like Beuerlein’s broken hand, because their dangerous jobs are not all that different from those of dockworkers or crab fisherman. Society is not morally accountable every time someone picks up a profession that might result in injuries—as long as that choice is made with informed consent. The revelation that the routine exercise of the profession effectively kills people, however, should prompt us to reflect on whether or not the people involved can make informed choices about playing professional football. If they cannot, if it is unreasonable to expect the young men playing the sport to be able to consent to the damage they are almost certainly experiencing, then we need to rethink our role in perpetuating the system.

There is little doubt that professional football players are intelligent, driven individuals; they have pushed their bodies to a point of physical perfection and managed the social and intellectual challenges of participating in a team sport at the highest levels. We have few grounds to determine that, as a class of people, they are unable to make good decisions regarding their health and employment.

Yet, the path dependency of football, the way that professional players start training for the sport in their early teens, should challenge our preconceptions of consent on this issue. No one would assert that a twelve- or fourteen-year-old boy could possibly consent to the dangers of full contact football, and yet not only do they play it on a regular basis, but they also find themselves increasingly locked into a single career path as their skills improve.

Thus, the benign choices of children limit the men those children will become a few years later. Successful high school players become collegiate players with scholarships; successful collegiate players leave their universities without a wealth of skills in other fields. In other words, it’s not that these individual men can’t give consent to the possible dangers of football; no one who starts playing the game at the early age required for an athlete to develop professional skills can be expected to understand the long-term impacts of the game. The professional players who injure themselves on television every Sunday were once young men who did not understand the impact of their decisions.

Worse yet, many football players hail from economic conditions in which football may be one of the only perceptible ways out of poverty. Many of them view it as a burden to be endured, a set of life choices that are not ideal but necessary. Bart Scott, a former linebacker for the New York Jets, noted a few weeks after Seau’s death that he doesn’t want his son to play football, claiming that he would push noncontact sports to minimize the danger to his child. For Scott, the trade-offs were clear: “I play football so he won’t have to. With what is going on, I don’t know if it’s really worth it.”[4] After hearing that, it’s awfully difficult for me to believe that Scott, and others, would have chosen this life if they had felt other choices were available.

 

Difficult Choices

I was almost relieved this season when the Baltimore Ravens knocked my Broncos out of the playoffs in the second round. I didn’t catch the game. I just heard about the final score. When I did, I thought to myself, “I can look away. I don’t have to watch anymore.” I’m troubled by the fact that I feel like I have to have a reason to stop watching altogether, as if my fandom is a responsibility I must fulfill instead of a pastime I enjoy.

Of course, my cynical intuition as a football fan tells me that I’m not responsible for any of the damage players suffer. It’s not up to me what kind of safety procedures the league puts in place or how the players’ union decides to prioritize the issues facing its members. I’m surely one of millions of fans who lives in denial about the role I play in perpetuating a sport that is killing people. Yet, I also know that if I regularly purchased the products of a company whose employees were exposed to the routine and regular dangers that NFL players experience, I would think about finding some other place to make those purchases.

As fans, our eyeballs generate billions of dollars for the league. If we all stopped watching together, what could the NFL do? Of course, the likelihood of that happening is vanishingly small, as small as the players collectively deciding that they don’t want to risk the health consequences or the owners collectively deciding that they don’t want to expose so many young men to brain damage. The NFL is a cultural juggernaut, a perpetual motion machine that generates too much money, prestige, and fame to slow down at my behest.

Yet, a continuing failure to do anything about the crisis is no longer acceptable. The evidence is overwhelming. There is no “safe” way to play football, not when we aren’t even completely sure what in football causes CTE, but there are steps we could take now to save lives. The NFL could put independent doctors on the sidelines of every game to evaluate shaken-up players. They could provide additional support services to retired players, early treatments that could stop the slide into dementia and death. And more than anything else, they could set standards for youth leagues that could minimize how much damage is done before our children’s brains are fully formed. Failure to take action at this point is deeply unethical. It was one thing to not know and not act; we know enough at this point to demand a response.

But time moves slowly, and it is unfair to blame the NFL for the damage already done. There were signs earlier, indicators that all of the damage done by concussions might be lingering on, but the NFL is an enormous institution, a ship that is hard to right if it has gone off course. A consensus needs to emerge in the public, among the owners, and within the player group that things need to change for the sport to undergo the transformation that will save its soul.

Yet when I hear audio of the great Bernie Kosar, one of the league’s top quarterbacks in the mid-1980s, tearfully slurring his words when calling into a morning talk-radio show, I’m struck by how little support and kindness is given to men who turned their bodies into wrecking balls for our amusement.[5] They are too often regarded as a joke, dismissed as old men who never learned to live within their means when they were young and famous. Perhaps it’s outside of our own ability to think of them as so fragile; perhaps we view them as too grand, too great, to fall to such a petty thing as a broken brain. Perhaps the greatest change we could make is to simply demand that people acknowledge that the human body, even the human body of a professional athlete, is breakable in ways we can’t immediately see.

When the next season starts, I’m sure that I will try to lift up my spirits, as many other fans leap into action, and watch my favorite team. I’ll join my usual fantasy football league and watch the highlights even if I miss the weekly games. But I imagine there must come a point at which I will not be alone in my frustration with the league’s inability to address these issues, and difficult choices will have to be made by the players and owners alike. And if they are not made, perhaps we will all slowly find a better way to spend our Sunday afternoons.

Mark Diaz Truman is a 2013 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F.  Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Prior to attending graduate school, Truman worked as a social entrepreneur in his hometown, Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help low-income students reach college.

Photo source here.

 


[1] Dailymotion. 2011. Steve Beuerlein dislocates finger against Vikings, 2003. Video, 9 August.

[2] When I started writing this piece, I found out that play turned out to be Beuerlein’s final down in the NFL; that hit ended his career.

[3] McKee, Ann C. et al. 2012. The spectrum of disease in chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 2 December.

[4] Smith, Michael David. 2012. Bart Scott: I don’t want my son to play football. NBC Sports: ProFootball Talk, 26 May.

[5] Chase, Chris. 2012. Bernie Kosar makes rambling, incoherent appearance on Cleveland Radio. USA Today, 6 December.

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