Full disclosure: I still do love the NFL. I love professional football. I love watching it, I love playing fantasy, I love reading about it and obsessing about it during the offseason.
But recently a friend who I had grown accustomed to talking football with told me he was done with the sport. He read League of Denial, the book that exposes the serious epidemic of brain injury and the alleged organized effort of the NFL to confuse that issue for people, and he was so disgusted with the NFL’s conduct he couldn’t watch any more. I’m not going to comment on the NFL’s conduct because like anything that I love that’s produced in whole or in part by some evil entity, I’m not going to get on a soapbox because somewhere in the chain we’re all buying cereal made from humans by Haliburton, so there’s no point fighting it.
There is this problem that the game of organized, full-contact, traditional American football is a brain injury factory, in addition to causing lifetimes of pain in other places which was already well-known and accepted. Whether or not you want to blame the NFL for deliberately obfuscating the matter, though it’s hard to explain why you wouldn’t, there’s this underlying question of whether or not it’s morally wrong to watch and root for men to participate in this game that’s killing them.
Now I didn’t read the book, but I did watch the movie (always a good argument to take from an authoritative source), and there’s no question that NFL players are putting their life and health on the line to play the game. I don’t personally have a huge problem with that, which I recognize sounds shallow, and perhaps it is. I mean, it’s a shame, but welcome to Planet Earth, man. Things are tough all over. You think it’s not hard for a person working a minimum-wage job? To make ends meet and survive? And we’re not talking about closing or not shopping at 7-Elevens. If you told subsistence workers that they could trade that life for a life of financial security and all they had to do was roll the dice with a potential brain injury, how many of them do you think would jump at the chance?
But it’s a gamble that parents, once they all understand it, will forbid their children to take. At least enough of them to put a serious dent in the money-printing machine that is football in America. This is, of course, only a problem for the NFL and its owners, and the people who love watching football. For the kids who will avoid a future of dementia, Alzheimer’s and worse, if such a thing is imaginable, this is not a problem, it’s a blessing.
Again, the question at hand: is it okay to love NFL football? I say yes. Just like it’s okay to love other forms of entertainment that may be unhealthy and lead to bad and dangerous behavior. But like many other dangerous and unhealthy activities, we will likely see it disappear in the future as the democratization of information allows everyone to understand its pernicious effects. Which is to say, get it while you can, because the NFL is unquestionably doomed. Parents will start holding their kids out of this sport, the money will dry up, the players will leave, the fans will leave, and it’s only a matter of time. Which may also explain Roger Goodell’s almost Blackbeardian record of rule-breaking and cash-grabbing. Everyone sees the end on the horizon.
Someday it will seem insane to us to look back at people trying to deny football isn’t dangerous for kids and adults to participate in—the way young people look back at the era when smoking cigarettes was not only politely allowed, but even encouraged in polite society. So, too, will your grandkids wonder how you went out to a stadium and sat next to thousands of others and watched young men give each other brain damage. Like we are the spectators in a grotesque gladiator arena, imagery that hasn’t been so hackneyed since Oliver Stone used it for Any Given Sunday, a film that will be remembered as light years ahead of its time.
So, as both OSU and the NFL start up their seasons, I steal a line from Hank Williams II and probably 60% of editorials nationwide on the subject: “I’m so lonesome I could cry, cause I’m all balled up inside…”
Just kidding. Are you ready for some football?
By Sidney Reilly