For more than a decade, I’ve teamed up with a friend to co-manage a fantasy football team. He’s taught me all about not making player selection decisions based on emotion (like my famous “NO DALLAS COWBOYS!” rule) and I’ve taught him that my gut instinct can be a very good thing when making week-to-week decisions. And yet, after several winning seasons and quite a lot of games watched, I’m ready to put it all down – at least for a while. Here’s why:
I think American football as it’s currently played and managed is deeply harmful and dangerous.
Between the revelations of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and how head trauma from even one concussion can turn football players’ brains into spongy masses prone to memory loss, mood swings, and dementia, I just don’t feel like this is something I can support anymore. Referring to two recent studies as primary examples, and understanding that CTE can only be properly diagnosed with a chemical analysis of brain tissue post-mortem, the results are startling:
- In one study, published in 2011, 17 male athletes’ brains were studied (14 professional athletes and 3 high school athletes); 10 of the 14 pros (primarily football players) had CTE, and 1 of the 3 high school athletes did, as well.
- A larger study, published in 2012 by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, detailed findings of 68 out of 85 subjects having CTE; these were primarily athletes (and, of those, mostly American football players).
- Even as early as 1997, a study of professional boxers found a direct link between CTE and repeated “exposure” to the risk of head injuries (in this case, measured by the number of bouts). Of the 30 boxers studied, 19 showed impairment ranging from “mild” to “severe”.
Detaching from football is going to be hard. I grew up a football fan, and I live in a region where you have to work hard to find someone NOT rooting for the New England Patriots every Sunday in the Fall. I grew up watching the Washington Redskins win Superbowls under the deft leadership of Joe Gibbs (MARK I), and I saw amazing players in the prime of their careers, like Joe Theismann, Art Monk, Joe Jacoby, Jim Lachey, and Darrell Green. These men were revered as gods in DC, and we loved rooting for the “Sons of Washington” in their burgundy and gold. In other words, I’m planning to stop something that’s practically hardwired in my DNA – not just putting away the laptop on Sundays but actually STOPPING WATCHING the NFL. Completely.
DS is five years old, and he starts Kindergarten in a few days. Seven-year-old dd is on the cusp of starting second grade, and she’s advancing nicely in gymnastics. We’ve offered ds several sports as activities, to make sure he keeps his little body moving and learns the value of staying fit. But I refuse to offer him football. I won’t even consider offering either child the opportunity to play hockey. I have loved watching both of these sports, but the physical damage inflicted on these players in the name of “sports” and “entertainment” is getting to be too much. The NFL and NHL seem to turn a blind eye to the consequences of the increasing physicality in both sports, and it’s making me sick. I can’t imagine intentionally putting my child in harm’s way like that.
Now, it’s easy to argue that gymnastics isn’t exactly easy on the body; joints take an incredible pounding, and there’s always the possibility that something bad will happen in a fall. DS is getting into swimming, for now, and there are tons of risks there, too. But there’s nothing like what I hear about CTE.
And so, here I sit, mourning my now-former co-managership of a fantasy football team. I already feel somewhat off, walking by the Pats jerseys at Target, wondering whether I’ll intentionally ignore when the Pats – or even my beloved Redskins – are playing. Wondering if I’ll ever don team colors again, knowing that so many of my friends and co-workers will continue to do so because their love of the game is greater than their fear of what supporting it may mean.
In a recent op-ed piece for the Boston Globe Magazine [warning: paywall may block access], Steve Almond passionately argued that supporting American football is tantamount to greenlighting something terribly destructive to other human beings. When I read his column, an excerpt from his recently released book (Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto), I felt like he was giving voice to my own concerns. Pre-game shows celebrate NFL players getting “JACKED UP!” (hit exceptionally hard), but somehow they seem to miss out on highlighting all the players sidelined with concussions. They’re merely a blip in the injury report scroll, something for fantasy football managers and bookies to watch – but not something of major interest or attention.
I don’t want to say goodbye to the sports I love, but I don’t want to say goodbye to the people I love even more. I wonder about the hypocrisy of my saying “I’ll watch SOMEONE ELSE’S kid play a dangerous sport, but NO WAY IN HELL will I let MY kid do that!” Even Junior Seau was someone’s kid.
In a region where sports are a dominant part of the culture, where they’re woven into the fabric of society so firmly that I’ve heard people launch into “Yankees Suck” chants on an escalator at the airport (when no game was playing), I know I’m committing heresy. I also know that I have friends that will think I’m a complete idiot for not just shutting up and watching like all the other folks. But when I see careers ended by vicious and/or repeated hits (Marc Savard and Taylor Twellman) – and lives ended by the results of hits (the aforementioned Seau), I feel justified in walking away. At least I have that option.
And yes, Twellman played in Major League Soccer and Savard played in the National Hockey League – but both suffered from repeated collisions (in Savard’s case, some that were particularly brutal). Hockey may soon disappear from my playlist, as well, since the NHL appears unwilling to do much to address the lack of player protection from bad hits and bad seeds. Soccer, at least, is trying to make changes at the youth level – so they’re recognizing that something must be done to protect the future of the sport. Hockey and American football lately appear to be little more than leagues of gladiators without the lions and spears. I, for one, am getting tired of games interrupted by terrifying injuries – NOT because it disrupts the game but – because it threatens lives.
I can’t say I won’t come back to American football, but it will take some serious changes on the part of the NFL. It may be a lonely Fall, being one of the few not watching the games, but if the only way I can register my horror and concern is by voting with my feet and dollars, that’s what I’ll do.