It's Time to Stop Watching the NFL: Concussions, Injuries, Exploitation, and Blood Sport

By Doctor Comrade

The Green Bay Packers line up against the Chicago Bears, October 7, 2007.

The Green Bay Packers line up against the Chicago Bears, October 7, 2007.

For most of my life, I have been a fan of the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. I have a deep intergenerational connection to the Bears, and watching football with my dad was definitely a source of familial bonding. But in recent years, I have had a strained relationship with football, and this season, I have decided that I can no longer support the NFL or watch football.

1.     Concussions and other health problems

The Will Smith movie Concussion is set to be released this holiday season. The movie dramatizes the life of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who attempted to publicize the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players. Concussion is just one effort in recent years to draw attention to the fact that NFL players sustain massive head trauma every time they participate in a football game.

New studies show that the longer people play football, the higher risk they have of developing CTE. One study found that as many as 96.2% of former NFL players had CTE. Even if that is the upper statistical limit for the number of players with CTE, we must conclude that football is a dangerous sport with terrifying effects on the health of its players. The NFL denied these allegations for decades, and it funded studies that claimed that “no NFL player” had ever developed chronic brain damage.

There are also anecdotal examples of players suffering from CTE. Two terrible cases from 2012 paint a grim picture of CTE’s possible effects: Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau. Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself; Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Belcher and Seau both had CTE, and the disease is linked to impaired judgment, impaired impulse control, depression, and dementia.

Of course, Seau and Belcher are isolated incidents, and having CTE certainly doesn’t mean that NFL players will become homicidally depressed. But consider Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett’s story: he says he is prone to violent outbursts around his family and he routinely gets lost driving in his hometown. Despite all being younger than 60 years old, these men felt the effects of a chronic and debilitating disease that affects mental acuity and cognition in some fundamentally dangerous ways.

But CTE is not the only long-term health effect felt by football players. Youth football players’ brain development may be permanently altered by repeated blows to the head, including impaired cognitive function and depression. Football is the only sport in which young men regularly die from injuries. The average lifespan of retired NFL players is 20 years shorter than their peers, and NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s at a 37% higher rate.

I can no longer support this sport because of its detrimental effects on its participants.

2.     Selling false hope to young men

The NFL benefits from a free development system that grooms future talent: football is part of a system that deludes young men into sacrificing their bodies for the potential of multi-million dollar contracts. NFL youth programs deceive young men across the country, from Pee-Wee Football to collegiate athletics, convincing them that football might provide not only life-changing money, but also stable male role models, academic success, and leadership skills. Even if you never make it to the NFL, the league claims that football can pave the way for future success.

According to the NCAA, only 6.5% of high school senior football players go on to play college football, and only 1.6% of college football players are signed by an NFL team. In total, only 0.08%—8 out of 10,000—of those high school seniors will be drafted into the NFL. Young men may be tricked into believing that football—and by extension, sacrificing their health—will pay off for them in the long term. The effects on African-American and Polynesian football players, who often come from impoverished families, are even more pronounced.

3.     Exploitation of Black and Polynesian young men

Football appeals to young men who grow up in poverty. Football may be seen as a way to escape poverty and make a better life (sports in general are often portrayed in this fashion). The result is a sport that illuminates America’s racialized system of economic class, with men from the lower classes often turning to sports because their options are constrained by economic inequality.

For example, black students receive the most athletic scholarships. Athletics are the only avenue for many African-American men to pursue education because their families may not have the means to send them to college. Football and basketball in particular have been used to lure athletes to colleges, where they trade their labor for education. According to one study by Shaun R. Harper, Collin D. Williams Jr., and Horatio W. Blackman at the University of Pennsylvania, “Perceivably, there are too few young Black men who meet admissions standards and are sufficiently prepared for the rigors of college-level academic work. Despite these arguments, colleges and universities somehow manage to find academically qualified Black male student-athletes to play on revenue generating sports teams.” Black men make up 2.8% of college students, but 57% of football players. Coaches and schools are incentivized to mislead black men about their career prospects, spinning a fantasy that encourages student-athletes to disregard the importance of education. Then they play sports that generate revenue for scholarships that benefit white athletes in non-revenue producing sports like tennis and golf. What we can see is a racial system that exploits the hopes of young black men in exchange for revenue that benefits majority-white institutions. If this were a fair trade, like the young men were receiving something of equal value in exchange for their labor, then perhaps we might concede that football provides a social good. But considering the long-term effects on health, as well as the unequal distribution of scholarship money, this is clearly not a fair trade.

Moreover, career-ending injuries are well documented (un-ironically presented by NFL.com). Injuries may be an unfortunate part of the game—a point argued by football apologists—but we should consider the implications. If career-ending and life-threatening injuries were as common in most American workplaces as they are in the NFL or NCAA, society would demand change. The NCAA will often refuse to pay for medical bills if an athlete sustains an injury, and many schools terminate scholarships for athletes, leaving them no way to finish their education and seek employment in another field. If an athlete gets injured, schools have cut them off. When athletes are no longer of use to the university—as in, when athletes no longer create revenue for the school—they are often abandoned.

To make matters worse, the NCAA has repeatedly opposed allowing students to be compensated for their labor, including efforts to block football players from unionizing. What is clear is that football players are completely unprotected, and the NCAA is complicit in making their positions so precarious.

NFL player compensation is only marginally better. The average career is less than four years, with an average salary of $750,000 per year. Many athletes don’t realize how quickly their careers can end. Sports Illustrated claimed that 78% of NFL players eventually go bankrupt or face dire financial stress, and while the number may be exaggerated, it is certain that former players do declare bankruptcy significantly more than they should compared to similarly aged peers. Moreover, it’s not the superstars that lose out; it’s most of the other players who struggle financially, the fringe players who might make a team, or might not. Injured players or fringe players, for example, may have the shortest careers and make the least amount of money, despite being the class of players that need the money most.

The NFL is ridiculously profitable; it’s making around $12 billion this year, which means that NFL owners and executives exploit their workforce (including players, staff, stadium employees, cheerleaders, women and children sewing jerseys in sweatshops, etc.) by extracting surplus value at enormous rates. If every NFL team paid just its players 100% of the $143.28 million projected salary cap, they would spend only $4.5 billion. The profits come at the expense of young African-American or Polynesian men and their health and financial well-being after they leave football.

4.     Roger Goodell’s terrible leadership

It has not been a good year for Roger Goodell (except that his salary has increased to $44.2 million per year, and it increased 300% in the two years after the 2011 lockout). He lost to America’s sweetheart Tom Brady in federal court over punishments relating to a scandal that involved the air pressure of footballs. His decision to suspend Brady for four games was roundly criticized by the judge for its arbitrariness. This punishment was deemed too harsh, and it came just months after Goodell had been rightly criticized for suspending wife-beater Ray Rice for only two games. In this estimation, Goodell clearly thought deflated balls were twice as bad as being caught punching a woman repeatedly in the face. Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, cut Rice from the team.

Roger Goodell at the 2009 NFL Draft. He is a very rich man.

Roger Goodell at the 2009 NFL Draft. He is a very rich man.

Despite admitting that he got the punishment wrong, Goodell has not completely rectified the situation, as shown by the dozen players who never faced the same punishment as Rice. Roger Goodell oversees all player punishments for NFL violations, including drug use and allegations of real crimes, as well as all the ridiculous fines levied by the NFL against players for minor violations ($5,787 for throwing a ball into the stands, $11,576 for profanity, etc.). After he suspends a player, that player can appeal Goodell’s decision. But Roger Goodell is also the official who hears player appeals. There would seem to be an inherent conflict of interest. Couple Goodell’s strange decisions with the NFL’s player conduct policies, and the only conclusion is that the NFL’s policy is, at best, erratic.

Another problem has been Goodell’s support for the racist slur used by the Washington Football Team. Despite mounting pressure from Native American organizations, as well as hostile decisions from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board and a federal judge, Washington’s owner Dan Snyder has refused to change the offensive name, and Goodell has not only refused to intervene, but has also actively supported Snyder’s claims. The Washington Football Team’s name is detrimental to the league’s image, yet Goodell has not forced the team to change its conduct. Even the team’s hometown newspaper has banned the use of the team’s name.

Goodell’s continued intransigence towards the concussion issue has also been a mark against him. The NFL, and recently under Goodell’s leadership, believed it would be more profitable to deny decades of science rather than implement strategies to combat the problem. Dementia pugilistica was first described in 1928. In recent years, the NFL has changed numerous rules to combat head injuries, but the fact is that high-speed collisions and bodily injury are inherent to the game itself. The NFL perpetuates a game of violence that is destructive to its participants, and it actively campaigned against reform for decades.

5.     Fetishization of blood sport

At its core, football is a game of bodily violence. The audience watches as incredibly strong, fast, athletic men slam their bodies into each other. Football is so dangerous that it requires every member of each team to wear a full set of carefully engineered armor, and even that doesn’t prevent life-threatening injuries: there are no concussion-proof helmets. Eddie Lacy, running back for the Green Bay Packers, switched to the Riddell Speedflex helmet, which boasts its ability to lessen head trauma. He was concussed in the first week of the 2014 season, and decided to switch back to his original helmet. Many NFL players and teams have tried new helmets to prevent concussions, but none has been successful, and the hype surrounding each new development is completely overblown.

I also believe that football glorifies a particular kind of hyper-masculinity, a warrior mentality couched in the language of soldiers and gladiatorial battles. These men, the pinnacles of physical ability, exemplify hyper-masculinity as they attempt to conquer their opponents. But more sickeningly, they are invariably taunted and cheered by fans who demand that these men fully exert themselves, at tremendous personal risk, for the enjoyment of the audience. This may illustrate a fundamental problem in American society: its most popular sport is blood sport, contested by competitors who devote their lives to physical triumph, and watched by fans who enjoy violence.

There are also widening class, racial, and generational divides over the future of football. Wealthy parents are already reticent to allow their sons to get involved with tackle football because they understand the risks associated with such a brutal sport. As football revenues continue to pour in for colleges and NFL teams, the contracts and other financial incentives will also continue to pull in men from impoverished backgrounds. The sport is already dominated by white owners who exploit the sons of underprivileged families. As more upper-class children are held out of football, the opportunities for lower-class boys will grow, amplifying a deeply classist and racial gulf.

The more I consider the history of the league and its current state, the more sickening my conclusions. What has become obvious to me recently is that the NFL—and football in general—preys on the financially insecure classes of American society, exploits them for blood and treasure, and then abandons the maimed participants. I do not believe that these young men have given informed consent: we know the NFL has denied the link between football and health problems; we know the NCAA and NFL make billions of dollars from the labor of young athletes without fairly compensating them; we know that football offers a compelling fantasy for vulnerable men, and exchanges that fantasy for permanent mental and physical injuries; and we know that the NFL and NCAA have exploited American society’s thirst for blood sport. I think it’s time to reevaluate the overwhelmingly dominant role that football plays into our cultural myths.