Thursday, January 31, 2013
This Sunday, citizens across these United States will indulge in the country’s most cherished pastime: watching large men give each other life-threatening concussions. For about 20 weeks, millions of us sit riveted as players in the NFL collide into one another at breakneck speeds, delivering bone-crushing hits, and it all concludes on our favorite holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. Buckets of chicken and kegs of beer will be consumed in raucous atmospheres as we all watch the next generation of Alzheimer’s patients and suicide victims ride on to national glory.
It sounds grim, but that’s exactly what is happening. Over the past few years, the dangers of the sport have come under more scrutiny, as more than 3,800 former players have sued the NFL over the issue of head injuries. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly referred to by its initials CTE, has become a huge concern for retired football players, as a number of high-profile suicides have put the debilitating brain disease on their radar, including that of former star linebacker Junior Seau. Seau, 43, was found dead last year of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Like others before him, he chose to preserve his brain so that it could be studied after his death. During his playing career, Seau was never sidelined due to concussions, but it has been established that he did develop CTE, likely because of repeated hits to the head during his 20-year career. His family filed a lawsuit, according the Associated Press, accusing the NFL of “deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries.”
On his MSNBC show, Chris Hayes hosted a roundtable discussion, including a former NFL player and the wife of one who committed suicide, on the future of football. The conversation centered around our culpability/responsibility as consumers of the sport. As we learn more about the risks involved for the players, and knowing that the owners want the sport to continue so long as it is profitable, do we as fans hold the ultimate key to protecting these guys, in that we can change the channel? Yes, but here’s the problem. The average fan, aside from being enticed by the violence, is able to put some distance between themselves and the players, as they justify watching by telling themselves that these men are being paid millions of dollars to play a game they know is dangerous.
What would it take for current and potential future NFL stars to give up the game? My guess is more than the threat of CTE. We talk about the culture of machismo as a driving motivator behind their choice to play, but it’s even more basic than that. It’s the economy, stupid. The reason there are over a million boys of all ages in this country playing this violent game is that there are millions of dollars on the table, in contracts and endorsements. This is the lottery, and who is more willing to play than those who are most economically disadvantaged?
It’s no accident that throughout the year the most celebrated players talk about their humble beginnings, coming from poor and working-class families. It’s also no coincidence so many – 67 percent of NFL players – are African-American. Why? Because this is a hustle, and so long as African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor, they’ll also be disproportionately represented in the NFL.
We can wait for the cultural shift to take place, where football no longer figures so prominently, and then we no longer have to concern ourselves with this messy business of brain injuries. Or we could improve the economic conditions of the poor and working class, especially those of color, and no longer render them dependent on the idea of huge paydays from a major breadwinner putting his future health at risk. Until then, go Ravens, I guess.
MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH is a freelance writer and social commentator.