Football and violence: a half-time meditation

Today is the Super Bowl—one of the sports high holy days in the US. American football has been in the news a lot recently because scientific investigations have revealed that many deceased NFL players suffered from brain damage due to multiple concussions. Just this week, famed Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died from colon cancer in June, was confirmed as having CTE. The last 10 years of his life were marked with numerous debilitating symptoms, thought to be due to CTE. 94 brains of former NFL player were donated posthumously for research, and 90 of those brains show evidence of CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Of course, that number—94—represents a small percentage of the total number of football players who have died. However, there have been many cases of younger players who have committed suicide who have been confirmed to have CTE, and others for whom brain trauma is suspected.

Frontline,the investigative documentary show on the Public Broadcasting System in the US, in an article on CTE, provides some perspective on those numbers:

…the figures come with several important caveats, as testing for the disease can be an imperfect process. Brain scans have been used to identify signs of CTE in living players, but the disease can only be definitively identified posthumously. As such, many of the players who have donated their brains for testing suspected that they had the disease while still alive, leaving researchers with a skewed population to work with.

Even with those caveats, the latest numbers are “remarkably consistent” with past research from the center suggesting a link between football and long-term brain disease, said Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” said McKee, who runs the lab as part of a collaboration between the VA and BU. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the NFL said, “We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”

So the researchers are suggesting a picture of potentially pervasive brain trauma to professional (extending to college athletes as well) football players.  The NFL says they are responding by funding research and trying to improve the game.

Some of the players are responding, too.  24-year-old Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers announced his retirement from football, citing concerns about long-term brain trauma.  Other players have said publicly that even though they love the game, they would not allow their children to play football. This group includes Terry Bradshaw, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and current NFL sportscaster.

What are the fans saying?

Writer, essayist and advice columnist Steve Almond wrote a book about his decision to stop watching football.  In an interview he cited numerous concerns about the violent nature of the sport, including this:

One of the central rationalizations people use of football is that it’s a way out for certain kids. I don’t believe that football is the right model for empowering communities who are disadvantaged economically and socially and educationally. I think this is a perversion of our values, which should say that every kid matters because of their intellect and morality, not because they get really good at playing a brutal, murder ballet game that we really love watching.”

Some football fans are reacting negatively to all of this news.  In the comments section o a New York Times Room for Debate piece on “Is it wrong to watch football?”, the comments included lots of responses along the lines of, “The players know the risks, and it is their choice to play or not to play.”

One thing I learned as a feminist philosopher is that the idea of “choice” is a complicated one.  We, the humans, have the capacities to take in information, assess what we care about, and make choices to act in certain ways.  But we don’t act alone and in isolation.  One term that gets used in feminist philosophy is “relational autonomy”.  The idea is that our choices are influenced by our ties to others– friends, family, workplace, sports teams, and community.  We care about belonging, being a part of groups– it informs our identities.  I’m a philosopher, a sister, a member of a bike club, a Massachusetts resident, and so on.  What I do is in part designed to reinforce that identity.

Kids and parents and coaches and advertisers and players all are caught up in a culture of football, one that binds us together in some positive ways– we share loyalties with other fans, teammates develop and perform together, etc.  But this culture is one that is causing harm to those who play– serious long-term harm.  Maybe it’s worth reexamining on the grounds that the culture is distorting our view of what sports are for.  Something to think about at halftime.


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