The NFL Pain Machine: Why We Love Football Despite the Ongoing Concussion Crisis

Just before 8:30 Eastern Time tonight, tens of millions of Americans will gather in front of millions of TVs inside millions of bars, apartments, and houses to watch the largest, most athletic men in the country run across a carefully demarcated field and collide with one another. This is the most popular pastime in the country—32 percent of American sports fans say pro football is their favorite sport. To put that in perspective, 25 percent of Americans are Evangelical Protestants, the country’s most popular religious denomination; 23 percent of Americans identify as Republicans and 32 percent as Democrats; 32 percent have a gun in the house; 5 percent are vegetarians. The second most popular sport is baseball—but when people are given the choice between watching a World Series game and a regular-season NFL game, they watch the NFL game. The NFL is, by far, the most-watched thing on television. This season the NFL is offering fans the chance to watch old games for $99 a year, and a bunch of people will probably pay for that. I’m thinking about paying for it right now. It’s a passion that stretches across all demographic lines—small Texas towns with three churches and two gas stations worship football, and so do blue-state enclaves like San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle. I watched the last Super Bowl at a Seahawks bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that serves vegan food. Americans may hate one another, but we love ourselves some football.

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The problem with the NFL, as by now everyone knows, is that when those large, athletic men collide with one another, they hit each other’s heads, and repeated blows to the head over the course of years can cause something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Discovered in 2002 by a neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu, the condition can cause “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, parkinsonism, and, eventually, progressive dementia,” according to Boston University’s CTE Center. In other words, sufferers lose control of their own actions and lives, often when they’re only in their 40s. The only way to diagnose it is to dissect the brain of a sufferer after his death; in 2011, Dave Duerson, one of many notable former NFL players who committed suicide, shot himself in the chest rather than the head so his brain could be studied. He had CTE, doctors discovered. So did Junior Seau and Ray Easterling and college player Owen Thomas, all of whom took their own lives.

Fans know about CTE, they know about the dementia and the suicides and the horrible, invisible consequences of the game, they know that for years the NFL tried to cover the existence of CTE up and discredit Omalu—that’s the subject of Concussion, a new Will Smith movie coming out this Christmas. We know that football players are being tacitly asked to not just give up their bodies for the sake of the game but their minds as well. Even the NFL admitted that concussions can cause permanent damage in 2009. But we still watch. You might ask: Why? Or you might ask: Can we come up with an excuse that makes it OK to watch in time for kickoff?

Am I supposed to feel good that the players I’m watching are suffering a lower rate of brain damage than before?

Firstly we should note that things have gotten better. The NFL now makes it harder for concussed players to return to the field too soon; announcers are less likely to react with delight when a big hit drives a player into the turf; people are writing and talking about safety, building technologically advanced helmets, and teaching kids proper tackling techniques. But helmets can’t make football risk-free—and even if concussions were wiped out from the sport tomorrow, there’s evidence that subconcussive hits to the head contribute to CTE too. The NFL says that “football has never been safer,” but that’s some chickenshit moral calculus—am I supposed to feel good that the players I’m watching are suffering a lower rate of brain damage than before?

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Another argument is that modern life is full of compromises with evil, that we’re almost always doing something Wrong. Driving a car requires consuming gas, which means giving money to oppressive Gulf regimes and making it that much more likely climate change will consume humanity. Buying a T-shirt or a pair of sneakers may mean supporting sweatshop labor. Eating a hamburger means contributing to the factory farming industry. Yet in most cases there are ways to reform our consumption habits if for no other reason than to settle our troubled consciences. Cars can run on electricity. You can buy clothing from brands that pay their workers well. Meat can come from animals that were treated with kindness before they were butchered.

But there’s no such thing as Free Trade Football. The NFL is a machine that produces pain, money, and entertainment: The fans get entertained, the league makes most of the money (Commissioner Roger Goodell made $35 million in 2013, more than any NFL athlete), and the players get some of the money and all of the pain. Get rid of any of those three components and the other two disappear as well—if the league banned tackling in favor of two-hand touch or flag rules, the fans wouldn’t watch, and the money would evaporate.

You like to imagine that the players go into the machine knowing the consequences, and that they’re choosing to risk destroying their brains for the chance to make millions and be the most famous person in any given room they enter. You want them to be motivated by a pure love of the game and have no regrets. Like Jim Otto, the Raiders center from the 70s who, as Kevin Cook recounted in his book The Last Headbangers, went through so many knee surgeries after retirement his leg was amputated, and when it was he had his prosthetic replacement adorned with his former team’s logo.

While we’re willing to watch football, anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer people are willing to let their children take up the game.

But you have to wonder how many players are trapped—either by being born into poverty or by not having learned any other skills—into accepting a Faustian bargain that has them trading their mental and physical health for potential glory and riches. Not everyone has an array of employment opportunities staring them in the face. The only budding NFL star to quit the game explicitly over health risks, Chris Borland, told ESPN, “I’ve got the luxury of choice just with the way I’ve been raised and the good fortune of growing up in a middle-class family and having my college degree… I think there’s guys who don’t have that choice, but that’s not a reason to shirk the issue or avoid addressing things.”

If you want to, you can imagine a future where more and more potential All-Pros follow in Borland’s footsteps and quit while they’re ahead, where football becomes regarded as a disreputable bloodsport and gradually falls out of mainstream favor much as boxing has. Football’s popularity declined slightly this year, which might be a meaningless blip or might be the start of a trend. And while we’re willing to watch football, anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer people are willing to let their children take up the game—high-profile former players like Terry Bradshaw, Bart Scott, and Troy Aikman (and other athletes like LeBron James) have said publicly they wouldn’t want their sons to play football. What if the NFL slowly dies off because thousands of young world-class athletes turn their back on the sport and go into something less trauma-inducing, like baseball or basketball or American Ninja Warrior?

You’re not a world-class athlete, and you don’t need to decide whether to risk your health for a chance at becoming the next Russell Wilson. You just need to turn on the TV or not, and either way your support or disapproval of the NFL will be a drop in an ocean. When I watch tonight, I’ll likely comfort myself by saying I really don’t do much to line the NFL’s pockets—I generally get my football fix via shady online streams or sports bars, I don’t buy merchandise from the league, and I never go to games. I’ll tell myself that the game has actually gotten safer, and that if fans continue to care about these issues it will get safer still. I’ll also remind myself that the players are better compensated and more aware of the risks than they used to be, and that many of them love the game honestly and unequivocally. I’ll do some mental gymnastics to separate my enjoyment of the sport from the league that showcases it—a league whose default mode in the face of scandal, as we saw from ESPN’s report on “Deflategate,” is obfuscation and outright lying.

I won’t really believe any of that, but what’s the alternative? Not watching at all?

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