The question of whether or not to ban this senseless, brutal sport should be a no-brainer, but it's not. The economics and social dynamics that cause this to even be an issue reveal a lot about our nation's culture. It's not just about football; it's about everything.
A few days ago I endured a two-hour documentary on PBS about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It was a brutal thing to watch the stories unfold about how strong young men literally beat their brains out for fame and glory in high school and college. A tiny few of these go on to play in the NFL where they earn a lot of money in a short time before their short careers end at a time in life when most people are just getting started in a career. An alarming number of these athletes, and not just those who make it into the NFL, damage their brains so badly that their lives are ruined.
Is it worth it? No, of course not. Today, no one will seriously defend the concept of staged mortal combat as sport in a civilized world. We condemn the ancient Romans for compelling slave gladiators to fight to the death. That's terrible, right? Yet, are the so-called mixed martial arts cage fights, the modern incarnation of the Greek pankration, much different? Modern athletes, like the ancient Greeks, are not forced to fight; they freely consent to this mayhem in hopes of winning huge purses. They have a choice and gladly accept the risks in expectation of monetary reward. So, is it OK, then? Do we allow football to continue because those who play the game know that they may be killing themselves, but want the money anyway? Is that really it, or are we just abdicating responsibility for others?
It's always money that motivates athletes to risk life and limb to compete. The "knowing consent" argument is the main excuse cited for allowing all dangerous sports. This broaches the question of whether or not society at large has any obligation to prevent people from harming themselves, and if we do, under what circumstances? We don't allow suicide, even if you're really ill. We often arrest people who leap off bridges with bungee cords around their ankles or launch themselves of cliffs and hillsides while strapped to kites and gliders. We still arrest people for using marijuana and other substances, even when using many of these drugs has not been shown to be as harmful over the long term as using alcohol or tobacco.
If the dangerous activity results in someone, somewhere, making money, well, that's different. We're very reluctant to restrict commerce. If we were to try and ban skydiving, there would be heated outrage from enthusiasts, who conveniently happen to mostly be skydiving instructors and those who provide services to skydivers. No one needs to jump out of an airplane, ski down a mountain or ride a giant wave on a surfboard, but we allow these dangerous sports because people enjoy them and a commercial infrastructure has evolved to support them. There is no impetus to ban them because large numbers of people enjoy these activities and the risk is manageable. You don't have to take that gondola to the very top of the mountain and jump off that cliff if you don't want to. You don't have to challenge 50-foot storm surf on Oahu's North Shore. It's perfectly acceptable to stick to the bunny slope or paddle around in the shore break at Waikiki.
American football, though, isn't quite the same thing. There is big money in the professional game purely because it is fueled by demand. Fans are so enthralled by the spectacle of large men crashing into each other that they spend an inordinate portion of their resources following the sport. This frenzy has created an oligopoly of sports tycoons who amass their huge fortunes by shrewdly exploiting the public's ghoulish fascination with violence and bamboozing local governments into erecting sports palaces for their sole benefit. All the fans get for their tax dollars is the pride of knowing that the team is based in the city where they live. This is not a good deal for them, but they allow such misuse of public money with mute resignation.
We've been skirting the issue of when it becomes the right thing to do to prevent people from doing harm to themselves. At the very least, it behooves us to show more common sense and practicality in allowing or banning sports than we do in other areas of public life. Where is the parity in our Quixotic suppression of marijuana as compared to our indifference to the damage done by alcohol and tobacco? Why do we let manipulative financiers steal trillions of dollars with impunity, yet quibble about a few dollars to feed the hungry through the SNAP and WIC programs? How come we do nothing to discourage needless plastic surgery, yet allow more than 50 million people to have no access to basic health care? Why do we bankrupt ourselves to maintain a global empire of armed might to defend corporate colonialism, yet have no national health system, crumbling cities and a system of higher education that is no longer fully available to much of the middle class, and completely out of reach to the poor? Are all our priorities out of whack? Are we insane?
Apparently, we're psychotic and delusional about most things. I had my suspicions growing up, but didn't fully grasp how nuts Americans are until I traveled abroad. Most people around the world think we're entirely insane. Talk to a foreigner in a bar or restaurant in their country and it won't be long before they say something like, "You American -- you crazy!" They monitor news reports to see what horrible, stupid thing we do next. They laugh at how a tiny minority of blithering idiots can hijack the government and keep anything at all from getting done. They ask, in all seriousness, "Why don't you just throw those silly people out of the government?"
Well? Why don't we?
The simple answer is that we can't change our political system; it does not allow a government to quickly dissolve and reform as in parliamentary forms of government. But, that's a little glib and not a real excuse. The truth is that we have a sizable minority of really stupid, crazy people who don't want normal, good things for the society. They are so ignorant and easily swayed that they persist in electing people who promise them things that are not in their best interest, and fight for those things once they get into office. These idiots want all the wrong stuff. Instead of lobbying for jobs, security, health care, education and help for the needy, they rant and rave about negative things like keeping women from aborting fetuses, owning firearms, lowering the tax rates of rich people, keeping same-sex couples from marrying, preventing anyone who owns a cell phone from getting a free meal at a soup kitchen (especially if they're not white), locking up pot smokers and denying that the twice-elected President of the United States of America is a native-born U.S. citizen. They care only about crap that doesn't matter in the least or that is just not true, but they don't give a whit about any substantive issue and pooh-pooh the danger of anything that their corporate masters assure them is not a problem. Fracking? It's safe! GMOs in the food supply? Safe as milk! RBST in milk? Er..., yeah! It's fine. Single-payer health care? It will kill you!
So how does dealing with this intransigent, counterproductive faction relate to football helmets and concussions? I'm not saying that all football fans are idiots, but the idiot fringe is clearly overly-represented in the footbal fan demographic. What I am postulating is that getting rid of football, something that would clearly improve the health and well-being of the populace at large, will not happen any time soon. This is a perfect example of how selling Americans on an idea that is contrary to the prevailing culture is damned near impossible. We don't cotton to anything that we're not used to doing, regardless of how good an idea it is.
Think about how hard it would be to build public support for banning the sport of American football. There are lots of good reasons to do it, but consider how each of these issues would go over if you brought up the topic in a sports bar.
- The hi-tech helmets and pads make the sport more dangerous, not less, because such armor deludes the player into believing that he can use his bodfy as a missile without adverse consequences. The better the protection, the harder the players hit each other.
- The rigid helmet protects the skull from blunt force and abrasion, but can do nothing to make any difference in the inertia of the brain inside the skull. When a player is hit, the brain moves, and slams against the inside of the skull, the same as it would if he were not wearing a helmet.
- The disease CTE in football players appears to be primarily caused by repeated concussions when the brain is slammed against the inside of the skull when a player's body is abruptly stopped by another player moving in the opposite direction, or when he is tackled and his head hits the ground. A player does not have to be knocked out to suffer serious brain injury. There is some evidence that the disease may be the cumulative result of all the undetected, small concussions a player receives in the course of a lifetime playing the game.
- Those under 18 are not legally competent, or permitted by law, to give informed consent for engaging in dangerous activities. Parents who expose their minor children to such dangers are derelict in their custodial responsibilities. Educators have no business promoting such mayhem and should be criminally liable for allowing a public institution to be used to injure minors.
- At the college level, where the athletes are of age and could give informed consent, playing football serves no useful purpose in their education. Being a successful football player does not make anyone smarter or help them in their chosen field of study. Why should educational resources be used to facilitate injury to the students?
- The fact that people like to watch football does not diminish the reality that playing football is harmful to one's body. We don't allow bare-knuckle boxing or sabre duels any more, so why should we allow people to don plastic armor beat each other to death on a football field for the entertainment of spectators? There would be people willing to engage in a fight to the death if the purse were high enough, and such an event would draw a big gate, but we don't allow that. What's the difference?
- College players have played football all their lives and continue to play in college for the sole purpose of becoming a professional player. Most never achieve that objective, yet they risk injury and play for as much as a dozen years without being paid. Why have we inculcated young men in our society with the notion that this is a worthwhile pursuit? It's a low-percentage play and many players pay a very high price without ever earning a dime.
- Why are institutions of higher learning functioning as an upaid farm system for the NFL? No one gets paid, neither the school itself or the players. The coaches get paid though, and handsomely at that, all from a budget that is supposed to be for education. They are well-paid trainees for jobs in the NFL, which receives all the benefit of what they learn coaching football in high schools and colleges.
These are just of a few of the reasons I can think of for banning American football. I've tried a few of these out in public recently and marveled at the stunned disbelief, outrage and even anger exhibited when I seriously suggest banning the sport.
The prevailing attitude about American football explains a lot about the non-thinking, reactionary nature of many Americans. It's no wonder that there are still slack-jawed, drooling jackasses who think socialized medicine is a bad thing. If we ever figure out how to get rid of football, we'll have a good start on figuring out how to solve some of our serious problems.