As sports fans know, the weekends this time of year are dedicated to football. I can’t wait for the Patriots and Bucs because I always love watching Brady and Gronk do their thing in Tampa Bay. But the cascade of injured players in every game sometimes makes me wonder why I’m watching. One after another they leave the field, either alone, lame and groggy, or on a stretcher, motionless.
After an injury, the game is stopped and quickly switches to a time-out and a commercial. When it comes back to the game, the player is often in the locker room, out of sight, out of mind, and the cycle begins again. Any game can result in an injury ending a season or a career.
Football is the number one sport in the United States. Although the season only lasts 17 games, no other sport is so popular in terms of popularity. Could the inherent violence be what draws so many people to watch? When a catcher or runner catches the ball and is flattened by the defense, it’s not uncommon for the crowd to scream in glee or for the defensive players to dance in celebration. This is before the crowd calms down as the team rallies around the fallen player, not moving, or twisting in pain on the ground.
Fans and networks feast on violence. NFL football encourages legal assault. Within the framework of its rules, it is possible to seriously undermine the functioning of the opposition. Players are exposed to vicious tackles and may lose consciousness without any penalty being imposed. The stronger the hit, the stronger the response from the crowd and advertisers. It is as close as we come to the Roman Colosseum where the gladiators fought to the death. At least we don’t offer lions as part-time entertainment.
NFL players have a life expectancy of less than 60 years and only play an average of four years professionally. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disorder that has been found in 87% of former NFL players, is caused by repeated head trauma.
CTE also decreases the length and quality of life of professional boxers, hockey players and mixed martial arts (MMA) competitors. In short, any sport in which one player fights against another results in a large number of concussions and brain damage. In boxing and MMA, the goal is to eliminate the opponent whenever possible. It means hitting them or hitting them on the head until they pass out.
Football advocates point to advancements in helmet design that have given players more protection. But a design is unlikely to fully protect the delicate brain tissue floating in the skull from the violent collisions that occur on a regular basis.
A long time ago, when our son entered high school, my wife and I prayed that the school would not field a football team until the end of his senior year. Our son loved the physical contact and would have liked to be part of the team. We are grateful that Kearsarge did not start his football program until after he graduated.
High school football has grown significantly since then, along with the popularity of the NFL. How many players will have their lives shortened or altered as a result of participating from an early age?
There are so many sports that lack the inherently deadly qualities of football, boxing, professional hockey, and MMA. Basketball, baseball, soccer and all Olympic sports testify to the high level of skill and competition possible while preserving the safety of its athletes. The Olympics only allow amateur boxing, in which a protective helmet is worn. MMA was not allowed to participate due to excessive violence.
We all understand that good health is our most important quality. Preserving our health and preventing damage to our body should be built into the rules of every sport. With this in mind, some sports should simply cease to exist, such as boxing and MMA. These bloodthirsty sports reflect the worst tendencies to harm our fellow human beings.
Football can be played in a number of ways without sacrificing the unique skills required to excel. The rules could be changed to minimize damage to a player, in part through severe penalties and suspensions. Players could still attack and compete aggressively against each other, like in rugby, without attempting to injure each other. The NHL could eliminate the removal of gloves and optional fights, just like college hockey.
Sport plays a disproportionate role in our culture. Societal pressure has resulted in many enlightened reforms in recent years. Racist and sexist owners, players, coaches and coaches are no longer acceptable. Several teams have made significant name changes to better reflect the inclusiveness of their fan base. More and more coaches are from minorities and more and more women are entering the ranks of professional men’s sports. These are all paradigm shifts.
Violence in society can seem overwhelming as humanity continues to find new ways to harm themselves. By forbidding the intent to violently harm athletes in the NFL and other sports, we could set a new standard of play, and perhaps, of life.
Would fans enjoy football so much without causing serious damage to the players? For my part, I would appreciate it more.
(Sol Solomon lives in Sutton.)