Fed Up With Football

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today the NFL announced it will spend $100 million on research that studies the link between repeated head hits and brain damage. This “independent” research, as Commissioner Roger Goodell assured the public, would also go toward developing equipment that could lessen the effects of hard hits. But it’s difficult to take this news seriously considering how previous NFL initiatives have had tainted studies and skewed findings.

Permanent brain damage is a real concern that has driven many fans, like me, away from the game—something I broached yesterday with readers. One of them, Peter, shares my concern:

Count me in as a former fan. I grew up in Tennessee a committed Vols fan. When the Titans moved in, I got on that train as well. A good portion of every Saturday and Sunday was dedicated to watching football. As a kid, I even had mini-pennants for each NFL team that I used to track the divisional standings on my bulletin boards.

My disaffection for football was kind of a gradual thing. It started with the many things that annoyed me about the NFL: the cheap and breezy patriotism, the empty machismo, the absurd seriousness with which the coaches and league officials took themselves, the way players (particularly running backs) were treated like cannon fodder. (I still loved me some college ball though, at least when I didn’t think too hard about how these enormously wealthy universities were exploiting the free labor of their “students.”)

But the brain injury thing was really the final straw for me. I just couldn’t live with watching people give themselves permanent brain damage for my entertainment. The exploitation of the players could no longer be laid at the feet of the league or the NCAA; I was a participant too. It made me feel like a monster just for watching.

I quit cold turkey after the 2014-15 season. Last year was the first year I can remember that I did not watch a single football game. What surprised me the most was how little I missed it. There was so much more time to do other things!  I also got really into soccer, which largely filled the sports hole that ditching football left.  (I like to tell people that I gave up football for futbol.)

Of course, the Vols are actually good this year for the first time in forever. Maybe I’ll tune into a game if I happen to be in front of the TV when it’s on. What can I say: the first love is the deepest.

I’ve got to think there are lots of stories like mine out there. It can’t be long before it starts to show up in the ratings.

It’s certainly showed up in our inbox; more than 60 emails have already come in since yesterday, almost all of them critical of the NFL and the sport of football more generally. If you’d like to defend the game against these critics, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. Now back to the former fans, starting with Ray:

I was a die-hard Redskins fan until three years ago, when a head injury made me quit cold turkey. I was watching an NFL game when a receiver took a particularly vicious hit to the head. He was limp (and apparently unconscious) by the time he hit the ground, yet somehow managed to hold onto the ball. As he lay on the ground, unconscious, with one arm rigidly outstretched in the fencing pose, one of the announcers said, “Well, at least he did his job and got the first down!”

I felt completely disgusted. I tuned off the TV and realized I was no longer a football fan.

Gabriel is also done with the sport:

The turning point for me came when Junior Seau shot himself.

Seau had been one of the NFL’s toughest and best players for years, including for my beloved New England Patriots. When he died, I knew something had to be wrong. What could make someone who had just retired from a Hall of Fame career kill himself?

I later learned that he was suffering from CTE, and that his mental condition had been declining for years. It was destroying his relationship with his family. His existence had become tortuous to the point that his mental and physical anguish pushed him to suicide.

I stopped watching the game immediately. It had become crystal clear that these were nothing but modern-day gladiators, destroying each other for the pleasure of a bloodthirsty audience. I couldn’t be part of that spectacle anymore.

Doug points to another player whose life ended tragically:

As a young boy, I could rattle off the names of Pittsburgh Steelers *linemen*—not just the quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers. But I gave up on American football about three or four years ago. The first major CTE case in the news was one of the players I liked as a kid, Mike Webster. Reading about his case was terribly sad, and I felt somehow complicit.

From there, the desire to watch the game just evaporated over time. Much as your note describes, I became increasingly disenchanted with the meat grinder that the sport seemed to be. Every Monday episode of SportsCenter would include a lengthy rundown of injuries from the day before and it just seemed so grim.

Kelsey can relate to those kind of injuries:

I’m a 23-year-old woman who attended an SEC school and has suffered sports-related concussions. I’m also writing as a former football fanatic who’s become completely disgusted with the sport, mostly the NFL, in the past few years. Their denial of concussion science is abhorrent, especially speaking as someone who took almost a full year to recover from two rugby-induced concussions. I fully expect for those injuries to impact my quality of life long-term, so I cannot imagine how much worse it is for someone whose career requires constant blows to the head.

I love the sport of football, but the NFL has ruined it.

Stephen’s disillusionment came through fantasy football:

I grew up in the ‘80s playing football and watching it every Sunday, and it was by far my favorite sport. I found it easy to disregard the injuries until a decade ago, when I started participating in a fantasy football league. More than anything else, that experience demonstrated how few players escape a season uninjured.

This anonymous reader was worried that abandoning football would create a rift with his father:

I have not followed football in over a year. Last season I didn’t watch a single game, and the season before I watched maybe half the number of games I watched in previous years. And that waning interest is largely because of the head injury controversy and the game’s violence.

It has been difficult to leave, because football was something my dad and I shared when I was growing up. I never actually played football (I'm not exactly athletically inclined), but it was an easy way for me to spend time with my dad. Finding something to do or time to spend with him wasn’t always easy. He worked a lot when I was growing up, and while he is loving and caring, he is also very private and reserved. But watching football with him made me feel like we shared something; it helped us bond. I have more pleasant memories of watching football with my dad than I can quantify.

But I lost interest after hearing about the suffering players go through during and after their careers. It feels wrong to continue to support it. I never explicitly stated this to my dad or my family, but I think it’s obvious. And quite frankly I feel like my dad has lost interest too. Invites to his house to catch a game have stopped. Now, my girlfriend and I go over to my parents’ house to do other things—movie nights, dinner, etc.

The bond I have with my dad goes deeper than football. As I’ve gotten older, we’ve connected in other ways and I’ve learned that I don’t need to use a game as an incentive to hang out with him. It’s probably healthier for our relationship.

Paul provides a powerful quote:

These players are destroying their bodies—and most frighteningly, their brains. As Malcolm Gladwell asked, “Can you point to another industry in America in which, in the course of doing business, maims a third of its employees?”

Paul also recommends one of Gladwell’s New Yorker essays, “Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?,” as well as Steve Almond’s book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Another reader, Bob, highlights one way to help mitigate the head-injury problem:

A year or so ago I read about the coach of a college team in New Hampshire who had his players practice without helmets to make them aware of how they were playing. Perhaps the players need to be schooled in physics and learn leverages? Or perhaps we should realize that blood sport is barbaric and is a catharsis for our inner anger and frustration. It is one thing to play a game; it is another to actively seek to hurt somebody. Many improvements have been made in equipment, but players are larger than ever.

Here’s one more reader for now, Sahil, who “religiously followed the Buffalo Bills and then the Northwestern Wildcats” until the increased awareness over head injuries, in part, made him ditch the sport. Still, it’s hard for him to completely avoid it:

This is my second full season sans football, and it’s a social struggle. People want to meet for games, start fantasy football leagues, and discuss results even when the games aren’t on. Last Super Bowl, a bunch of friends were in town visiting me and staying in my apartment, so we ended up watching the game in my apartment. So even when I tried to get away from it, I somehow ended up hosting a Super Bowl party. (Though I did get a special shirt to make my opinions present in the room.)

I’d be interested in learning if there are any data supported trends to show people abandoning the NFL in greater numbers, and how it varies demographically. Are young people giving it up? Are parents not allowing their children to play? What will the NFL look like in 25 years?

I’m curious if readers have answers to Sahil’s questions, especially parents who have not allowed their children to play. While I was writing my previous note, I asked my parents why I never played little league football and instead stuck to baseball and basketball throughout my childhood. My dad, who played football as a kid for only a year before his parents yanked him from the sport, said he thought the head-injury risk was too great for me to play. “I can’t understand the attraction for parents,” he told me. “Your mom and I talked about all the reasons not to get you involved.”