Diehard Fans Defend the Game

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

The vast majority of readers who have emailed so far have abandoned their football fandom—namely because of the brain injuries—but there are some notable exceptions. Here’s John:

I am a graduate student in the biological sciences and definitely consider myself a football fan. (Yes, this results in the cognitive dissonance you might expect.) I won’t comment on whether or not it is unethical to enjoy football, but I will say that it has made me more empathetic toward climate change deniers. I now understand how you can see the preponderance of scientific evidence and not want to believe it. I also think (hope?) that the solutions to both problems will ultimately come with advances rather than retreats—that is, the solutions lie in new energy sources, helmets, or technology rather than reducing our net consumption of energy or football.

Unlike John, another young reader, Michael, does grapple with the ethics of the game:

While I have grown concerned about the number of concussions in football at all levels of play, I haven’t given up on it yet. One reason is because I have been a college football fanatic for most of my life and I still attend Wisconsin Badger games with my father when we can. It simply feels wrong to give up on a father/son tradition that’s been maintained for so long.

Another, more selfish reason is because I don’t want to stop watching football, because I enjoy the game.

In truth, I hadn’t thought much about the connection between concussions and football until Chris Borland decided to retire out of concern for his own health. As I began to research the subject further and further, it became harder to ignore the issue, and I have at times questioned whether my choice to remain a fan is right or not. I’ve given the issue a lot of thought, and at times I question if I should remain a fan or not. But, in addition to the reasons listed above, I’ve chosen to remain a fan for the following reasons:

One, I cling to what may be the false hope that one day, the game will be made safer, whether through rule changes or technological progression that makes it safer and easier for an individual to absorb a hit (such as a stronger helmet). It should go noted that this is not the first time that football has faced controversy due to its safety: A Harvard Magazine article notes that in the early 1900s, it wasn’t unheard of for more than a dozen collegiate players to die playing the game every year. As colleges began to cancel their football programs, the death of the game seemed all but inevitable. However, through rule changes (such as the legalization of the forward pass), the game was not only made safer, but was made, in my opinion, better.

Two, there is no such thing as a concussion-free sport. I once heard Andre Rison refer to American football as “the most violent game that exists,” but I don’t agree with him at all. I believe that boxing, MMA, and rugby are all far more violent than American football is, concussions and all.

What about sports like soccer and basketball? What about baseball? Well, believe it or not, an individual can, and athletes often do, receive concussions from those sports as well. You may remember that Thurman Thomas, the Hall of Fame halfback and Buffalo Bills legend, once said that concussions are “happening to not only football players, but [other athletes]” as well, and that’s true. So, if one wants to watch sports knowing that the players are largely safe from concussions, I recommend golf.

My third and final reason is one I’ve heard tossed around: Freedom of choice. These players choose to play the game, in spite of its infamous connection to head trauma. So long as they are fully forewarned of the risk (and at the moment they are not), then it’s up to them whether or not they want to play.

I understand that freedom of choice has its limits; I would not, for example, allow individuals to participate in gladiator duels for my own amusement. However, given the number of former football players who are living well past the age of 70, it’s obvious that football is not as dangerous as the sport where the objective is to literally kill one’s opponent. And if these players are going to play, why shouldn’t I watch? Reasonable people could disagree, but those are my beliefs.

I want to quickly note that my ability to watch football does not extend from a lack of empathy. I actually enjoy watching rugby, but I am simply unable to because of the fact that I almost feel the pain that stems from those unprotected hits.

But there is such a thing as living a life so safe, so protected from all danger, that it’s not worth living. I don’t know where the line is drawn, but I do know that many football players do not believe that it’s before playing the game. And I know that I’m not willing to give up on football quite yet.

Michael argues that stronger helmets may help, but helmets actually have very little to do with these concussions, as we reported earlier this year. Ironically, better helmetswhich make fractures nearly impossibleactually cause more concussions, indirectly, because players are emboldened to hit each other harder at faster speeds. It’s the sudden stopping that causes concussionsthe brain continuing to move forward and smashing against skullnot the contact itself.

Several readers, like Michael, argue that these football players are adults, after all, who can make their own choices. Here’s one reader:

I’m a huge Seahawks fan, and I know that the players are putting themselves at risk of permanent injury. I continue to watch because I understand that these players know the risks, but they play on anyway. Boxers know the risks, but they box anyway. Race car drivers know the risks, but they race anyway. Hockey players know the risks, but they play anyway.

Only when the players are minors should there be a cause for concern, because the child players of those sports are often into their respective sports because of and at their parents’ behest. As adults, NFL players know the risks, especially now that it’s been so widely publicized. Should the NFL be treated any differently than any other sport that carries with it the risk of injury?

But the idea of choice is trickier than it initially appears, as another reader argues:

It’s easy to say, “Well, they know what they are getting into, therefore I can watch with a clean conscience.” First, I think most players still don’t truly “know” what the after-effects of having played the game are both physical and mental (often both). Second, even assuming the players are participating under fully informed consent, there is still collateral damage. Spouses, siblings, parents, and children especially, don’t have a say, and they are often the ones left cleaning up the damage long after the paychecks stop coming in. Look at the Josh Brown case that’s coming to light. Ray Rice. Junior Seau. Steve Gleason.

Another reader, Noah, refutes an argument made in the Malcolm Gladwell essay we referenced in a previous note:

Football has always been a violent, dangerous game that offers
boundless prosperity to a highly select few and ruin to many, but fond
memories and enjoyment to most. (It might be said that life itself
administers a similar distribution of results.) Players at all levels
knew the violence-for-glory trade-off far before anyone grasped the
full magnitude of CTE’s effects. What’s important to realize is that
football is hardly the only profession that offers a similar
consideration of danger; one can imagine, for example, how the Discovery Channel’s ratings might look if they were not allowed to depict people in potentially dangerous jobs.

Football players know there is great risk, but they also know that they
have the opportunity to live like kings, if only for a few years, and
if only in their own domain. That risk is central to both the pride of
playing the game and the fascination we have in watching it.

Gladwell is largely correct to point out that such a harsh payoff
structure can only appeal to people from poorer upbringings. He and
other football-haters seem to forget that players of all backgrounds
make a conscious and (by this point in time, at least) well-informed
choice to continue playing the game. To suggest players can’t think
for themselves is to patronize them, which I find rather disgusting in
light of Gladwell’s hypothesis.

There may be loads of research about harmful effects of repeated hits to the head, but for some fans the love of the game outweighs the negatives. Tyler writes:

I like to have my cake and eat it too. I complain about how college athletes are treated, about how terrible NFL owners are, about how scary CTE is, and how terrible ESPN and the Hot Take industry is, and then promptly sit down and watch hours and hours of awesome football.

Same goes for this reader:

I’ve been a diehard Lions fan my entire life. If that isn’t enough to turn me away from football, then I suppose nothing is.

Concussions are a serious problem, and I’m happy more attention is being brought to the issue. I support all efforts to mitigate the problem, and I also respect anyone’s decision to stop following the sportbut I enjoy it too much. It’s a bunch of large men assaulting each other in an attempt to cross a line with a ball. I know it’s barbaric, but it’s also very entertaininglike a violent chess match.

I guess my fondness of the sport trumps my empathy for the players. Ultimately, their sacrifice is voluntary, and it’s one that millions of Americans would make it given the opportunity. They essentially trade their physical and mental well-being for pride and large sums of cash. And if there’s a way to earn a 6-8 figure income without risking your mental and physical health, I have yet to hear of it.

I know I’m rationalizing, but whatever, go Lions.

This last defender of the game alludes to a familiar theme: how ingrained football is in many Americans’ lives. He writes:

It’s perhaps the single most beloved non-living entity in my entire life. I remember watching football with my dad, grandparents and extended family when I was barely knee high to a camel, both of us learning America’s game together. I’ve played the game since I could walk, and watched almost religiously ever since I can remember. It was a source of stability and comfort as I spent most of my early adulthood moving from job site to job site, living out of hotels and temporary rentals, rarely making anything other than the most shallow and fleeting of acquaintances and connections with my temporarily adopted geography du jour.

I know it is, at its heart, an amoral beast that chews human bodies up and spits them out in pursuit of nothing more or less than the almighty dollar. I know all of this, but what I don’t know is how to quit it. It feels as much a part of me as my own left arm. What’s a dude to do?

That’s a legitimate struggle I understand. I’ve been away from Chicago since I was 18, but the city’s sports have always been a point of pride, even if they lost with as much frequency as the Bears. Still, the prevalence of head injuries, for me at least, outweighs football’s appeal. For other former fans, corporate greed, domestic violence, and other issues have led them away from the sport. We’ll highlight those concerns in this discussion soon.