Are Criticisms of the NFL Overblown?

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

A dissenting reader, Alex, pushes back on most of the readers who have written in so far:

Like many football fans, I’m often conflicted about following the sport. Many of the concerns raised by your readers are valid, but I think it's important to put them in the proper context. In many cases, troubling high-profile incidents have been turned into anecdotal evidence of a problem not supported by data.

For example, as your readers detailed, one of the recurring issues is the head trauma that players are subjected to and the league’s head-in-the-sand approach to safety concerns. Indeed, several players have retired early rather than risk the ravages of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].

But what most people don’t know is that—despite a higher rate of neurodegenerative diseases—NFL players have longer lifespans on average than the general population. They even commit suicide at a lower rate. So the notion that players are “killing themselves for our entertainment” is not statistically true. At best, one could argue that players are putting themselves at risk for some future health issues while also improving other factors (fitness and wealth) that correlate strongly with longevity.

Another argument echoed by your readers is that watching the NFL makes one complicit with a league full of domestic and sexual abusers who have faced little to no consequences for their actions. Indeed, the league’s approach to cases like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy has been abysmal—and the NFL’s “No More” awareness campaign on the issue reeks of a CYA [cover your ass] public relations move. But for all the NFL’s failures on the issue, its players are still less likely to be arrested for domestic violence and sex offenses than males of the same age.

Again, this is a case of high-profile events being conflated with hard numbers. When an NFL player commits suicide or assaults a partner, it invariably makes the news—and the fallout of the league’s response can carry on for weeks or months. When a non-famous person does the same, we rarely hear about it. And so our confirmation bias leads us to believe players are disproportionately abusive and more likely to be suicidal.

The public financing of stadiums is another of the NFL’s black eyes. And there’s no way to describe it other than borderline extortion of taxpayers. But consider how many other industries would push for that free money if given the leverage the NFL has. We’ve seen it in every other major sport as well, so if that’s your reason for quitting football, you’ll have to cross basketball, baseball, and hockey off your list as well. Oh, and forget about the World Cup, which has been beset by billion-dollar bribery allegations and built by slave labor in dangerous conditions that may cost thousands of lives.

None of this is to say football doesn’t have real issues or pretend the NFL is the moral paragon of American industry. “It’s not as bad as it seems” and “It could be worse” are not compelling defenses. I’m sure a lot of fans, like me, make these rationalizations to justify our continued enjoyment of the sport. Others have found it easier to give it up. For some people, football is a former player dealing with memory loss or an abusive player given a pass because of his ability. For others, it’s making a stand for social justice or a star visiting a sick kid in the hospital [similar to the video embedded above]. There’s just no way to put the actions of every owner, coach and player on an ethical balance scale. Remaining a fan can be seen as a question of morality, but so can shopping at Wal-Mart.

Ultimately, I’ll remain a fan because I’ve already put decades of emotional investment into my team—and it would kill me if they finally won a Super Bowl after I stopped watching. I’ll keep watching because of my nostalgia over all the games I watched with my family, and because it’s a conversation starter when I call home. I’ll stick around because I need to defend my championship in my office fantasy league.

That doesn’t mean I won’t still have qualms about the sport. Other people’s qualms may cause them to quit, and as long as they’re based on data rather than misperceptions, that’s fine too.

Do you agree with Alex? Is it fair to single out the NFL? Or are its problems still enough to give up on the league? Let us know: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader, Ian:

I understand Alex’s letter about relatively low rates of domestic abuse, but there are other factors to consider. The FiveThirtyEight piece cited seemed to compare NFL players to the general population, which might skew the data. A more apt comparison might be people around the same age and same relative wealth. NFL players are significantly more wealthy than the general population and have more resources to prevent arrest.

Qualitatively, there are instances where NFL teams have stepped in to prevent charges from being filed. It’s hard to tell how common this practice is, but the issue indicates that lower-than-average domestic abuse numbers might come from some teams protecting their players.