Is It Patronizing to Say Football Players Are Exploited?

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

Daniel, a reader who describes himself as “a current football fan and an ex football player,” offers a nuanced defense of the sport:

I played in high school, where I sustained a separated shoulder and concussion that kept me out of athletic activity for five months. I walked onto my college football team, where I sustained a second concussion.  While I have successfully healed from these injuries, I continue to deal with their aftereffects in various ways.

Even so, it breaks my heart to see the way many concerned citizens are responding to the game today. Much has been made of the way the NCAA and the NFL exploit their athletes—a claim I find valid, to a degree. In the case of the NCAA, I find it abhorrent that athletes receive nothing in return for their service to the universities they enrich.

The NFL is a slightly different animal, in that more effort is made to support ex-players economically, and players make salaries that allow them to live comfortably. (A caveat here: I recognize that lots of ex-NFL players have not been treated well after their playing days. This is something the league is moving to remedy. Today, it is possible for a player to be cut or retire and transition smoothly into sustainable employment.)

But is it exploitation if the players love to play the game? We are so quick to decry the game as brutal and violent that we never ask why the players allow themselves to experience such things. Could they have agency of their own, who freely chose to come back to take the punishment year after year because the game is a joyful experience?

This is what my experience suggests. If I could do it all over again, knowing how it would end, I would not change a thing. I am sure there are many collegiate and NFL players who would say the same thing because they love the game they play.

I want it to be clear: It is beyond dispute that the NFL and the NCAA have failed to educate their players on the dangers of repeated concussions and injuries, and both organizations need to take the dangers of injury more seriously. But in my mind, it is just as important to understand why so many young men feel they must return to the game year after year even when they do not enjoy the game and know that their bodies are breaking down.  

Maybe, instead of taking down the game of football, we need to have a conversation about race and poverty—forces the opportunities of would-be football players for advancement outside of sports.  I knew I had other options, and though I loved the game of football, I found other areas of work that brought me joy. But I could afford an excellent education, and had many opportunities for advancement. Maybe, in addition to the NFL and the NCAA, we are failing our athletes as a society. And maybe, if we as a society were to change, we could help our athletes avoid the suffering of permanent injury.

This next reader is less sympathetic when it comes to low-income football players because they often get athletic scholarships and a free college education:

My brother played professionally for a couple years. He was outstanding enough to earn a paycheck, but not fabulously talented enough to make a career. I’m 13 years younger than he is, so my childhood was spent driving to college football games. I tracked the NFL standings on my bulletin board. To be like the men in my family (my brother and dad), I dutifully watched the games every weekend from age 6 to 14.

For all the talk of college athletes being exploited as non-employees, there’s another side to it: My brother had a full ride in college. Yet after four years, he was a few credits short and never finished. Although I was an A student, I had to toil my way through school, working part-time to self-fund my education. So I refuse to join the “scholar-athletes’” pity party.

In short, I’m unlike most fallen-away fans because as I matured, I realized that jock culture has nothing to do with authentic manhood, so I generally developed an anti-jock / pro-scholar outlook.

Regardless, this news about CTE is infuriating. How can any responsible person allow the game to continue until science somehow finds an acceptable preventive strategy?

Funny thing is, my brother now regrets ever playing and grows ever more opposed to the game. He agrees that I should prohibit my son from playing, and he’s acutely aware of his risk for CTE and related brain injuries.

“How many concussions did you suffer?” I asked. Reply: “At least six that I know of.” What’s more terrifying: the known quantity of six, or the fact that he almost certainly suffered more and played through them?

More readers defending football and the NFL are here. One of them, Noah, wrote in part:

Football players know there is great risk, but they also know 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.

Malcolm 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.

Disagree? Drop us a note and we’ll try to include here.