In light of the ongoing concussion crisis, domestic violence scandals, and more problems plaguing the NFL, Matt Vasilogambros leads a discussion with readers on why they’ve stopped watching football or stuck with the sport.
There was a disturbingly familiar story in the news today: a football player, this time from the University of Southern California, was charged with raping a woman who was unconscious. Stories of violence against women are pervasive among athletes, and many of those cases have happened in the NFL.
To be sure, rape and domestic violence is not limited to football. In July, the Chicago Cubs acquired ace pitcher Aroldis Chapman to help lead them to the World Series, despite his troubling history of pushing and choking his wife. His is far from the only case of domestic violence in professional sports, which I’ve highlighted in previous reporting.
But it’s hard to overlook the troubling way the NFL has handled issues of domestic violence with its players, from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson. Many of our readers have abandoned football for that reason. Here’s Amy, who “stopped watching and following football a couple of years ago, after being a fairly faithful Niners fan since the mid-1990s”:
I started watching football in law school in 1999 because the complex rules fascinated me, the team was doing really well, and Steve Young and Jerry Rice were just plain fun to watch. Plus, as a young woman attorney working in male-dominated law firms in the late ’90s, it helped to be able to talk knowledgeably about football.
When the press began reporting on traumatic brain injuries among NFL players, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the game. The final straw for me was a string of horrific domestic violence incidents, including the arrest of Ray McDonald. The NFL’s tone-deaf response and failure to impose meaningful penalties on players who abused their partners was sickening to me, and I was done. I haven’t found it hard to pull away from the game, and most NFL-related headlines I see reinforce that I made the right decision.
Tammy is close to making that decision:
There is no question I watch football far less than I used to. I went from an avid, every-game viewer (Sunday, Monday night, etc) to a few games a season, if that. But not because of the concussions, although those do not help.
Frankly, I have grown tired of watching the violence that they, the players, perpetuate against women while everyone turns a blind eye. If caught, they are slapped on the wrist and are still paid millions.
This cult of celebrity worship starts in high school, where we tune in to watch where highly rated prospects are going to college. These same high school students can rape a girl and post it to social media and be out of jail in a few years if not months, as we saw in Steubenville, Ohio. How much misconduct must we hear of while they are in college, only to get the big contracts every time when drafted?
So, no. I’m not much a fan of football anymore. I have a hard time supporting a league that cares little for anything except its money. Only until Ray Rice came along was anyone punished with any significance, and even now there are rumblings he might get a second chance. Of course he will. This is the NFL after all.
Stacy has more on the Ray Rice scandal:
I first fell in love with football when Baltimore was swept with Ravens fever in 2000, when I was in elementary school. I can still name almost all of the starters on defense from that team, jersey numbers included. Once I was hooked, my dad used to pick me up early from Hebrew school on Sundays to go down to the stadium until I was old enough that I thought waking up at 9am for a game was way too early.
My relationship with the Ravens took a huge hit in fall of 2014. After I saw the video of Ray Rice knocking out his fiancé, I was shocked and disgusted.
But it was the ensuing domino affect in the front office and NFL headquarters that left me questioning how I could support a team and sport that view women as nothing more than a blank check. Not only did I stop rooting for the Ravens, I began to root against them—when I even bothered to watch games. Since my breakup, I have taken the Miami Dolphins as #1 team, since my mom grew up in South Florida rooting them on. (Luckily, with my goal to not pay attention to the NFL, the Dolphins are such a disappointment that they make it easy.)
I have been apart of the “boy’s club” of football my whole life. Growing up in Minnesota, we bleed purple and gold. But after what Adrian Peterson did [physically abuse his 4-year-old son], I cannot cheer for him without my stomach churning. Does that make me a bad Vikings fan or worse, a bad Minnesotan? Do we have to check our morals in the name of hometown pride? Sometimes I feel like I am doing just that.
I am hesitant to bring up these frustrations about the NFL to my male friends as I am fearful it will be misconstrued as weak or overly feminine. I have had to fight tooth and nail just to be taken seriously during draft day. But what I want to know is why more men aren’t upset by the NFL’s blind eye to these terrible acts of violence against women. Why not boycott and burn the jerseys of Ahmad Brooks or James Harrison (both of whom were not punished by the NFL for their crimes)? Is everyone just chalking this up to the “Boys will be boys” mentality and letting it go so we can cheer and drink beer a few months out of the year?
It is becoming painful to be an NFL fan as a woman and I wish more people cared about these issues, especially men. If we as fans demand better of the NFL, maybe we’ll get it. But it seems no one is interested and that break my heart.
It’s been so long since I cared about football on any level, I don’t think I can adequately give a timeframe. I live in Western Pennsylvania, so in addition to concerns about concussions, I have witnessed two separate off-the-field scandals that have really soured me. The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky abuse tragedy made it clear that any reprehensible act can be excused as long as the team is winning. Ben Roethlisberger’s assault case is even more disturbing, as there are so many women here who excuse his behavior or shame the victims. And he’s still held up as a role model to our youth, just as Joe Paterno will always be a hero.
This last reader, Femi, points to another scandal in college ball:
I am a Baylor alum. Over the past year, as we have learned more about the sexual assault scandal that the football team was a part of, I lost any remaining ability I had to compartmentalize the joy I got while watching football apart from the real world consequences that often accompany it. Baylor wanted a winning football program and part of the cost of that was the victimhood of multiple young women who were students there. That is something that I will never be able to unlearn.
This is far from the only time when the NFL came at a big cost to taxpayers and an enormous gain for team owners. Many Atlantic readers are outraged by the trend, including Lori:
In addition to not caring for the safety of their players (in particular CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]), and the NFL’s response, or lack thereof, to domestic abuse and sexual assault, let me add that I stopped watching football because of the greedy owners who cozied up to public officials and raided the coffers to build lavish new, mega stadiums at the expense of real public goods—parks, schools, safe roads and bridges, small business and entrepreneurial investments, clean water, and more.
Here’s Billy, a former Bears fan in Chicago:
The end of the NFL for me came when I read your article on how the NFL fleeces taxpayers [Gregg Easterbrook’s Atlantic essay, “How Taxpayers Keep the NFL Rich”]. My disgust started with the school systems of Chandler, AZ, and Cincinnati suffering so those municipalities can make their bond payments on stadiums that sit empty for 350 days a year. Then you read about all of the different “deals” owners cut with cities to get new stadiums paid for by anyone but themselves.
And if a city won’t pay, like a 3-year old, the owner takes their ball and threatens to run to another city (L.A. until the Rams absconded, now Vegas). Speaking of the Rams, how does the city of St. Louis feel as it watches in horror as the NFL has ripped their financial hearts out for the second time in the last 30 years?
As Bill Simmons said, billionaire owners can build their own fucking stadiums.
A reader in Cleveland, Mark, goes into much more detail about the stadium issue:
The main reason I have given up is that as much as I love the game of football, I cannot stomach the wretched excess that is the National Football League. I am very familiar with the struggles of my Cleveland Browns. I, however, feel that though the helmet and name is the same, these are not my Browns. They were given to us by the NFL who approved the old Browns’ move to Baltimore with little opposition.
I always use the analogy that the original Browns are our mom while the new Browns are the woman who married your father. They’ll never be “Mom.”
I am not blaming the NFL for the fact the team sucks. They have made bad decisions and had some bad luck. The Browns’ mistakes are their own. And compared to how the NFL has treated cities like Baltimore and St. Louis, we got off easy. But this is not the litany of an unhappy Browns fan.
Specifically, my main issue with the NFL is their frequent and repeated habit of holding cities ransom for new stadiums. Trust me, cities like Cleveland cannot economically justify having a professional football stadium when their schools are struggling and their infrastructure needs attention. Yet time after time, elected officials and voters are forced to prioritize a game over other pressing matters. Our stadium was just renovated to add “state of the art” scoreboards, etc to better enhance the fan experience. All of that was paid for by the Cuyahoga County taxpayers every time they buy alcohol or a tobacco product.
But no elected official wants to be the guy who lost the Browns. The mayor who did lose the Browns was only redeemed because he got an expansion team. But St. Louis just lost their team because their owner created a better deal for himself elsewhere. The Oakland fans are likely to lose their team again. Do they deserve to? No, but Oakland cannot afford to build a billion dollar stadium and then just hand it over to the Raiders owner.
Does the NFL care? No, because Las Vegas will do whatever it takes to bring the NFL to town. They can afford to because there is a virtually insatiable appetite for football. And there must always be a city to use as a threat for relocation so current cities give the teams whatever they want. People want their football and are willing to excuse a lot to have it.
Between the stadium hustle and a dictator-like commissioner who receives over $40 million each year, the NFL has begun to resemble the old Standard Oil. It does as it pleases, and the only thing that matters to them is that each of their games get played. If a player is no longer of value, he can be easily replaced.
They do all of this because they know that we’ll be watching. That’s what’s so frustrating. We want our football fix and we’re willing to do just about anything to get it.
So far, in our wide-ranging discussion over the state of the NFL and football fandom in general, readers have gone after brain injuries, domestic and sexual violence, and the league’s corporate greed. But many former fans have left the game for a smattering of other reasons, from faux-patriotism to just a malaise for the NFL. Here’s Dave to begin our long list:
I just finished reading your introductory note “Are You No Longer a NFL Fan?” and I am indeed one of your readers that has lost interest in the game. I grew up a passionate fan and have fond memories of cheering for the Buffalo Bills with my family. While one might argue that my waning interest could be a result of the Bills 25+ years of mediocrity, I think it is much more than that. As you point out, the barbarism inherent in the sport and the failure of the NFL to adapt the game to account for brain damage research is deplorable and disgusting.
There are other issues that I find offensive as well. Personally, I think it is gross the way that militarism, patriotism and heroism are all cozy bedfellows with the NFL, the NFL telecasts, and the promotion of each team’s brand. These things do not belong together. Military ceremony, jet fly-overs and overt use of American symbology in the NFL game cheapens true patriotism and heroism.
Most importantly, I believe it carries the implication that the violence, force, and the untempered emotional support inherent in the game are necessary components of patriotism. This is dangerous and misguided.
Mike, a U.S. military vet, has noticed his interest in the NFL wane over time:
A handful of years ago, I was deployed to Afghanistan. I sacrificed most of my sleep by waking up at 2:30 a.m. to watch the Super Bowl between two teams I didn’t cheer for whatsoever (Ravens v. 49ers). I could name most of the starters for each team. I guess you could say I was a big NFL fan then.
Last night, I went to a sports bar to get dinner. The bar had the Steelers v. Redskins game on. I couldn’t tell you who any of the players on either team were except for the starting QBs. I guess you could say I’m not a big NFL fan now.
Doug has also noticed the revolving door of players:
I used to enjoy a range of college and professional sports, including football. Several years back, it dawned on me that I was watching a group of workers doing work. They were employees doing a job—nothing more, nothing less. They weren’t “MY TOWN’S TEAM”; they go where the money is and work for whomever will pay them the most, and get dropped by their employer the instant the ROI flips. I’m fine with that, but it sort of took the core out of watching the game.
Nick is sick of how the sport is packaged these days:
Fewer games are broadcast on TV; you’re forced to buy the NFL package, ESPN, or NFL Network to watch them. As a cord cutter, I watch what is broadcast, nothing more.
Robert is “about 80 percent done with the NFL”:
Yes I am less of a fan today, mainly because like many things today, Social Media has ruined the escape from work, money worries, family dynamics, etc, etc.
Football has always been a pleasant diversion—not an escape. It’s a break, an interlude between the challenges of life, and entertainment I could enjoy with my sons.
Not anymore. There’s too much football on TV. We know too much about the players, coaches, players’ wives, general managers. Players tweet and post on Instagram and Facebook. I don’t want to know what players and GMs think of politics or the economy; I want to watch the sport. I don’t want to wonder if the kicker for the Eagles beat his wife again, or if some backup QB is cleared to play after his DUI arrest. I have enough drama in my own life. I don’t care about others’ self-inflicted drama.
Bruce’s beef with pro football is specific to Redskins drama:
Your discussion really strikes a cord with me. I, too, have a low-grade, gnawing, general revulsion for football this fall. I’ve been a Washington Redskins fan for 45 years and have always admired the game. I have wonderful, cherished memories of going to RFK with my father. But Dan Snyder’s refusal to consider changing the racially charged team name shocks me, in the same way that the harsh reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s BLM protest does. I just can’t believe people have so little empathy for others.
Snyder knows that George Preston Marshall, the team’s racist owner who moved the Boston Braves to DC in the 1930s and was the last NFL owner to agree to integrate black players in the 1960s, chose the name as a joke. Yet Snyder remains committed to a version of the story that the name somehow honors Native Americans instead of insults them.
That, combined with new knowledge about the extent of CTE among former players, means that, as your friend says, “we are watching men get permanent brain damage for our enjoyment.” As you say, I probably won’t give up watching games all at once, but it’s third and long, and I’m not seeing a play in the playbook that will advance the chains.
Ed thinks the gameplay advances at a snail’s pace:
A Wall Street Journal study in 2010 determined that actual plays took a total of 11 minutes per game. I prefer to watch a rugby match, since it involves little downtime, or spend my time doing something else.
Charles went with soccer:
The reason I switched to English football was because I wasn’t getting blasted by commercials for 33 percent of the time. Also, soccer is two hours vs 3.5 hours for an NFL game. Most of NFL is standing around.
Bruce doesn’t like how the NFL overvalues quarterbacks:
I was a rabid Vikings fan from my youth in the ’70s through the heartbreaking 1998 season. At that point, I no longer liked how the game made me feel. A loss by my team was debilitating and winning streaks resulted in adrenaline filled obsession. It almost felt like a drug addiction.
I found that rule changes that favored passing over a more balanced attack created a ridiculous dynamic where a high quality QB was essential to success. It seems wrong that a game with 53 players would rely so heavily on one player. A torn ACL and the season was lost.
Roger also prefers an earlier era of the NFL:
The traumatic brain injuries are the worst, but the game in general has become irritating to watch. When I played, there was a brief offensive huddle while the defense leaned toward the captain who shouted a few words like “five three,” meaning line up with five linemen and three linebackers. Now, we are faced with two long huddles on either side of the ball, plus a referee huddle nearly every other play while they try to figure out why flags were thrown and what to do about it and how to explain it to the assembled multitude. This last huddle is not constrained by the 24-second clock.
I have a strong memory of the head ref in my day grabbing the QB by his shoulder pads because he was confused about accepting or rejecting a penalty. The ref screamed he was cutting into playing time and no further delay would be accepted. I think the QB had wasted about three seconds.
Finally, in a worthy effort to reduce injuries, the rules have become so complex as to be unenforcible in a consistent manner. Offensive pass interference is clear enough in the rule book, but watch how it is called or not called! In the interest of protecting the QB, intentional grounding went away, then came back with the addition of something having to do with the relationship between the QB and tackles, as if the guys in stripes could remember where the tackles, lined up after the ball is snapped and the 22-man melee begins.
I could go on, but the bottom line is that it is just not fun to watch any longer.
Readers defended the game here, and there are a few more defenses to come. Is there an issue that we’ve missed so far? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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: email@example.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.
“We really don’t have reason to trust the NFL, and I don’t think they mind either way,” Sherman says in the video. “At the end of the day, they’re going to do what they have to do to make their money and to make as much money as they can for the owners.”
A long-time reader, Tim, has been following our debate over the NFL and shifts our attention to another contact sport:
Count me among the many who have drifted away from the NFL, for all the reasons your readers have named: cheap patriotism, endless games, nitpicky rules unevenly enforced, CTE CTE CTE. This as a Pats fan who for most of the 2000s was riding a high.
I also join reader Ed in switching my interest to rugby, in the limited way I can with a basic cable contract. The constant action and amazing athleticism is one reason. An equal one is the “culture of respect” that’s one of the game’s foundations and most carefully guarded traditions. Players rarely deliberately hurt one another; when they do, they are banned for months on end. Their infrequent scuffles are in the wrestling/bristling mode, not punching with venom.
And, crucially, the referee is The Law—and more in the Solomonic than the Draconian mode. Disputes and fouls are resolved swiftly, fairly, and decisively. This supercut of the legendary Welsh ref Nigel Owens explains the appeal of this approach, versus the NFL’s endless rulebook, far better than I can.
With a word (“Christopher!”) he ends a debate full-stop (and gets a schoolboy's meek “Sorry, sir” from a mountain of a man). After breaking up a big scuffle, he has the captains call all the players to him, puts out the flames, and resets the order of play, all while keeping the game’s competitive spirit firmly in the players’ hands:
I don’t want to make a big issue of this, OK? But things like that are not acceptable in the game. What happened here or what happened afterwards, I did not see it. It ends there. Is that clear? You’re adults. You’ll be treated like it as long as you behave like it. We’re going to go back to the original penalty down there.
It’s of note that Owens is openly gay—and that both he and the world’s best players are comfortable with that to the point that Owens even famously had a bit of fun with it. (The throw here is supposed to come in perpendicular to the sideline. When it doesn’t...)
Knowing how hard it was for Owens to accept himself as a gay man makes his acceptance by and respect from the game’s best all the sweeter to behold.
So which sport is more dangerous? Rugby players wear far fewer pads, but it’s those pads that enable and embolden someone to hit another player with greater speed and force—and it’s the sudden stopping, not the impact itself, that causes the brain to crash into the inside of the skull, causing a concussion. Rugby players don’t wear helmets, but rather scrum caps, which do little more than prevent cauliflower ear—though again, it’s the helmet that allows for harder hits and a harder projectile, so helmets can be more dangerous for players than caps.
Rugby doesn’t have a system of downs like football, so it’s not as important to contest every single yard. In rugby, it’s more important that the man simply gets tackled—it’s ok if he drags you a yard or two as long as he doesn’t score. In football, that extra yard might mean a new set of downs so you get defensive players impacting the players hard and high—trying to stop the runner's forward movement immediately.
The Redditor also points to a 2008 study showing lower rates of injury in college rugby than college football. Another key distinction between the two sports comes from a rugby coach on his blog:
Another major contributing factor is that in football, offensive players are often looking backwards over their shoulder for the ball while the defensive player is in front of them. There is no way for the offensive player to see the hit coming and prepare himself for the contact. In rugby, the ball must always be passed backwards, and the defense is in front of the ball and much closer. The offensive player is able to see the ball coming and simultaneously the tackler, allowing the player to prepare for contact.
So, are there any aspects of rugby that are more dangerous than football? Football may have a bigger concussion crisis, and a higher injury rate overall, but rugby has a distinct and serious problem: spinal injuries. As The Guardiannotes, “In rugby it is spinal injuries from scrums that are the most dangerous (110 rugby players in Britain have been paralysed by playing the game).” What’s a scrum exactly? This video vividly explains it and its perils:
Have you played football and rugby and can personally attest to the different risks? Drop us an email. Carly played at least one of those sports:
I find the condemnation of some other readers of the violence and “barbarism” of the NFL interesting. I played rugby throughout college and for awhile after graduation in a local adults’ league. There is something inherently, viscerally satisfying in putting my body on the line, in executing a solid tackle and bringing an opponent to the ground, or in stiff-arming a defender. It’s violent, but it’s a violence with rules and a code of conduct. It can be deeply invigorating and empowering. I don’t think the damage the players inflict on each other is barbaric. (The exploitation of the players by the owners, on the other hand … )
I ended up retiring from rugby after my 3rd concussion (I am a chronic klutz and was terrible at maintaining the proper form to reduce my risk for injury). Playing the sport was my choice to make, but I wasn’t helping make millions of dollars for my coaches or any administrative staff. Providing support for the physical trade-offs players make would seem to be basic consideration given the sums they bring in. Given the money that floods the NFL, every player ought to be given the best possible health insurance for life—insurance that should cover therapy and psychiatrists and anger management and couples' counseling.
That, and they could take some tips from rugby to speed the game along a bit. It’s crazy how a football game drags out!
Update from another reader, an expat from across the Pond:
I haven’t played both football and rugby, but I have watched them lots. To use a rather salty British expression (I’m an American living in Britain for the past 14 years, and in Ireland for the three years before that), it’s bollocks to say that rugby players who set out to injure opponents are routinely banned for long stretches of time. Just search YouTube for “Brian O’Driscoll spear tackle.” [A video of the O’Driscoll scandal is seen below, and here’s a video of “Top 5 Spear Tackles”—essentially picking a player up and dropping him on his head.]
The guys who did that [to O’Driscoll]—which could have killed the man or left him paralyzed — weren’t banned at all.
More recently, opposing teams have routinely targeted Irish flyhalf Jonny Sexton because he’s had problems with concussion. (Yes, I support Ireland.) And little is done. The International Rugby Board is much more unforgiving about eye gouging in the scrum.
That said, I believe rugby is a far better sport than its American cousin: the referee definitely rules the roost, the lack of hard helmets more or less eliminates the possibility of a Darryl Stingley-like event, no endless list of specialists who can be introduced whenever, no television breaks AT ALL ... and the beer and banter afterwards can’t be topped.
But what the sport that most of the world calls football—soccer? How bad are those head injuries? (Readers have previously tackled rugby.) Innes, a reader of Jim’s piece, flags “a more worrying report today about the effects of football on the brain”:
There is no doubt that American football and rugby as contact sports have more head knocks, concussions, and long-term health effects. But even soccer has been linked to premature deaths due to players repeatedly heading the ball. Today the University of Stirling released a study that showed even a short practice round of heading the ball led to immediate short-term memory degradation. The U.S. has already taken the lead by banning heading in the children’s game. [CB note: The ban last year successfully stopped a class-action lawsuit involving concussions.] Hopefully the U.K. will follow. However, if this effect can be measured in a relatively soft, non-contact sport like soccer, imagine how much worse it is in American football.
There are two relatively modern (well, my era) Scottish insults: Ba’ Heid and the more recent Heid the Ba’. “Ball Head” either meant someone bald but more often someone with air between their ears, preferably both bald and stupid. “Head the ball” was a play of words on that, but it was informed by the folk knowledge that footballers who headed a football rather than play it off their feet were stupid.
One time I headed a very high ball rather than try to control it. I heard a crunch from my neck. I’ve had worse head knocks in real life—car-crashes and fighting. I also have read various science studies over the decades about how head knocks have long-term effects, especially on children—not just long-term effects like dementia, but immediate increased aggression. This latest study kind of proves that, and it is disgraceful that the sports bodies have ignored the overwhelming evidence and left it to universities to prove it.
I hate to make a sick pun on such a serious subject, but it’s a “no-brainer” that children’s brains should not be knocked against the inside of their skulls in the name of sport.
This biggest danger in going up for a header is not the ball, of course, but other heads—which, unlike American football and rugby, don’t have any protective gear:
Do you have anything to add over the risks of playing soccer? Or do you think such risks are overblown—or just plain worth it? Send us a note and we’ll continue the discussion: firstname.lastname@example.org. Update from a reader, who snarks:
I think that all American children should be bubble-wrapped until age 18. (Except bubble wrap might have harmful chemicals that would cause brain damage.)
Another reader, Elise, is more earnest:
As a 6th grade teacher I vote for Ultimate (aka Ultimate Frisbee) as my favorite sport to teach, watch, or play. It is fast, action packed, and full of opportunities for an athlete to stretch themselves. It is not a contact sport, and players rarely get hit in the head. Almost anyone can play, but it requires much practice to be really good. Ultimate is self refereed, requiring a level of maturity and fair play from its players that most sports delegate to an outside authority. This is called The Spirit of the Game, and it is what makes the game great. For your readers who are looking for a new sport to love, check out Ultimate!
Here’s one more reader, who brings us back to soccer and conveys the somber story of his son:
He is 21 now, and was 14 when he suffered his first concussion. Let me tell you about what he’s dealt with:
1. He was diagnosed with a grade 3 concussion after a GK, in an U-16 USSF Academy away game, punched him in the back of the head. He was unconscious for 3-10 minuets (not one person could tell me the real time).
2. He was home schooled the 2nd half of his freshman year and 1st half of sophomore year in H.S. because of headaches, dizziness, bad memory, mood swings, numbness in extremities, and fainting. He slept for 11-15 hours a day, and couldn’t keep solid foods down.
3. The doctors cleared him to practice (no heading) after a year and was cleared to play in a game 6 months later. He returned to school for the second half of sophomore year and started playing with the team again. First game back and in the first half he was tackled from behind while attempting a cross. The player sweeped his legs from under him and he landed head first on the turf. He was airlifted to the nearest trauma hospital. He suffered his second grade 3 concussion and didn’t return to school until his senior year.
4. He has not played competitive soccer since. He is a completely different person. He still has the same symptoms he suffered earlier every day. He is very sensitive to light, headaches all the time, can't sleep more than 4 hours, has short term memory loss, no memory of older events, mood swings, depression, blackouts and short term amnesia.
This is long, because it needed to be. Nobody from USSF followed up, USSF is helping with any rehab, no medical staff at the 1st game and I was told about his injury hours later only after I called the manager of the team. He was off and acting weird in the car when I picked him up from the airport. His teammate told me he was punched and he looked concerned, because he was talking to us like it was a tournament 2 years ago.
Head injuries in any sport is bad, but to everyone that thinks soccer is safe … it’s not!
The following reader, Stephen, sent us a note a few days ago to revive the richdiscussion we had back in the fall over the ethics of watching football:
I am a resident of Houston. As you can guess right now, the city is getting a little hectic as we countdown to the largest sporting event on U.S. soil. There was a time when I watched every football game I could, played in multiple fantasy football leagues, and was up to date on everything football. ESPN was a regular rotation. All my free time revolved around the NFL.
Not anymore. I am disgusted with the NFL.
The more time goes by, the less accessibility to true fans I am seeing. Affordability of regular season games is ludicrous. Twenty-five minutes of game time with 1.5 hours of commercials … what a waste of time.
The Super Bowl has become the Red Carpet of the NFL; it’s more for celebrities and non fans to be seen than for the true diehards. For crying out loud, the commercials of this event are celebrated. For such a lucrative game, they get volunteers to work and compel cities to fork over the money to host. Essentially, the NFL is paid to host the Super Bowl, not the other way around.
I guess what I hate is how money and soap-opera type drama dominates the game. I watch many people struggle to pay bills, yet this NFL machine won’t stop consuming. All for what? What is the return? A 20-minute game?
Many players are treated like cattle, not human beings. They are subjected to injuries, and horrific conditions. They earn high salaries, but what is their quality of life after the game?
I can’t stand football anymore.
Speaking of the quality of life of ex-players, this next reader, Jeremy, digs into our debate over traumatic and long-term head injuries:
I love football. I played through high school. I love to watch it. I just won my fantasy football league this year. But the reality of the game is becoming harder and harder for me to ignore.
Junior Seau’s suicide, Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, Luke Kuechly’s big hit [seen above], and that devastating GQ article on HS football player Zac Easter … everything just keeps chipping away at my love for the game. Which is crazy because enough should have already been enough!
But the sense of community and camaraderie among fans is what keeps me in it. And is there anything more exciting than the end of a close football game? Less than two minutes left. Your team takes the field, down a score. Then they start marching …
The fact remains, however, that football (and to a lesser extent hockey) is the only major American sport that is actively killing its players. Baseball, basketball, and soccer players [the latter covered by readers here, and rugby here] may end up with bad knees or elbows or ankles, but they don’t routinely lose their minds as a result of playing the game as it is meant to be played. And that’s the sad reality that every football fan has to face. Is this game that we love worth it?
And people will defend it: “Grown adults making informed decisions.” But how can you weigh the risks of losing your mind while you still have it?
It’s just a lot. And it should be enough to say “stop.” I think that watching and contributing to the sport is wrong. But when it feels like our entire society watches and condones it, it’s hard to give up.
I went cold turkey about four years ago and haven’t watched American football at any level since then. The mounting evidence that traumatic brain injuries are a feature and not a bug became too much. I just couldn’t justify treating as entertainment a sport that systematically inflicts traumatic brain injury. I’m not sure why the fact that players more or less voluntarily participate makes any difference. All that means is that the viewer is, in effect, indirectly paying the players to harm one another for the viewer’s entertainment.
This final reader, Jeff, is personally struggling with past injuries and emotionally struggling with whether to give up the sport completely:
Great discussion. I have decided to give up pro football, and it was that Panthers game that pushed me over the edge. I posted a message on Facebook to that effect. All the talk from the NFL about how it was now taking concussions seriously—how, this time, things were going to be different. Yet we saw what we saw. It was too much.
I do have a personal bias in all of this. For the past 2 1/2 years, I’ve suffered from the life-upending effects of Post Concussion Syndrome. I write this now, in fact, from another hotel room in another city not my own, seeking out the help of a Chicago doctor who may be able to help put my broken life back together. I’ve seen some of the most renowned doctors in the country. The struggle goes on.
So, when Cam takes the hits he took [similar to the one above], I do more than wince. I get a little more nauseous than maybe I already was. It’s just too much.
And yet. It’s still not easy. Not even close. You know how many “likes” I got on my Facebook post? Zero. Goose egg.
I live in Charlotte. Sure, other fans were upset about Cam as well. But enough to stop cheering for the Panthers? Enough to give up football? By no means. Folks have gotten a taste of winning around here, and that’s hard to give up.
I see it in my kids’ eyes. My wife’s chatter. Folks at my church on Sunday mornings wearing their No. 1 and No. 59 jerseys. They’re not walking away. Not happening.
How do I explain this to my two young boys? Especially when—get this—I have not given up the college game. Somehow I’ve convinced myself it’s OK for 19-year-olds to play this violent game. This has become sort of my weird compromise, a way to not completely let go. At least for now.
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.
A new study in mice points to how cell biology, not willpower, might be the root of yo-yo dieting.
The American conventional wisdom about weight loss is simple: A calorie deficit is all that’s required to drop excess pounds, and moderating future calorie consumption is all that’s required to maintain it. To the idea’s adherents, the infinite complexity of human biology acts as one big nutritional piggy bank. Anyone who gains too much weight or loses weight and gains it back has simply failed to balance the caloric checkbook, which can be corrected by forswearing fatty food or carbs.
Endocrinologists have known for decades that the science of weight is far more complicated than calorie deficits and energy expenditures. And in 2016, the fickle complexity of weight came to broad national attention. In a study of former contestants on a season of the weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser, scientists found that years later, the contestants not only had gained back much or all of the weight they’d lost on the show, but also had far weaker metabolisms than most people their size. The contestants’ bodies had fought for years to regain the weight, contrary to the contestants’ efforts and wishes. No one was sure why.
The fight on the House floor about Trump’s racist tweets illustrates, yet again, how singularly unprepared Washington is for a president like him.
In his racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color, Donald Trump violated the norms of civilized public discourse in ways no modern president has come close to doing. And in its effort to condemn the president’s virulent remarks, the House Democratic majority dispensed—by raw party-line vote—with parliamentary niceties dating to the pen of Thomas Jefferson himself.
Welcome to another great moment in Washington 2019, where the 45th president seems more determined than ever to keep defining deviancy down, and to encourage everyone else to see the moral high ground as just another slippery and shifting partisan slope.
The day began normally enough for this non-normal age, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi determined to pass a nonbinding resolution rebuking Trump’s series of tweets attacking the four Democratic members as America-hating socialists who should “go back” to where they came from, even though all but one of them were born in the United States.
What new research reveals about sexual predators, and why police fail to catch them
Robert Spada walked into the decrepit warehouse in Detroit and surveyed the chaos: Thousands of cardboard boxes and large plastic bags were piled haphazardly throughout the cavernous space. The air inside was hot and musty. Spada, an assistant prosecutor, saw that some of the windows were open, others broken, exposing the room to the summer heat. Above the boxes, birds glided in slow, swooping circles.
It was August 17, 2009, and this brick fortress of a building housed evidence that had been collected by the Detroit Police Department. Spada’s visit had been prompted by a question: Why were police sometimes unable to locate crucial evidence? The answer lay in the disarray before him.
No one has done more to dispel the myth of social mobility than Raj Chetty. But he has a plan to make equality of opportunity a reality.
Raj Chetty got his biggest break before his life began. His mother, Anbu, grew up in Tamil Nadu, a tropical state at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Anbu showed the greatest academic potential of her five siblings, but her future was constrained by custom. Although Anbu’s father encouraged her scholarly inclinations, there were no colleges in the area, and sending his daughter away for an education would have been unseemly.
But as Anbu approached the end of high school, a minor miracle redirected her life. A local tycoon, himself the father of a bright daughter, decided to open a women’s college, housed in his elegant residence. Anbu was admitted to the inaugural class of 30 young women, learning English in the spacious courtyard under a thatched roof and traveling in the early mornings by bus to a nearby college to run chemistry experiments or dissect frogs’ hearts before the men arrived. Anbu excelled, and so began a rapid upward trajectory. She enrolled in medical school. “Why,” her father was asked, “do you send her there?” Among their Chettiar caste, husbands commonly worked abroad for years at a time, sending back money, while wives were left to raise the children. What use would a medical degree be to a stay-at-home mother?
Conservatives can win over young Americans to our principles, but first we have to live by those principles.
Some conservative national-security practitioners gathered recently to find common ground on the future. The meeting wasn’t, as described in The Washington Post, flooded with regretful signatories of various anti-Trump letters, recanting in the hopes of career advancement. In attendance were people who had served in the Trump administration and people who’d refused to serve, united by a desire to restore principled national-security policies. What follows is an abbreviated version of my paper for the gathering, which was on how to engage young Americans with conservative principles.
In my experience, conservative foundational beliefs appeal to our successors. We can win over young Americans to our principles, but first we have to live by those principles. Americans under age 30 voted for Democrats by a 35-point margin in 2018 in large part because we don’t.
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator.
President Trump’s tirade against four minority congresswomen prompts the question: Whom does he consider to be American?
I live in envy. I envy the people who know their nationality. All the people whose nationality has never been a question in their mind.
I can imagine the woman staring at her reflection in the Volta River who knows she’s Ghanaian, like her ancestors who liberated their people in 1957 and chose the mighty pre-colonial Ghana as the name of their new nation. I can imagine the woman flying into Frankfurt who knows she’s German, who knows she’s arriving back home. I can imagine the man working on his antique car outside his home in Biloxi, forehead covered by the prized blood-red baseball cap he purchased at a rally back in November, a man who has never been told, “Go back to your country!” If somehow someone did tell him, it would confuse him as much as it would the Ghanaian or German woman. It would be like someone driving by his house and shouting at him, “Go back to your home!”
Despite what everyone says about the power of modern devices, they’re nowhere near as capable as the landmark early NASA system.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.
Without the computers on board the Apollo spacecraft, there would have been no moon landing, no triumphant first step, no high-water mark for human space travel. A pilot could never have navigated the way to the moon, as if a spaceship were simply a more powerful airplane. The calculations required to make in-flight adjustments and the complexity of the thrust controls outstripped human capacities.
The Apollo Guidance Computer, in both its guises—one on board the core spacecraft, and the other on the lunar module—was a triumph of engineering. Computers had been the size of rooms and filled with vacuum tubes, and if the Apollo computer, at 70 pounds, was not exactly miniature yet, it began “the transition between people bragging about how big their computers are … and bragging about how small their computers are,” the MIT aerospace and computing historian David Mindell once joked in a lecture.
His racism and intolerance have always been in evidence; only slowly did he begin to understand how to use them to his advantage.
The first quotation from Donald Trump ever to appear in The New York Times came on October 16, 1973. Trump was responding to charges filed by the Justice Department alleging racial bias at his family’s real-estate company. “They are absolutely ridiculous,” Trump said of the charges. “We have never discriminated, and we never would.”
In the years since then, Trump has assembled a long record of comment on issues involving African Americans as well as Mexicans, Hispanics more broadly, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, women, and people with disabilities.
Teachers are suing the government over debt relief that never came—but their financial problems go much deeper than student loans.
America needs teachers: A majority of the country’s most experienced K–12 educators are expected to retire in the next few years, while research suggests that thousands of others will likely leave the profession prematurely, citing job dissatisfaction. How to get more people to join the profession? A little more than a decade ago, policy makers came up with one idea they thought would help: Give teachers some extra support in paying off their student loans. So, in 2007, Congress tasked the U.S. Department of Education, which administers federal financial aid, with offering student-debt relief to recent graduates in public-service career: Essentially, make your minimum monthly payments for 10 years and your loans will be erased.