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.
For millions of Americans, fall begins with the first kickoff of the NFL season. Like many children growing up in the U.S., I tossed a football around with my dad in our backyard and rooted for our beloved team (in our case, that came with the disappointment familiar to every Chicago Bears fan). I remember years based on which team won the Super Bowl, signifying the warm nostalgia I held for the sport.
But something changed recently: I don’t like the game anymore.
There’s been enough reporting by now to know that constant collisions in football cause traumatic brain injuries. New rules and public statements from the NFL promising to curb these dangers are an annual routine. Every time I’ve forgiven the league, more players take major hits to the head and more former athletes go public about their brain damage.
In early May, shortly after I covered a series of lawsuits by former college players allegedly suffering from permanent brain damage, I got an email from a reader who said he played college football in the 1980s and sustained at least four concussions. He never thought about the long-lasting damage until he began having suicidal thoughts in recent years. “I have never told my wife or kids of this, as I didn’t want them to worry,” he wrote me. “However, I want to admit that I think about suicide weekly, if not daily.” He eventually wants to donate his brain to research head injuries. His email was the last straw for me.
I’m not the only fan turning away from the sport. After this season’s opening game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, where Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s head was repeatedly targeted with helmet-on-helmet hits, I noticed a group of college friends on Facebook discuss their waning interest in football—surprising, considering I’ve seen them all root zealously for their hometown teams. The conversation started when my friend and fellow Bears fan Mark Micheli posted a video compilation from Deadspin showing the repeated hits to Newton’s head without a single penalty. Here’s the most brutal hit:
After watching the video, Mark wrote, “I have a harder and harder time caring about this game anymore.” Other friends joined in:
“We’re watching men get brain damage for our enjoyment.”
“Modern-day gladiators. My guess is we as a society will look back in the future and view this game in a similar way.”
“First year in ages I’m not doing Fantasy Football.”
Could this be a turning point? Are other Americans turning away from football?
In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, Austin Murphy imagines a world without the NFL, where the league is eventually bankrupted by lawsuits and declining interest among youth players. Rugby, it seems, is the next great American sport, to fulfill our need for “bloodlust and the seizing of territory”—but it doesn’t involve “using one’s helmeted head as a missile.” There would be consequences: the loss of a $63 billion league, along with the money that colleges, retailers, and television networks would have brought in from the sport’s popularity. But, Murphy writes, “The more Americans learned about the true price for their once-beloved game, the less they were willing to pay it.”
This may just be a fantasy. There are no data indicating that fans are fleeing football. In fact, the highest-rated TV programs last fall were NFL games. According to USA Today, 26.8 million people on average watched Fox’s late-afternoon games that year. And the Super Bowl remains an audience juggernaut. While 1.5 million fewer people watched the 2016 Super Bowl on television than the year before, 111.9 million people still tuned in, making it the third-highest rated Super Bowl in history. These figures don’t even count online viewership, which has been on the rise.
I asked one of the guys on Facebook if he could fully abandon his fandom. Gregory Wolf, a Seattle resident and Seahawks fan, said football is doing less for him than it used to, but he’s not ready to completely give up. “I’m not sure I would ever totally be done,” he told me. He’s become a bigger soccer fan in the last decade. Even professional hockey, he says, seems to have dealt with head injuries better than the NFL, despite its violent nature.
Part of me understands his position. I still checked to see if the Bears won on Sunday (they didn’t), and I looked across the bar Monday to watch part of the game between the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s hard to go cold turkey when football is everywhere.
Are you a former fan of football? What changed your mind about the sport? Do you have problems with the violence but find it hard to completely give up on the game? Write us at email@example.com.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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?”
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.”
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 helmets—which make fractures nearly impossible—actually cause more concussions, indirectly, because players are emboldened to hit each other harder at faster speeds. It’s the sudden stopping that causes concussions—the brain continuing to move forward and smashing against skull—not 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.
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 sport—but 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 entertaining—like 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.
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: email@example.com.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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: email@example.com. 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.
High-income workers at highly profitable companies will benefit greatly. Downtown landlords won’t.
This year, two international teams of economists published papers that offer very different impressions of the future of remote work.
The first team looked at an unnamed Asian tech company that went remote during the pandemic. Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Working hours went up while productivity plummeted. Uninterrupted work time cratered and mentorship evaporated. Naturally, workers with children at home were the worst off.
The second team surveyed more than 30,000 Americans over the past few months and found that workers were overwhelmingly satisfied with their work-from-home experience. Most people said it exceeded their expectations. “Employees will enjoy large benefits from greater remote work” after the pandemic, the paper’s authors predicted. They said that productivity would surge in the post-pandemic economy, “due to re-optimized working arrangements” at some of the economy’s most successful white-collar companies.
“Scientists are meant to know what’s going on, but in this particular case, we are deeply confused.”
Carl Schoonover and Andrew Fink are confused. As neuroscientists, they know that the brain must be flexible but not too flexible. It must rewire itself in the face of new experiences, but must also consistently represent the features of the external world. How? The relatively simple explanation found in neuroscience textbooks is that specific groups of neurons reliably fire when their owner smells a rose, sees a sunset, or hears a bell. These representations—these patterns of neural firing—presumably stay the same from one moment to the next. But as Schoonover, Fink, and others have found, they sometimes don’t. They change—and to a confusing and unexpected extent.
Schoonover, Fink, and their colleagues from Columbia University allowed mice to sniff the same odors over several days and weeks, and recorded the activity of neurons in the rodents’ piriform cortex—a brain region involved in identifying smells. At a given moment, each odor caused a distinctive group of neurons in this region to fire. But as time went on, the makeup of these groups slowly changed. Some neurons stopped responding to the smells; others started. After a month, each group was almost completely different. Put it this way: The neurons that represented the smell of an apple in May and those that represented the same smell in June were as different from each other as those that represent the smells of apples and grass at any one time.
If the former president proves to be a kingmaker in the 2022 midterms, will he really seek reelection in 2024?
“The Republican Party is just a name,” Steve Bannon told me last week. I had called him to ask about the influence he believes his old boss still carries inside the GOP. “The bulk of it is a populist, nationalist party led by Donald Trump.” As for the rest of it? “The Republican Party, pre-2016, are the modern Whigs,” he added, referring to the national party that collapsed in the mid-19th century over divided views on slavery.
Bannon might not be the most reliable barometer of the political moment, but some of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics share his belief that the former president maintains a strong grip on his party. “He sparked this [movement], and now others are going ahead and taking the baton of bat-shittery,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and a staunch Trump critic, told me last week.
Simone Biles is the greatest athlete in the world today.
For me, this isn’t a debate. It’s a statement of fact. On Sunday, she won a record seventh United States gymnastics championship, continuing her jaw-dropping winning streak in every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013. The 24-year-old hasn’t lost in eight years. Typical gymnasts her age aren’t beating all their rivals by the big margins that, for Biles, have become routine.
Although Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43, he is no longer in his prime, and other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, are arguably more physically talented. Unlike the current greats in other sports, Biles has no peer. Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time and among the greatest athletes of all time, but her career is winding down, and Naomi Osaka is in position to unseat her as the face of women’s tennis. LeBron James won’t get a chance to defend the NBA title he won with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, because the Phoenix Suns eliminated his team in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Rising inventory is one of several signs that we may have reached peak ludicrousness.
How wild is the U.S. housing market right now? So wild, half of the houses listed nationwide in April went pending in less than a week. So wild, one poll found that most buyers admitted to bidding on homes they’d never seen in person. So wild, a Bethesda, Maryland, resident recently included in her written offer “a pledge to name her first-born child after the seller,” according to the CEO of the realty site Redfin. So wild, she did not get the house.
With prices headed to the moon and listings blinking in and out of existence like quantum particles, nobody seems to know exactly when this is going to stop. “In my time studying housing markets, I’ve seen bubbles and I’ve seen busts,” says Bill McBride, an economics writer who famously predicted the 2007 housing crash. “But I’ve never seen anything quite like this. It’s a perfect storm.”
Adored guru and reviled provocateur, he dropped out of sight. Now the irresistible ordeal of modern cultural celebrity has brought him back.
This article was published online on March 2, 2021.
One day in early 2020, Jordan B. Peterson rose from the dead. The Canadian academic, then 57, had been placed in a nine-day coma by doctors in a Russian clinic, after becoming addicted to benzodiazepines, a class of drug that includes Xanax and Valium. The coma kept him unconscious as his body went through the terrible effects of withdrawal; he awoke strapped to the bed, having tried to rip out the catheters in his arms and leave the intensive-care unit.
When the story of his detox became public, in February 2020, it provided an answer to a mystery: Whatever happened to Jordan Peterson? In the three years before he disappeared from view in the summer of 2019, this formerly obscure psychology professor’s name had been a constant presence in op-ed columns, internet forums, and culture-war arguments. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in 2018, sold millions of copies, and he had conducted a 160-city speaking tour, drawing crowds of up to 3,000 a night; premium tickets included the chance to be photographed with him. For $90, his website offered an online course to better understand your “unique personality.” An “official merchandise store” sold Peterson paraphernalia: mugs, stickers, posters, phone cases, tote bags. He had created an entirely new model of the public intellectual, halfway between Marcus Aurelius and Martha Stewart.
People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
No one should believe that Omar thinks the United States is identical to the Taliban.
By the time Republicans and centrist Democrats had united late last week to scold Representative Ilhan Omar for a tweet—one of the few pastimes that still draw the two parties together, and something those selfsame chiders would doubtlessly decry, under different circumstances, as cancel culture or censorship—it no longer mattered what, exactly, Omar had said. They had already managed to make a news cycle out of it: mission accomplished.
Now, following Democratic outrage and Republican calls for a floor vote to strip Omar of her committee assignments, let me record the following for posterity: Omar demonstrably did not say what she’s been accused of having said; what she did say was true; and every politico using this opportunity to take a swing at her likely knows those two things—they just think you don’t.
The American president is unlikely to reach accommodation with his Russian counterpart. That’s because Putin’s domestic balancing act is over.
Updated at 6:05 a.m. ET on June 16, 2021.
I grew up in a hidden city. Not a forgotten city, or a faraway city—a hidden city. My hometown, Nizhny Novgorod, lies east of Moscow along the Volga River. It was a center of international trade before the Russian Revolution but was bombed by the Nazis during World War II; to preserve crucial industries housed there, the Soviet authorities effectively closed it off from the world after the war. It didn’t exist on many Soviet maps, and foreigners were not allowed to visit. Cruise ships passed by only at night so tourists would not know about the ancient city on the banks.
Despite the heavy restrictions, many well-known intellectuals worked in Nizhny Novgorod, at anonymous-looking Soviet facilities known as “mailboxes.” The nuclear physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov was among them. Only at the local foreign-language institute did I first meet a foreigner, an American lady who taught English. Mary Sebastian—or Mary Petrovna Alferova, according to her Soviet passport—came to Nizhny Novgorod in the 1930s as a teenager with her father, an engineer helping to build an automobile plant. She fell in love, got married, and decided to stay.