When I wrote a blog post last week about comedians and athletes exercising their First Amendment rights, I had no idea that kneeling sports stars were poised to become the hottest topic of conversation in America. Thanks to our ranter-in-chief, it seems nearly everyone spent the weekend debating whether #TakeAKnee was an act of patriotism or a show of disrespect. My feelings on this are clear—everyone has the right to take a knee or take a stand. There are plenty of other countries that wouldn’t allow any of this and I am grateful to live in a nation where we have the right to protest peacefully, to speak freely, to disagree publicly. While it was disturbing to hear the president use a vulgar profanity to describe the players, I was even more stunned to hear him call for increased violence on the football field. Who explicitly begs for more violence? More injury?
Now I do not follow football. I have no interest in spending a huge portion of my weekend watching grown men slam into one another in an effort to move a ball across a field. If I’m going to spend hours sitting on the couch eating potato chips, it’ll be with a book in hand. But I was raised in Mississippi where football is as sacred as religion and I now live in Denver where the Sunday morning farmers markets are a sea of Broncos’ orange and blue. I am not immune to news about the game. In recent years that news has focused more and more on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the longterm irreversible effects of the disease on players’ brains. A person who plays football—in high school, in college, in the NFL—basically agrees to live with the increased risk of severe traumatic brain injury for the rest of his life. Most of the players who suffer will never play professional ball. They’ll never bring in the big paycheck and they’ll never know why, in middle age or in their senior years, they have such trouble with memory, impulse control, decision-making skills, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Some will resort to violence and almost no one will question if the violent impulses are a direct result of the person’s glory days.
The more hits a player takes, the bigger the risk of longterm brain damage. I’ve heard all the arguments about how much money players make and how that, somehow, makes this risk an acceptable one. I don’t buy it. There is no amount of money that can fix the brain. The brain is the very essence of a person’s being. It is what makes us who we are. It determines how we see the world, how we make decisions, whether we are impulsive or thoughtful. To deliberately damage the brain is to willfully destroy the soul. What price can we put on that?
These players are human beings. They don’t exist to entertain you or me. They don’t exist to take extreme abuse for our viewing pleasure. In his book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond takes on the football industrial complex with tremendous thoughtfulness and clarity. You should read the book, especially if you are a football fan. It explores the inherent racism and homophobia of the sport, and it explores the morality of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that results in extreme brain damage and shortened life spans for the players on the field.
As I said, I don’t follow football, but I don’t hate the sport. I understand the value of teamwork, the thrill of competition, the appeal of chasing a big win. I understand how satisfying it is to push your body to do more. I respect athletes. I respect their discipline, their grace, and their dedication. It is a joy to watch a person perform at the peak of his or her ability. We expect athletes to suffer physically as they age. We even have sports-related names for the injuries: tennis elbow, runner’s knee. I tore my hamstring in high school while doing the splits and I still ache from that injury today. A sports medicine expert told me it’s called “cheerleader’s injury.” I was not a cheerleader, but there you go. So it’s natural for athletes to expect some longterm wear and tear on the body. These aches and pains are an assumed risk of any sport. But longterm brain injury of the sort Aaron Hernandez suffered in his short life, should not be an assumed risk for anyone. It is unacceptable. There is no amount of money or fame or glory that makes it okay.
If America is going to continue to be a nation that gathers around the game every Sunday (and Saturday, and Friday night, and Monday night, and the occasional Thursday), then we need to demand fewer hits not more hits. We should call for safer play on the NFL field and on high school and college fields. If we can’t enjoy the game without the violence, we need to ask ourselves why. The call for a less violent game should come from the players and the coaches and the team owners, but it must come from the fans. Football, like so much else in America, is ultimately about money. Fans need to show these players that they respect them not merely as athletes or entertainers, but as human beings. Their opinions matter. Their brains matter. Their lives matter. We need to stop glorifying unnecessary and gratuitous violence. The players deserve better and so do we all.