Football’s Growing Dilemma
by Ivan Cole
Craig is a regular at the center where I work. He is a Kansas City native, a University of Kansas grad and a fan of the major sports teams from that area including the Chiefs, Royals and Jayhawk basketball. Until a couple of days ago our conversations had been brief. We commiserated about our teams, expressed our distain for the Ravens and Broncos respectively and a mutual contempt for the Patriots. I recently congratulated him on the success of the Royals. But this time we got into an extended conversation with some interesting revelations.
Turns out we both played the game in our youth. Even more interesting, Craig writes for fan sites related to two of the three sports mentioned above. We shared common experiences such as over the top reactions by readers after losses (“Fire everyone!”), common personality types and their foibles and the constant struggle to keep our own obsessions at bay.
And then we began to talk about the issues that threatened our continued enjoyment and support of the game (football). And that brought us to injuries, and, in particular concussions.
Craig has a son who is moving into adolescence. He is struggling with whether he will allow his son to continue to play the game. He also struggles, as do I, with continuing to support a sport that will almost certainly shorten the length and quality of life for many of its participants. As our conversation moves past the one hour mark we also wonder about its future. Too big to fail? Yeah, they were saying that about boxing thirty years ago. Who would have thought that after Ali/Frazier I, Leonard/Hagler or Tyson/anyone that the sport would fall so quickly into irrelevance?
A few hours after this conversation comes Rebecca’s piece on the Steelers and concussions.
If you are a Colin Dunlap kind of person, what follows will be something of a groove killer that spoils our entertainment high. It will be dismissed as overly emphasizing the negative and being over the top. I am willing to own up to the possibility that this point of view may be right. What I am certainly guilty of is bringing an adult perspective to an exercise whose value has been the promotion of a childlike (in the best sense of the term) wonder—into a culture where real joy and a sense of abandon can be in short supply. But sometimes you have to call ‘em as you see ‘em.
I tend to be stingy about making predictions, but I think my record is pretty good. Back in 2010 I wrote an article for Behind the Steel Curtain proposing Charlie Batch as a better alternative to Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon. We all saw how that turned out.
A few years ago I wrote, also on BTSC, that the issue of concessions and CTEs was not going away anytime soon, and, additionally, it had the potential to bring down the game.
But you don’t have to be particularly intuitive to realize a new spike in attention is about to take place when the Will Smith vehicle “Concussion” is released later this month. Pittsburgh will be at ground zero when this occurs due to the centrality of the protagonist and some of the principle victims upon which the story is based. And as Emily Kaplan’s piece in MMQB chronicles, it will not be a pretty story.
There are so many places where one could direct their focus here, but I want to key in on the last portion of Rebecca’s article. It is probably too much to expect to make a successful appeal to the conscience of a Colin Dunlap and the huge number of fans whose point of view he represents, but I believe it is worthwhile to make some attempt to have this constituency own up to their positions and the consequences associated with embracing them.
The rationale often given for the callous disregard for the welfare of players is choice and money. The players after all, the argument goes, chose their fate and are being well compensated for their efforts, so what’s the problem? So let me tell you, beginning with a closer analysis of the concept of ‘choice’.
The subject of choice comes in three parts—two involves the athletes.
First, does the athlete understand the choice and its ramifications? For almost the entirety of their path to the NFL prospective players are children. This concept is difficult for some because of the size of the people involved and the prodigious nature of the activity, plus a few other factors that I will skip for now.
Most have crossed the threshold of adulthood when they begin their professional careers, though there have been plenty of exceptions like Stephon Tuitt who were technically still minors when they began. But in order to reach the rarefied level of a professional most have to begin their journeys early in adolescence, some prior to that.
Why is this important? Because part of the definition of being a child is an inability to make completely rational, responsible choices. This is why there can be no such thing as consensual sex between a child and an adult. It is also why in most cases when a person below a certain age commits a crime they are not subject to the same severity of punishment visited upon adults.
And even if you decide that they do have the capacity to make rational decisions of this nature, what do you think the chances are they have the complete information necessary to make an informed choice? How many of these children do you think know as they toil and devote themselves to their craft that in more than a few institutions of higher learning there may be little chance their scholarships will translate into a legitimate opportunity to receive a degree? Or that the dollars quoted from the contract negotiations will ever reach their bank accounts, or that they will have a much better chance than most to have shortened lives which end physically broken, demented and destitute?
The adults they depend upon to provide guidance will, with depressing regularity, betray them. Sometimes the letdown is unintentional, fueled by the naiveté of adults who are dazzled (or bamboozled) by a vision that is seen as all upside.
All too often they are deliberately exploited by those who see in these children an opportunity to advance their own careers or reputations, to make a sizable amount of money or to be “entertained” on a Saturday or Sunday. The player is reduced to a thing, a commodity to be used, lauded for their prowess, and then discarded when their utility wanes.
How, for example, does one justify the notion that proper preparation for a career as an independent contractor (which is what every professional football player is) has been given without any training in making business decisions? Even if the extent of those decisions is choosing one’s representation in business matters and being able to evaluate their competence and ethics.
None of the former players and relatives quoted by Kaplan appeared to have anything close to full prior knowledge of what the sport was doing to the players, nor the details of the fate that befell their colleagues.
Too cynical? Okay. Let’s pretend that none of the above ever happens, or if so, only rarely. Let’s move to the second element of choice.
What is the quality of the choice?
In one of his routines, comedian Chris Rock points out that a man’s fidelity in a relationship is directly related to the quality of his options. Citing one extreme but clear example, those who were unfortunate enough to be victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had a choice. They could submit to one of the most brutal and barbaric systems of human bondage ever devised, or they could die at their own hands or that of their captors. How do you like the options?
Craig and I discussed this at length. The trend would seem to be that football, like boxing or enlisted military service, is increasingly segregating to those segments of the population with limited economic options. Even now, the game is strongest in the poorest section of the country (the South) and is weakening in the middle class demographic.
As former Steeler Randy Grossman said about the upscale community of Fox Chapel where he resides, you won’t find many boxing gyms there. And in Fairfax County, Virginia, where Craig and I live, what was for years the most affluent county in the United States, youth football programs have skewed decidedly in the direction of participants being more working class and browner than they were when I coached at that level two decades ago.
And then there is college football. As Michael Baumann points out in this piece in The Atlantic:
College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it.
The piece further points out that not only are the spectators predominantly different from the participants according to class and race. Those who realize the greatest compensation from the college game, athletic directors and head coaches, are nearly 90% white (not counting Historically Black Colleges and Universities,) while blacks are now the majority of the uncompensated talent, a robust percentage not reflected in the numbers among the student population at large. And as this article by Donald Yee emphasizes, the impediments to coaching opportunities for non-whites is structural.
Cord Jefferson was quoted in the Baumann piece:
Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.
You would think the league would see the direction where things are going and try to head it off. Or maybe not. If the game successfully internationalizes, it opens “opportunites” to vast populations who experience more profound levels of deprivation and will perhaps be more likely to embrace the NFL’s risk/reward ratio, or less able to oppose it.
And given the narcissistic slant of our culture, as “appalling” and noxious as Dunlap’s comments are—even explosive when class and race are considered—it can be potentially much worse if the humans involved are foreigners from societies that, generally speaking, we care nothing about.
And there is one more aspect of choice which needs to be discussed.
Those of us who choose to patronize the sport are complicit in its abuses as well.
Certainly not! I’m just an innocent spectator who tunes in after the players choose to accept compensation to participate in the cruel spectacle that is professional football. But, correctly understood, the funding and support for the league comes as much through the owners as from them.
When I first began to write what follows it was based upon the assumption that the fans and general public were selfish but for the most part unwitting enablers of a process which is much more exploitative than anyone would like to acknowledge. However, the argument can be made that the fans are not just complicit, but in a very real sense may be subject to exploitation themselves, and are as unaware of their condition as the players.
Start with the tax payers and their representatives who choose to subsidize the teams’ infrastructure, and then turn around as customers and accept highly inflated costs for tickets, concessions, apparel and other services like parking. Gregg Easterbrook article points out the extent of these practices. It was shocking to me, and I considered myself more aware than most about these things.
When the extent of taxpayer and community support is clarified, it becomes obvious that massive subsidies and government protections mean that the public, as much as the owners, are paying the player’s salaries. This is often at the expense of subsidizing high school extracurricular and youth sports activities and even more basic public needs. To add insult to injury, as Easterbrook writes,
That typical people are taxed to fund NFL facilities, yet only the expense-account set can afford to enter, ought to be a source of populist uproar.
Owners and their resources come and go, but the game cannot survive or thrive without the fans. As Easterbrook says,
There’s no law of nature that says the NFL, or any professional sport must be publicly subsidized.
As evidence mounts that the sport is destroying some of its participants, the partnership between the public and the business can be viewed as troubling, to say the least. And while it is true that the choices of any one fan are not going to impact the NFL in any significant way, this does not inoculate any of us from ethical decision making. The status quo is created and continues because of the willing endorsement of some, the indifference of others and the quiet acquiescence of the rest.
Is this an appeal to turn away from the game? Fear not. I’m not ready to walk away just yet. But a reckoning is almost a certainty. It may be a death on the field of play as millions watch, a homicide fueled by a CTE fog, a successful lawsuit, a players’ rebellion, a scandal related to treatment irregularities or cover ups, or any number of other possibilities which may render the game mortal at long last.
Along the way, all of us will have to consider our choices related to our continued fidelity to the game. That is, assuming that the game’s fate isn’t determined for us in the final analysis.
The image which heads the article was used in a very interesting article in Wired Magazine, which you can read by clicking here. It describes a test which would allow a player to see how much damage has occurred thus far, something which has not be possible up to this point. Previously, CTE has only been able to be diagnosed, and the extent of it discovered, by posthumous examination of the brain.