Football: Do We Still Love It? It’s Complicated.
February 22, 2018
With the Philadelphia Eagles’ star quarterback Carson Wentz out early in the season with a torn ACL and the Patriots’ Brandin Cooks injured during the Super Bowl game, questions continue to circulate about how safe football really is, which is having far-reaching ramifications.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a rare disease that can only be diagnosed after death, has been found in many football players. According to Concussion Legacy Foundation, “In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells.” Its symptoms include impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, paranoia, memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment and, eventually, progressive dementia.
This past summer, Boston University published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network that found that in a sample of 202 deceased American football players, 177 had CTE: “CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).”
However, Barbara Moran, writing for Boston University’s research website, states, “The study has several important limitations, most notably the lack of a control group, and selection bias in the brain collection itself — families of players with symptoms of CTE are far more likely to donate brains to research than those without signs of the disease.” But, she continues, “Despite these limitations, researchers note that the study — the largest and most methodologically rigorous CTE case series ever published — offers important information and direction for further research.”
The NFL only recently acknowledged the correlation between players and the disease. In early 2016, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, was asked at a roundtable discussion by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce if there was a link between football and neurodegenerative diseases. He responded, “The answer to that question is certainly yes,” according to an ESPN article by Steve Fainaru-Wada.
“In 2011, [Pittsburgh attorney Jason] Luckasevic and two other lawyers filed the first of what would become hundreds of lawsuits brought by thousands of former players and their families, alleging that the NFL had concealed the link between football and brain damage,” Fainaru-Wada writes.
The U.S. Supreme Court finalized this estimated $1 billion settlement by refusing to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling upholding the settlement. According to Lawrence Hurley writing for Reuters, “The settlement calls for payments of up to $5 million each to former players diagnosed with certain neurological disorders, but it does not address chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of more than 5,000 retired players, but the settlement could cover more than 21,000 former players.
Some former players objected to the settlement, which is why it was taken to the Supreme Court, but they decided not to hear the case, meaning that the settlement stands.
Hurley also says that this enables the NFL “to avoid litigation that could have led to huge sums in damages and provided embarrassing details about how it has dealt with the dangers posed by head trauma in the violent sport.”
However, the NFL’s problems don’t end there — politics are now involved in football more than ever.
In September, President Trump told a crowd in Alabama that he hoped NFL players who knelt during the national anthem would lose their jobs. (Players have done so to protest what they regard as unjustified police killings of African Americans.)
The first to protest by kneeling was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whom Trump seemed to be referring to.
The following Sunday, players all across the NFL joined Kaepernick’s protest. According to the Associated Press, “More than 130 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance during early games.”
In August of 2016, Kaepernick told NFL Media, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and [police officers] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The NFL then released a statement saying, “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”
In response to the NFL protests, Trump tweeted, “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country.”
Even now, after the Eagles’ win over the Patriots, many Eagles players have said they will not go visit the president, declining to take part in the tradition of Super Bowl winners visiting the White House.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith told CNN’s Don Lemon that for him, it’s not about politics. He said, “If I told you that I was invited to a party by an individual I believe is sexist, or has no respect for women, or I told you that this individual has said offensive things toward many minority groups and I don’t feel comfortable about it — this individual also called my peers and my friends SOBs — you would understand why I wouldn’t want to go to that party? Why is it any different when the person has the title of president of the United States? It’s really that simple to me. I don’t think it’s something that I personally feel inclined to be involved with.”
As far as the future of football goes, is it on the decline?
According to the National Association of State High School Federations, participation in high school football is down 3.5 percent in the last five years.
A CNN article cites Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University stating that children younger than 14 should not be allowed to play tackle football, and neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes who said what is most effective to keep kids safe is to teach proper technique. “We are taking out unnecessary head contact out of the sport, out of practice,” Bailes said. “We’re enforcing rule changes.”
Similarly, an analysis done by the University of Colorado found that the number of participants playing football from 1990 to 2009 steadily decreased. “In the 2008-09 academic year, 1.14 million high school boys played football. In 2016-17, that number had come down to 1.09 million,” reported a Denver Post article.
Because high school students are no longer as interested in playing football, this will also take a toll on college games because there will be fewer players to recruit.
Sports anchor Bob Costas spoke to journalists at the University of Maryland saying, “[Evidence of brain trauma] leads you to the common sense conclusion that you shouldn’t play tackle football at all until you’re 18 years old at a minimum… But then where is the talent pool for college football? The whole thing can collapse like a house of cards if people actually begin connecting the dots.”
The NFL and college football have taken another hit — in their viewership.
The NFL’s attendance dropped 3 percent this past season, says Matt Bonesteel in the Washington Post. However, he says, this decline can be explained because of two teams, the Rams and the Chargers, who relocated to the Los Angeles area.
Bonesteel reports that college football attendance also dropped 3 percent in 2017, with the largest per-game attendance drop in 34 years and second-largest decrease ever. This is the fourth straight year of declining attendance.
So, is football dying? According to political commentator George F. Will, “This sport will never die, but it will never again be, as it was until recently, the subject of uncomplicated national enthusiasm.”