While football remains far and away our country's most popular sport, in the past few years it has also become our most fraught, thanks to a steady drumbeat of stories underscoring its moral and physical hazards.
The headlines dominating the news for the past few weeks have outlined cases of domestic violence by players against their girlfriends (the Ravens' Ray Rice among them) and children, and the acknowledgment by the NFL that one in three players is likely to suffer brain trauma.
As for us fans, we now find ourselves in a situation analogous to those refs hunched over instant replay machines. Rather than simply kicking back in front of games, we are being forced to reexamine them, frame-by-frame. What we're seeing isn't pretty.
And it goes way beyond Ray Rice, or the issue of violence off the field. In fact, what we're being forced to confront more broadly are the inherent moral corruptions of the game, which have become so glaring — at least to me — that I've decided to stop watching, despite being a life-long fan.
Most disturbing is the mounting evidence that football can cause brain damage, a fact the NFL now concedes after years of denial. The rash of suicides by ex-stars such as Junior Seau, who took his life in 2012, should unsettle all of us.
What forensic pathologists have discovered, in examining the brains of Seau and dozens of other players, is that they suffer from a form of dementia known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For decades, former players — and their loved ones — have quietly suffered the effects of CTE, which include memory loss, mood swings and, in extreme cases, suicidal depression.
Thousands of former players have sued the NFL, alleging that the league knew of the link between football and brain injuries but refused to adequately protect its players. The NFL is eager to settle the case, even at the cost of billions of dollars. But such an agreement will do little to prevent players from experiencing cognitive decline.
"I've been taking my daughters to practice for years and all of a sudden I forget how to get there," Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett revealed last year, in a tearful interview. He added that his daughters are sometimes afraid of him because of his volatile moods.
As technology offers us an increasingly vivid picture of football, it has become trickier for thoughtful fans to disavow its savagery. Instead, we have turned to the experts in the broadcast booth to normalize the violence, to describe a sequence in which we watch one grown man inflict brain trauma upon another as a "good, clean hit."
When pressed, fans are quick to cite new rules and equipment that will make the game safer. But recent data suggest that much of the long-term risk resides in the thousands of unavoidable and heretofore undetected sub-concussive hits incurred during routine play.
Given this new set of facts, many fans have opted to place the moral burden on players. We point out, somewhat defensively, that our heroes choose to compete and are lavishly compensated for doing a job.
What we invariably omit is our own role in the equation. After all, it is our hunger for brutal entertainment that pays those outsized salaries. And this complicity extends to all fans, even to those who passively consume the game on television. We're the reason the networks pay billions for broadcast rights.
Fans of the college and high school game, meanwhile, have had to confront a more fundamental anxiety: the manner in which football has warped our educational mission.
Given that the purpose of school is to develop the minds of our young, what are we supposed to do with the news out of Purdue University, where researchers found that high school players actually lost brain function as the season wore on — even those who never suffered a concussion?
Wary of medical risks, parents in richer areas are discouraging or even forbidding their kids from participating. And thus a growing percentage of players are drawn from economically vulnerable communities. Our interest in these young men has little to do with the content of their character. We watch and applaud them based on their talent for controlled violence.
This violence plays out within the context of a game that is undeniably thrilling. The question that now hangs above every gridiron in our football-crazy nation is whether those thrills will abide the counsel of our consciences.
Steve Almond is the author of the new book "Against Football." (Melville House). He's appearing on the CityLit Stage of the Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday at 6 p.m. Twitter: @stevealmondjoy.
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