The University Of Massachusetts Medical Center sits high on a hill on the Worcester side of Lake Quinsigamond, not far from the high school at which my father was the assistant principal, and even closer to the state park where he first taught me to swim. He’d grown up swimming at a pond near where he lived and, during World War II, the Navy taught him even more strongly, how to swim for his life. (To this day, I remember some of what he taught me. If your ship is sunk, and you’re underwater, before you surface, wave your hand in the water right above your head, disbursing whatever’s up there, so you don’t come up in the middle of a patch of burning oil.) He was a great swimmer, until he couldn’t remember how to do it anymore. Later, he forgot how to play golf, feed himself, speak, and, ultimately, be the person he was in the world. He had Alzheimer’s Disease. Ultimately, all four of his siblings did, too.
At the UMass Medical Center, there is a white filing cabinet with long metal drawers. In one of those drawers are the slides containing what is left of my father’s brain. Under a microscope, you can see the “plaques and tangles” that are characteristic of the disease that killed him. They are black, deadly things, as though someone had put out cigarettes in my father’s hippocampus. Later, I wrote a book about the whole thing—my father, our family, and the disease that hangs over us like grapes in a poisoned arbor. There are two things I learned from my experience and through my research. One is that I do not want to get Alzheimer’s Disease, or anything like it. The second is only a fool or a madman would volunteer to get Alzheimer’s Disease, or anything like it.
In an article in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association, the team at the Boston University’s School of Medicine which has been doggedly researching the effect that playing American football has on the human brain produced its extensive study under the authorship of Dr. Ann McKee, who has been ringing the fire bell on this issue since 2009. The team studied 111 brains donated by former NFL players. Of these, 110 showed damage characteristic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which seems to work on the brain the same way that Alzheimer’s does. (Accumulation of a protein called tau is seen in brains affected by both diseases.) The person with CTE is not the same person he was without it. An individual disappears into the disease. Someone else emerges—angry, frightened, impulsive, lost in a deep and infernal fog.
There were 202 brains studied by the team at BU and CTE showed up in 87% of them. The argument, for all practical purposes, seems to be over.
Since the results were published, John Urschel of the Baltimore Ravens announced his retirement. He is 26 years old. Urschel is an interesting case because he also is a certified mathematics genius who has published nine working papers and is presently working toward his Ph.D at MIT in some space-alien field of mathematics that I believe would break my brain if I tried to understand it. I’ve never met Urschel, but he happens to be engaged to one of my best friends in the business, so, when he announced his retirement, I was surprised how happy I was for the both of them. The paradigm of how we follow football is changing right under the NFL’s feet.
Writing in The Players Tribune last year, Urschel eloquently explained how he could still play the game and put his mind at such a terrible risk.
I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else. My teammates, friends and family can attest to this: When I go too long without physical contact I’m not a pleasant person to be around. This is why, every offseason, I train in kickboxing and wrestling in addition to my lifting, running and position-specific drill work. I’ve fallen in love with the sport of football and the physical contact associated with it. Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me.
That’s what the old paradigm of how we follow football used to sound—the joy of having people who loved the work of hitting people, the ecstatic celebration of vicarious violence. Too bad about all those knees and shoulders and elbows, but, hey, the price they pay, right? Going to a luncheon with Hall of Famers at any Super Bowl always looked like those black-and-white films of reunions at Gettysburg. It was uncomfortable, but tolerable, and you could always convince yourself that these guys “gave 100%” to keep you entertained. There was a moral calculus that at least came out somewhere close to even. That’s not the case any more.
The more you play American football, the more damage you do to your mind. No position is safe; there even were a punter and a placekicker in the study. If you watch football, if you enjoy American football, then what we know now has got to change your personal moral calculus.
In December of 1953, the American tobacco industry was in deep trouble. Research into the deleterious health effects of cigarette smoking was beginning to pile up ominously all over the country. So the industry did what American industries do—it hired Hill and Knowlton, a power in the advertising industry even then, to spin itself out of trouble. H&K earned every nickel it made from this particular client. Its strategy included buying its own scientists to cast doubt on the mounting evidence. As medical historian Allan Brandt put it in his magisterial study, The Cigarette Century, “[This] strategy for ending the ‘hysteria’ was to insist that there were ‘two sides’ … This strategy would ultimately become the cornerstone of a large range of efforts to distort scientific process in the second half of the 20th century.”
“Hysteria” has been a weaponized word, useful when large industries don’t want to face up to the damage they may be doing. We saw it used with cigarettes. We’ve seen it used in regards to the public health crisis currently facing football at every level.
If there is going to be chronic denialism on this issue, it may not come from the NFL, although some of it surely will. It’s going to come from the people in the game, the fans of the game, and many members of football’s kept national press, who are unwilling or unable to change their moral calculus and who become aggravated when somebody suggests that they should. For example, in 2015, Jim Harbaugh, the coach at the University of Michigan, suggested that American football was “… the last bastion of hope in America for toughness in men, in males.” (So much, one supposes, for the SEALs.) Coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals expressed concern that America’s mothers were refusing to let their sons play football because of the head injury issue. (Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be safeties.) Danny Kanell, then of ESPN, called attention via Twitter to the peril he perceived from the folks he called “concussion alarmists.” (Kanell also managed to work “the liberal media” into his tweet, thereby winning that week’s game of wingnut rhetorical bingo.) In support of Kanell, Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports bellowed his contempt for what he called “the media-driven concussion hysteria.” Hill and Knowlton would have been proud of that one.
To be fair, Whitlock later in the same piece admits that football is “barbaric,” which is better than other Football Under Attack pieces I’ve read. Let us be clear: I am not suggesting that we ban the game. That kind of thing never works in America and, generally, the attempts to do it end very badly for society at large. But I do find myself wondering if the shift in the moral calculus is profound enough to shake the purchase that American football has on the culture in so many different places—from high schools in Texas to the gambling floors in Las Vegas. And I think of John Urschel again, and I’m happy he was strong enough to give up something he loves in order to pursue something else that he loves. And I think of my father, who could swim for hours, when he was still who he was born to be.
Football is immoral. Time to get rid of it
There’s a lot to like about Seattle.
Seattle is also, however, full of shit.
There is one Seattle institution that is so hypocritical to the progressive values the city loves to espouse that it makes me want to pack my bags and move to — and I can’t believe I’m about to type this — Portland. And when you see what I’m referring to, you’ll probably send me the first bus ticket there: I’m talking about the Seahawks.
Seattle loves football. And it’s not just the stereotypical meathead contingent — it’s the entire goddamn city. Punks like it, anarchists like it, even homosexuals like it. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl and everyone forgot that all the dudes who called you a faggot and gave you swirlies in high school were on the football team. From September to March, you cannot get away from football in this city. Even gay bars here show games — and not just the Super Bowl either: the regular ones! Citizens of this generally mild-mannered city turn into Texas football dads when they talk about the Seahawks. There’s a name for the fans here — 12th Man, a reference to the invisible 12th player on the field, which I guess is supposed to be the love of the city. Seattle isn’t particularly loud — it’s known more for being passive aggressive than for being raucous — but Seahawks fans have twice set the record for the loudest crowd at a sporting event. Twice. Way to go, team.
But the problem isn’t the noise, and it’s not that ugly-ass lime green and blue that covers everything from hoodies to cupcakes in this city. It’s not even the traffic, which Seahawks games make unbearable. It’s way bigger than that.
Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t give football much thought. I used to occasionally go to college games with my dad, though I was more in it for the nachos than the scores. I wasn’t a fan, but the whole thing was easy enough to ignore. But then I started noticing a disturbing rash of stories about the problems with football.
It started with brain damage. There have been many, many reports in the past few years about the connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that affects people with a history of brain trauma — the kind of brain trauma you get from being routinely sacked by 300-pound men. Symptoms of CTE are similar to those associated with other neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or ALS. This includes difficulty thinking, impulsive behavior, depression, memory loss, problems with executive function, and emotional instability. CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, but so far 12 NFL players have been diagnosed after their deaths and thousands of former players are involved in a class action lawsuit against the league for hiding the dangers of concussions.
Another suit was filed against the league in 2012, this one by the son of former NFL player Dave Duerson. Duerson committed suicide after experiencing cognitive issues that he attributed to his years on the field. “He described having trouble with spelling, blurred vision, short-term memory problems, issues with putting full concepts and sentences together,” said his son Tregg. Duerson shot himself in the chest, and in his suicide note, requested that his brain be used to research CTE.
CTE generally appears in older players, but not always. Jovan Belcher, a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, was just 25 when he shot his girlfriend and then drove to his team’s practice facility, thanked his coaches, and shot himself. A year later, his body was exhumed and his brain examined. The brains of people with CTE have an abnormal build-up of a protein called tau, which affects memory, judgment, and fear, and can lead to impulsive behavior. Belcher had that build-up.
Besides the (at least) 30 NFL players who have committed suicide, there are other problems. Football can be the pathway to fame, fortune, and glory, sure, but that’s rare. And for some, football takes away much more than it gives. The Seattle Times recently reported that in Bellevue, a wealthy suburb of Seattle, at least 17 Bellevue High School football players actually attended a local 40-student private school called the Academic Institute yet played on the Bellevue High football team (this is allowed according to district rules). And while their football team might have been stellar (Bellevue High has won 11 state titles in the past 15 years), the education these players received was not. The Institute — which charges $1,750 per month — has been called a “diploma mill” by former teachers, and the paper’s investigation found that in at least three instances, tuition for football players was paid for by wealthy Bellevue High boosters. “Earlier this year,” wrote the Times, “one family complained that an assistant coach threatened to revoke their son’s financial aid at Academic Institute if the student didn’t continue playing football at Bellevue.”
After these students were finished winning championships at Bellevue High, some learned that they may not even be eligible to play in college. That’s what happened to former Bellevue player Darien Freeman, who found when he got to Weber State on a football scholarship that the NCAA was questioning the Academic Institute’s accreditation. Freeman left Weber State — and football — after his first year and plans to start taking classes at Central Washington University this fall.
Scandal follows sports, especially football. In 2014, one of the largest investigations in NCAA history revealed systematic academic fraud in classes serving student athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to outside investigator Kenneth Wainstein, between 1993 and 2011, more than 3,100 students, many of them football and basketball players, were enrolled in “paper classes.” Wainstein wrote: “Like traditional independent studies at Chapel Hill or any other campus, these classes entailed no class attendance and required only the submission of a single research paper. Unlike traditional independent studies, however, there was no faculty member involved in managing the course and overseeing the student’s research and writing process. In fact, the students never had a single interaction with a faculty member.” As a result of the Wainstein Report, four UNC employees were fired or retired — three academic counselors and one lecturer. No administrators or coaches were disciplined.
It’s no wonder that scandal follows college football: It’s a big business. In 2015, Ohio State overtook Texas to become the most valuable college football program in the nation. Its worth? $1.1 billion. At universities across the country, coaches are often the highest paid employees; meanwhile, the athletes themselves don’t get paid at all. Sure, they might get a college scholarship, but it’s hardly free. Football is a job: Athletes work every time they practice or play a game or wear a sponsor’s logo — and that work often takes an extreme physical toll. A lot of people are making money from college football. Just not the players.
College players aren’t the only ones not getting paid. In a 2014 lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders, one cheerleader alleged that the team paid less than $5 an hour, and said that she didn’t get paid at all for practice, rehearsals, or other team activities. Ninety other current and former Raiderettes joined the suit, and the Raiders subsequently settled for $1.25 million and raised cheerleader pay — to $9 an hour.
Perhaps the most shocking fact I learned about the NFL is that, until this year, the league was actually a nonprofit. “People don’t believe this when I tell them this,” Gregg Easterbrook, author of The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America, told Diane Rehm in 2013, “but NFL headquarters, 345 Park Avenue in New York City — a gleaming structure, you think you’re in the Goldman Sachs building — is organized as a not-for-profit entity and pays no taxes.”
After media attention and public outcry, the NFL dropped its nonprofit status earlier this year. But, according to The Washington Post, its tax bill will likely be around $10 million annually — a paltry sum for a league that brings in $10 billion a year. And by dropping its 501(c)(6) status, the NFL no longer has to disclose the salaries of league executives like Roger Goodell, who made $44 million in 2012, while running a “nonprofit.”
That’s not all. In addition to the social costs of football, there’s the environmental cost. Football players might be big but the game’s carbon footprint is massive. The Christian Science Monitor wrote earlier this year that the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis “used around 15,000 megawatt-hours of electricity. The next year’s Super Bowl, in the New Orleans’ SuperDome, pumped out 3.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide (even though the power went out in the middle of the game). And that’s not even counting the jet fuel and gasoline guzzled to get players, media, and countless fans to the event.” That 3.8 million pounds was for one game. There’s a whole seemingly endless season to account for as well, plus the millions of Americans turning on their TVs every Sunday, heating up their grills, pounding pails of beer and buckets of nacho cheese that was all trucked in from somewhere else. Add youth, high school, and college football in the mix, and the total carbon footprint for organized football is immeasurably large. Plus there are all those damn balloons to worry about.
Now, I know what you are thinking. What about baseball? What about hockey? What about every sporting event or music festival or awards show on the planet? What about political conventions, organized religion, the military, parenthood, Christmas, TED Talks? What about Taylor Swift? Doesn’t she have a massive carbon footprint too? Yes, she does — but not as big as football’s.
It’s true that some efforts are being made to green the game. Seattle installed solar panels in the Seahawks stadium in 2011. In 2013, the U.S. Green Building Council announced a partnership with the Green Sports Alliance to increase the number of LEED certified sport facilities in the country. San Francisco’s Levi Stadium became the first LEED Gold certified football stadium last year. But these gestures are not enough.
Fortunately, there are a few small signs that football’s dominance is gradually waning — though not out of fear for the planet. Although football is still the most popular sport to watch in America, it’s becoming less and less popular to actually play. ESPN reported that between 2010 and 2012, enrollment in Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football league, dropped by nearly 10 percent, mostly out of concern for CTE and head trauma. Parents are pushing their kids into other sports now, sports that are less likely to damage them. Lacrosse is doing very well these days. If this keeps up, maybe football will someday go out of style, like tobacco or tanning. It’ll join the ranks of things we used to do before we wised up to their real, hidden costs.
While all the 12th Man flags around Seattle lately make it seem unlikely that we’ll retire this tradition any time soon, I’m keeping the faith that this city will come to its senses. I might have to wait until Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll and Richard Sherman retire, but if any city is going to decide that the NFL is incompatible with the things we hold dear, it should be Seattle. After all, the only thing Seattle loves more than football is being right.