By Williams Mejia
New Brunswick, NJ
The National Football League is an American obsession. In 2016, more than 111 million people watched Super Bowl 50. Television networks pay the league billions of dollars to broadcast games. Americans are nearly united in their love of football. But it comes at a cost.
Every season, players bash their brains together for the entertainment of millions. The NFL is partially responsible for its head injury problem, but the league isn’t solely to blame – our addiction to football is part of the problem.
The NFL, a $9 billion industry, trades the long-term health of its players for profits. That’s not an exaggeration: An alarming number of former football players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head. A Boston University study from this year found that 99 percent of 111 deceased NFL players who were tested had CTE, which can cause cognitive decline, emotional instability, suicidal thoughts, memory loss, and other serious symptoms. Multiple players who committed suicide, including NFL greats Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, were later found to have CTE. (The disease can only be diagnosed after death.) This doesn’t mean 99 percent of former NFL players have CTE – the brains tested were already suspected to have the disease – but clearly football has a brain injury problem.
When someone tunes into a game, they are implicitly saying, “I am okay with this.” While that might sound harsh, fans should know that the money they spend on television, merchandise and tickets keeps the NFL’s business thriving. No fan wants to see a player suffer, of course, but we need to think about how our viewing habits enable serious injuries.
One might argue that the players are doing this to themselves. In the NFL, at least, players are paid good salaries to play a game that Americans widely enjoy. But players are putting themselves at serious risk, in part because of your money. If fans decided to stop watching professional football, the league’s money would dry up. It’s not clear that any sort of rule change can make football safe for the brain.
Football’s greatest challenge may be that players are encouraged to play through pain. Even Brett Favre, the NFL’s iron man, understands the risks of the game. “If I had a son I would be real leery of him playing [football],” Favre said in 2013, citing “the physical toll that it could possibly take on him.” If, like Favre, you’d hesitate to let your own son play football, you need to ask yourself whether you can justify watching someone else’s son take the field.