On Sunday, the NFL season kicks off in earnest. Sports news websites, team message boards and social media are already awash with coverage. To the unbridled joy of many, football is back. But for the first time in almost 20 years, I will not follow.
This summer, I decided that I was done with football. I cannot justify supporting the ongoing carnage in the sport. As a sociologist who studies violence, gender and work in sport, perhaps it was only a matter of time.
But this decision did not happen overnight. I didn’t read my first article or investigative piece on concussions or violence against women and immediately threw away my Eli Manning jersey. To varying degrees, I’ve known about football misdeeds for years and have continued to watch.
I’ve been obsessed with sports since I was 8 years old, poring over the sports section of the Montreal Gazette, listing NHL batting averages and point totals to my amused, almost annoyed dad. I studied sports analysis and then sociology in graduate school, and wrote a thesis on the career outcomes of NFL and NBA players accused of violence against women.
Over time, I developed a more critical eye. Scouting reports for weekend games have been replaced by talks about public spending pitfalls for new stadiums; instead of glorifying the white receiver that advertisers praised for their football IQ, I asked why black receivers with similar skills weren’t celebrated in the same way.
Beyond the athletic feats and game strategy, I loved the routine of football. For years, I spent Sundays at my best friend’s house watching games. Her mom was cooking a feast (talking about traditional gender roles), and we were chatting, laughing, watching the dolphins (usually) lose, and complaining about our fantastic teams. These are still some of the fondest memories of my teens and early twenties.
But I reached my breaking point last summer. In researching concussions in football, and in particular the NFL’s efforts to obscure the clear link between sports, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and violence, early dementia and death among its players, j decided I couldn’t keep watching.
I had known about the concussion epidemic in football and (to a lesser extent) other sports for some time, but in a distant, abstract sense. I hadn’t really dug into the stories of the individuals and families who suffered. It’s one thing to know that “a former NFL player has dementia,” and quite another to read about “Iron” Mike Webster, the first of Dr. Bennett Omalu’s CTE patients, who was “sometimes catatonic (and ) in the fetal position for days”. before dying at age 50. Or Terry Long, who died at 45 with a brain described as that of a “90-year-old with advanced Alzheimer’s.” Or Vincent Jackson, four-time NFL Man of the Year award winner, who died alone in his hotel room in February 2021, at age 38.
Then there are the suicides: Junior Seau, a 20-year veteran and fan favorite who shot himself in the chest at 43, just three years after retiring; Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in prison for murder (violence being another symptom of CTE), and had “one of the most severe cases of CTE found in a person his age”; Greg Clark, a four-year 49ers veteran who died by suicide last July, aged 49.
Remember, these are just a few of the cases we know about. CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, and only if the deceased has agreed to have their brain examined. In the 15 years since Dr. Omalu was first diagnosed, more than 320 former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE, but that’s still only a fraction of those who likely suffered. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found CTE in 177 of 202 former football players at all levels. Of the 111 NFL players studied, 110 had the disease. It’s 99%.
At this point, we know that CTE is linked to football and specifically NFL football, and we know that it causes “progressive degeneration of brain tissue”, resulting in “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism and possibly progressive dementia.” Players only get bigger, faster and stronger, leading to more violent collisions.
The bodily harm suffered by football players for our entertainment isn’t the only reason to stop watching. The NFL is where Deshaun Watson, accused by 24 women of sexual misconduct and assault, just signed a five-year, $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, with more than $200 million guaranteed . Time and again, the NFL and its teams have shown a willingness to acquire players who have committed acts of violence against women, with little consequence for players who perform even at an average level.
High-contact sports like soccer have long been associated with a form of domineering and patriarchal masculinity linked to violence and misogyny. Combine that culture with abusive training, high rates of brain injuries and concussions, and a win-at-all-costs philosophy that ignores player misconduct as long as they play on the field, and the NFL can be seen as accomplice in the course of violence committed by the players.
There are also labor issues, present both in the NFL and more specifically in its power system, the NCAA. The planting dynamics of college football and men’s college basketball are evident. These two sports are the source of considerable profits for university athletic departments, profits produced by the work of predominantly black athletes. However, instead of those profits going to responsible black workers, they are split among mostly white coaches and administrators. In most states, a men’s basketball or soccer coach is the highest paid public employee.
The NCAA still adamantly refuses to recognize athletes as workers, failing to offer compensation, protections and benefits. Last year, campus sports workers finally won the right to benefit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) and accept sponsorship with outside companies, but that only shifts the responsibility of paying players from schools to other companies.
Although NFL players happily receive salaries and are recognized as workers, careers are notoriously short (about three years on average) and contracts often contain little guaranteed money. Many players are one bad game away from being cut and not seeing their contracts paid.
Career trajectories are also partially determined by factors beyond the athletes’ control; the bloated football ecosystem ensures that there is always a new generation of players ready to enter the league, and as salary rules limit the remuneration of rookie contracts, new players cost much less. Even as gamers destroy their bodies and brains for property profits and fan amusement, they are treated as disposable “assets” by their organizations.
I can already hear the questions. I get them all the time: what about the players who have worked their whole lives to reach the top of their sport and earn money from their athletic work? Don’t they deserve our support? There are many exploitative industries, should we boycott them all? Football is the lifeblood of so many communities, do we want to take that away from them?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions, especially those regarding support for athletes and their families. Whenever we think about repairing inequalities, exploitation and systemic damage, there is always a difficult balance to strike between the need for revolutionary systemic change soon and the need for harm reduction now.
I want athletes to be compensated for their years of sacrifice and to be treated with humanity and fairness; but most importantly, I want these athletes to have paths to emotional fulfillment, enjoyment, and economic security that don’t involve destroying their brains and bodies.
Given the current structure of America’s sports and education systems, I know football is sometimes the only way for some oppressed groups to get to college. For many, football is seen as a “way out”. Football brings communities together and teaches some young men about resilience, leadership and hard work. But these positive outcomes do not erase the harms, and perhaps just as important, these positive outcomes can be accomplished in a variety of other ways, none of which involve brain damage, violence or exploitation.
I cannot ignore the damage caused by football and my own tacit support for that damage. So until there are drastic changes in the sport and its systems, I’m out. I hope I don’t wait the rest of my life.
The NFL season is here but I will no longer follow. I can’t not see the hurt it causes