watch it die: an open letter on football, head injuries, and entertainment

melissa huggins
sometimes mondays

october 10, 2013


dear huggiebear,

the other day i saw an ad on television for, of all things, coke zero—and it was kinda jaw-dropping.  in a move that struck me as eerily accurate and nonchalant, the commercial drew a parallel between watching football on tv all day and (among other things) old-timey romans watching dudes “fight” lions in the colosseum.  supposedly, the message of the ad was: men are hard-wired to sit around and watch stuff.  the message that i walked away with was: that’s pretty fucked up.

i say “fucked up” because it seems like an increasingly smaller leap to get from [A] guys being eaten & mauled by wild animals in an arena for entertainment to [B] guys being beating & mauled by each other on a football field for entertainment.  obviously, football isn’t as barbarous as feeding live people to lions.  but that doesn’t mean dudes aren’t being killed for our entertainment.  it’s just a longer line to connect the dots: football players aren’t dying on the field, but rather sometimes years later (from CTE, suicide, etc.).  we can justify the violence happening for our amusement because that remove makes it “safe” for the fans—it absolves us from any complicity in the darkness that descends on former nfl players after their playing days are done.  outta sight, outta mind, right?

and what about the idea that football players in this era seem to be hitting each other harder than ever?  guys today are better athletes than guys from decades past (and they also have access to more powerful/effective steroids).  so if guys that quit playing decades ago are only now showing symptoms of the long-term effects from all those hard hits, is it unreasonable to assume that current players could be even worse off in the decades to come?

but what has me even more concerned is how widespread the issue has become.  it’s not just nfl players we’re talking about anymore.  college, and even high school, kids who’ve played football have been developing head injuries and suffering from serious medical conditions that is far beyond the norm for their age.

admittedly, i haven’t been reading the science journals on this topic, and i did only catch half of the frontline special on pbs the other night, but i’ve been following the story via print and radio journalists.  maybe i’m being persuaded by a bunch of sissy newspapermen who never played organized football (just like me).  or maybe i’m getting paranoid because i’m susceptible to the liberal media bias.  or maybe i just hate fun.  (no, wait—that’s the nfl.)  but from what i’ve heard, it seems like we’ve got an epidemic of concussive & cumulative sub-concussive hits that are causing some serious fucking damage to players’ brains.

now, we’re obviously not living in a soviet-type state, where children are being selected & groomed to play football from an early age.  dudes are free to play—or not play—football as they see fit.  but for many young men, there’s an awfully powerful incentive to do so, isn’t there?  whether it’s linked to scholarships, or peer pressure, or just the desire to belong to some kind of community, lots & lots of kids are choosing to play football.  and lots and lots of men are getting paid very handsomely to do it professionally.  it’s not just sport anymore—it’s big business.  big with a capital B.  you know, for billions of dollars.

so when former players are donating their brains to be studied, and scientists are finding some really messed up shit with those brains, and i’m looking around for who to blame/where to start addressing this, it seems like a good idea to start by following the money.

we’ve long known that players are willing to destroy their bodies, and sacrifice general agility/mobility at a later age, for the glory & enormous paychecks of the nfl.  but is that largely because they don’t really know what playing could do to their brains?  and even if they did know, the money’s still there as a pretty powerful motivator.

so, how/why do players get those lucrative deals?  teams/owners can afford to pay them zillionz of dollars because they’re getting rich off media contracts, merchandise sales, game tickets, stadium concessions, affinity deals with mega corporations, etc.  and they’re getting rich off all that shit because we’re the ones paying for it & sitting through all those commercials during game breaks.

the nfl has basically become a money-printing machine.  and this head trauma business could be an existential threat to that machine.  but that’s not really true if we fans continue to watch the game, regardless of what happens to the players later in life.  i grew up watching the bears with my old man every sunday, during the era of sweetness and the ’85 champs.  and i still watch the bears on tv every week at home.  it’s like a tradition.  but as more cases of severe head trauma with former players come to light, what’s a fan to do?

we’re kinda powerless against a juggernaut like the nfl, aren’t we?  in some ways, this actually makes me identify with those wacko birds in the house GOP right now.  when you’re david, what do you do when you’re faced with goliath?  break out the only weapon you’ve got, even if the only weapon in your arsenal is a nuke.

so, i think i have to stop watching football until the nfl gets serious about this shit.  and “serious” is not a $1 million donation, or even a $30 million donation.  not when you’re a $9 billion league with it’s eyes set on $25 billion in revenue.

until fans stop watching the games, stop buying jerseys, and stop getting credit cards with their team’s logo on them, i’m not sure the nfl will care enough about players after the league’s through with them.  because that $765 million settlement the league made with retired players sounds pretty impressive—until you realize it’s to be split with over 4,500 players.  and just how much healthcare & alleviation from duress do you think $170,000 will buy you these days?  i’m willing to bet not enough for a lifetime.  unless that lifetime is cut dramatically short.

jason sommer
sometimes thursdays


  • Pat says:

    I find it interesting that you put the onus on the fans to do something. As a fan, why should I care about the brain of the millionaire playing a game? Compassion for another human being aside, whether the players leave the field on their own two feet or on a stretcher doesn’t matter to me. I admit that I do feel sorry for the players of the past that were not grossly overpaid like the players of today. It is absurd to think that the $765 million will cover the toll their bodies have taken but let that be the lesson learned. Football will fuck you up, play at your own risk.

    I think the greater irony is being lost in the Coke Zero commercial. Not that men are made to sit and watch things but that the old timey Romans were the rich and powerful watching the slaves and peasants fight and now it’s the money on the field while the every man is safe in the stands…

    Either way, it’s been a long day at work. Thank you for your thoughts, it’s always a good read and a pleasant break from my day.

  • Laura says:

    I never really thought about the effect all those hard hits have on football players until Junior Seau died. He was my brother’s favorite player growing up, and it shocked me to learn how damaged Seau had become.

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