Every year, over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, and every year, I am among them. For many years, I have been a die-hard football fan, religiously tuning in every Sunday to watch my San Francisco 49ers thrash their opponents. However, I can no longer ignore the elephant in the room: watching football is profoundly immoral, and yet I still do my part to keep the National Footbal League (NFL) solvent and more profitable than ever.
Not often is it that we consider what it is that we are really watching. To fans, football consists of entertainment, competition, action, excitement, and terribly-funny commercials for terribly-brewed lagers; however, seldom do we consciously think that we are literally watching men, live and in HD, give one another brain damage.
Of course, it has long been known that contact sports take a physical toll, and it is not news to anybody who plays a contact sport that sudden deceleration of the head can cause concussions; indeed, such risks are often considered to be ‘part of the game,’ risks which should be taken into account in one’s decision to participate in such activities. This all changed when, in 2002, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster passed away at age 50 after years of peculiar behavior and subsequently became the first former player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.
CTE is a progressive neurodegenerative disease resulting from repeated head injury that has been connected to a plethora of negative symptoms, ranging from memory loss to suicidality. Webster’s diagnosis and the sharp rise in known cases of CTE in deceased players in the years since have sparked a vigorous debate on issues of player safety. After all, short-term physical handicaps caused by contact sports have been well-documented for time immemorial, but long-term mental handicaps were an entirely different ball game.
In recent years, experts have come to realize the shocking ubiquity of CTE. Because CTE cannot be diagnosed until after death, and because it had been uncommon for an NFL player to donate his brain for such research purposes, it took until 2017 for researchers at Boston University to realize the prevalence of CTE: of 111 NFL players’ brains that were examined, 110 had CTE. Players from every position (even punters) were found to have CTE.
Moreover, CTE was found to have struck indiscriminantly with regards to player age or length or level of play; players of all ages, including those in high school and college, have been diagnosed with CTE. In 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before taking his own life at age 25; he was diagnosed with CTE in 2014. In 2013, New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and eventually was convicted for first-degree murder. After an apparent suicide in prison in 2017, Hernandez, then aged 27, was diagnosed with Stage 3 CTE.
The NFL, for its part, has been taking tangible steps to tackle the issue of head injury with rules aimed at protecting “defenseless players” and with stricter concussion protocol. However, these actions may prove futile in slowing down the CTE epidemic, as new research suggests that hits, not concussions, are the cause of the disease. The implication then becomes that the very nature of the game of football causes neurodegeneration.
That brings me back to the morality of watching football. If it is indeed true that football inherently causes a devastating neurodegenerative disease, if indeed no amount of football is safe, if indeed no level of player protections will suffice, then it follows that the game of football itself must end.
But who keeps football on television (and the most watched sport on the continent) in the first place? It is us, the fans, who demand the appealing product, who support our favorite team by wearing hats and jerseys, who are willing to drink putrid beer out of cans with team logos on them—it is the fans who keep the NFL a solvent enterprise. The NFL only needs under a couple thousand players to function, but it needs millions of fans to continue profiting off a sport which, on a very basic level, cripples the minds of its participants.
Therefore, as fans, we must consider taking responsibility for the role we play in facilitating this travesty of a sport. For as long as I enjoy watching the San Francisco 49ers win, I will be responsible for countless cases of mental illness and premature death.
Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated