I love American football. As a kid I loved playing pick-up games of it in our suburban backyards and touch versions in the street. Our city was cursed with the St. Louis Football Cardinals who eventually took their stinking-on-ice team to Arizona where they still suck, and most of my friends were from outside the area so I took to supporting their teams. My friend Ron H. was from Philadelphia, so I started rooting for the Eagles. But this was the era of the Steel Curtain, so I found myself cheering for the Pittsburgh Steelers as well. In fact I liked almost all the football teams except for my hometown disappointments.
After my bohemian period during which I thought American football was jejune and bourgeois, I had fallen in love with a woman who rekindled my interest in the Philadelphia Eagles after we moved into the area. I’ve rarely written about the sport because I have nothing to say beyond the usual “Go Birds” and the attendant “Cowboys Suck!” that comes with being a Philly fan. After moving south of the Mason Dixon, I have paid hundreds of dollars to watch the Eagles and other NFL teams play on DirecTV every season.
But every season the game seems to lose some of its appeal. Maybe there are too many penalties in an attempt to make the game safe. Maybe it’s because I’m growing older and have seen some pretty bad things happen to people. Maybe it’s because I’m just turning into a big pussy. But there’s only so many times I can see a player get hit and lay motionless on the ground while holding my breath before I begin to think something is wrong both with the sport and my enjoyment of it.
I love the sheer athleticism on display. I revel in the impossible plays just like any other fan. And yes these men are paid millions to destroy their bodies, but does the lucre they are paid free us fans from guilt? We are being entertained by men damaging their bodies in ways we would not do ourselves, or allow our children to do. I didn’t let my son play football even when he expressed interest in the sport. At the time I was more worried about a broken neck or ruined knees. That was before CTE, Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that destroys the brain and is specific to the sports boxing and football. Soccer players don’t exhibit it, nor do baseball players or lacrosse players. CTE does not wait until players are in their 70s or 80s to exhibit signs; it has been found in the brain of an 18 year old football player.
I am no nanny. If you want to kill yourself with drugs or whatever, fine – do so just not in front of me because I have a conscience and I will intervene to stop you. That is the way I was raised. For the past few years my conscience has been stirring when I watch American football, and seeing this program on PBS pretty much seals the deal. The NFL has denied the existence of CTE the exact same way the tobacco companies denied cancer caused by smoking. Recently the league has pushed the problem into the future by calling for “more study” just as the cigarette companies called for further research on lung cancer when the Science behind the causative link between smoking and lung cancer was unequivocal. What they’ve done is criminal but not surprising given the amount of money league owners have invested in the game.
Many of my friends have turned to European football known as soccer here in the States, and while watching the game seems about as exciting as watching a cat lick itself, at least I can watch it without my conscience stirring.
Perhaps technology can someday come to the rescue. Imagine: no penalties, no guilt, and as violent as we can make it. We could watch a true Steel Curtain descend on the opposing robot team and pulverize them, sending bits of plastic, steel and oil flying. Then, and only then will I be ready for some football.