With the Super Bowl around the corner, press coverage of football is at a peak. This year, however, the typical stories focusing on the competing teams and the host city have been accompanied by a number of pieces questioning whether it is moral to continue watching a sport we now know to be a definitive cause of brain damage in its athletes. The answer to this question, of course, is a resounding no. But simply turning off the game isn’t enough anymore. The revelations of football’s cognitive impacts demand that football as we know it cease to exist. Specifically, the tie between schools and football must be severed. It is no longer acceptable for a sport that destroys brains to be attached to institutions of learning.
We’ve known for a long time that football has its drawbacks. In particular, college football has revealed itself to be a cesspool of corruption. Scandals such as the recent revelation of fake classes for athletes at UNC and the infamous Penn State child abuse case show what happens when collegiate football programs become so lucrative and powerful that they overcome the good sense of the institutions that house them. Yet, despite the terrifying and depressing nature of these incidents and others like them, they’ve never been enough to force a major change in how football functions. This is because the problem wasn’t with the sport itself, but rather with a few bad eggs within the system. A few investigations, penalties, and rules changes, it was reasoned, could take care of these issues and allow the sport to move forward.
But now there is a problem with the sport and it’s impossible to deny. The repeated impacts to the head that are so common in football cause brain damage. This brain damage can lead to depression, disability, and even suicide in current and former players. And, barring a miraculous advancement in technology and medical science, there’s no cure for players suffering from the degenerative effects of chronic head trauma. Likewise, the NFL’s changes to the rules and concussion procedures, while well intentioned, won’t solve the problem because they do nothing to change the fact that football is a contact sport designed around the rapid acceleration and deceleration of players. Unless the sport changes this underlying truth, concussions and long-term brain damage will remain a certainty in football. No helmet or tackling procedure or sideline medical test will change this fact.
So what do we do about this? For many people, it’s a non-issue. NFL and college football players are adults who make the conscious decision to risk their health for the game. But the problem with this argument is that the NFL and college teams cannot exist without the multi-tiered feeder system that delivers the skills they need. According to CNN, there are more than 1 million teenagers playing high school football in the United States, and 3 million more in organized youth leagues. These kids form the bottom layers of the pyramid of talent that, at each level, gets winnowed down until only the best players are left at the top, in the NFL. For an idea of how steep the drop-off is at the college and professional levels, consider these odds: there are only 67,887 college and 1,696 NFL players in the country. These odds are no different from those of other major sports, and like baseball and basketball, professional football as we know it could not exist without this process. And while college and professional players may be adults making rational decisions on the risks/rewards of playing football, the same cannot be said of high school and elementary school kids. With even high school players showing signs of brain damage, it is abundantly clear that this situation is no longer acceptable.
If we are unable or unwilling to ban football (which is a conversation worth having), the next best step would be to remove all institutional support for the game. This means severing the ties between schools and the sport. Schools serve as the foundation for all professional sports in America, with each jump in education functioning as the next jump on the pyramid of talent. With their large populations of young athletes, the marriage makes sense. But not for football. Not anymore. It’s simply too harmful and completely antithetical to the purpose of education. Yes football may be popular and incredibly profitable for some institutions, but allowing a sport that destroys brains to exist at schools would be like allowing the DEA to fund itself by selling crystal meth. Moreover, the idea that tax dollars are being used to fund such a dangerous activity is absurd.
Schools and football must be separated so as to limit the moral and physical dangers of the sport. Like boxing, football must exist outside of institutionalized life here in America. It must be made to be something different, something that doesn’t receive official attention or sanctioning. By moving it outside of schools, you are moving it outside of normal life. It removes the institutional pressures to play the sport and forces students to seek it out on their own, making the barrier to entry harder and therefore the decision to play more serious.
This is not a perfect solution to the problems posed by football. But it’s a start. And even at that it’s highly unlikely to ever happen. Football is so ingrained in our society and so treasured by the people that it’s hard to imagine Pittsburg without the Steelers or New York without the Giants. But the recently understood cognitive impacts of the sport demand action. Will we sit by and become complicit in the destruction of young lives across the country, or will we demand changes in how football operates? This is the question, and this is my proposal. Football must become an outsider.