December 10, 2019

American Football gets an F!

Attention all parents! Before signing your kids up for the football team at camp — or during the school year — you must read this.

And the results are in: Playing football is bad for your health. It's bad even if you haven't suffered multiple concussions — even if you haven't suffered anything at all — though chances are, if you're a player, you most definitely have and just don't know it yet. Because any sport that involves banging your head (duh! do we really need scientists to prove this?), especially chronically, is bound to cause severe neurological problems both in the short and long run.

It's especially bad if that bruised and shaken brain is still young and growing, i.e., during the middle- and high-school years. At least 50 football-playing kids were killed or sustained serious injury since 1997, and the concussion numbers for high school players (based on reported and likely unreported cases) top 100,000.

Still, the number of players and their fans continue to grow exponentially — from professional NFL teams to celebrated college teams, high school players and on down. Our country's passion for the game and idolization of its players never seem to let up. During the heyday of the past season, some 50% of evening network news focused on college playoff coverage, and even the supposedly business-oriented Wall Street Journal reported “Ohio State and Oregon Battle it Out” on its morning front page.

If you're a star football player, you're guaranteed plenty of publicity, perks and cash, but famous or not, consider this. Whenever you're out playing on a team — whether it be pro or collegiate or just for practice — and your head gets hit during scrimmage (as it will on practically every play), you will get hurt, if not painfully, then neurologically. You'll have an 80% chance of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a head trauma disease that kills nerve cells and causes major cognitive malfunction including mood disorders, depression, rage and, eventually, memory loss, confusion and dementia.

Our nation's largest brain bank reported in September that 76 of 79 deceased NFL players suffered from CTE. But look at the bright side: By the time you experience the full effects of the disease, you'll be so out it, your brain won't be capable of lamenting your misspent athletic youth.

I've heard interviews with players who admitted they'd considered their prospects for a decent life through any other means so low, they were willing to sacrifice their future health for the glory of football present. It's so sad that in 21st century America, head butting remains a primary way for disadvantaged youngsters to get a shot at a college education … and the American dream.

I can't help thinking of their mothers. Do they know and understand the risks? Do they see football as the “safer” option when compared to, say, joining the military where their son would be exposed to even greater dangers daily — of being killed, maimed, or PTSD-traumatized for life?

So I'm appealing right this minute to every mother — richer and poorer — to look deep into your heart and ask yourself as a mother and, hopefully, as a humane and progressive member of the human race: Why oh why do we still support this god-awful brutal game? Can any amount of money be worth the pain and damage done to the minds of ongoing generations of vulnerable youth?

And to what end? So that some of us — particularly the soft of stomach, weak of heart, and lacking in conscience — can sit packed in stadiums (or in “boxes of honor”) or sunk in their couches at home and gain safe thrills and raised adrenaline levels from watching virile young men battle it out? Are we so cruel and heartless, are our lives so empty and devoid of meaning, that our primary pleasure comes from “identifying with the team,” from cheering for the gladiators of our time? To me, the pursuit of football represents human degradation at it's worst. And we need to put a stop to it. Right now.

I'm hardly alone. Plenty of books have been written, and lectures and author-tours delivered, about the perversion of spending umpteen billions of dollars on college stadiums. Just in order to attract the best players and coaches … who attract the best-funded students … who go on to become the richest alumni … who can boast of their alma mater's winnings, and provide it with the highest monetary support. Even when it comes to education, money is what matters and winning pays.

I get it, in a way. It's human nature: Who doesn't want to be proud of the local team, to be able to stand up and cheer and boast of their athletic accomplishments? But now that we know better about what American football can do to young minds — how can we let this continue? How can ANY enlightened member of the human race cheer to see opposing sides clobber each other senseless, creating inevitable future ear problems, fractures, dislocations and, always, brain damage — both immediate and far into the future?

I find it ironic to the nth degree that the very institutions created for, and dedicated to, increasing the intelligence of mankind — our universities — have established themselves squarely in the business of destroying their young scholars' brains through a popular sport. Do we really need our circuses that much? Haven't we put Roman coliseum-style fights to the finish behind us? If the answer is “no” — well, it's about time we did.

Some might argue for the socialization aspects of the sport. They see it as the great equalizer — as providing the glue for small talk, a subject-in-common that can be discussed among men (and some women) regardless of political beliefs, religion or socioeconomic background. “Hey, did you the see the game last night? … What do you think of those Patriots? … Who are your picks for the Super Bowl? … Which college teams are playing tonight on TV?” Words uttered, almost in tandem, at every office, tavern and guy hangout throughout the country.

And the games are on, on video monitors large and small, 24/7. Flashing overhead from gigantic flat screens at the bar, many a pizza shop, and plenty of popular restaurants, it would seem a football game is always being played somewhere … and the public is compelled to sit and watch. And continually be subjected to digestion-disturbing howls from those who choose to get involved. (They mistakenly assume everyone in the room is as involved as they are or, more likely, are too boorish to care about disturbing other patrons with their loud approval or disapproval of every move.)

What's to become of all these out-of-shape men and copycat women who eat their chips, drink their beers and couch-potato follow and fantasy-bet on their favorite players — if they suddenly stopped? What about entire families who proudly wear team colors and self-identify as fans of one side or another? Would it leave an irreplaceable hole in their lives? Would even husbands and wives discover they had little in common if they simply gave up game nights, cold turkey, and rejected team identity?

What would happen if they went out to hear live music instead … or carried on conversations over dinner with family and friends? If they used their newly vacated leisure hours to learn a new language or take up an instrument, hobby or craft? If they visited a library, joined a book club, took up bike riding or even just spent time at home for “movie nights” and board games?

And to those who feel they simply can't live without vicarious violence in their daily lives — I offer the latest breed of video games. Too active? You can always watch V for Violence-rated films instead. I hear there are plenty of both options available these days — in lurid graphic color — to choose from.

The time has come to admit that almost any activity is preferable to the playing and ongoing support of a sport that kills and maims its participants — if not immediately, then certainly later on. I realize we're steeped in a culture of instant gratification with little thought for the future, but can we really be that short-sighted? In popular culture, the oath recited by every new doctor is “First do no harm.” The time has come for fans — yes, the millions who fill stadiums each Saturday and the tens of millions who watch on TV — to stand up in unison and take that oath as well. To vote with their feet and march out of the stands, to turn off the TV, and to pledge to only support sports that do no harm.

All the benefits of exercise, team play, adrenaline-spiking competition and creative striving for excellence can be had without the need for head bashing and its gruesome side effects. As football fans, you must know that despite all the daydreams of superstardom, there's a miniscule chance that any single player, no matter how great, will make it to the big leagues. But there's close to a 100% chance that every player will be hurt.

The likelihood that any young person reading this will grow up to become a football star is close to nil. But every one reading this has the power to become a hero — today. By saying NO to football, you have the power to save a young man's life, preserving his mind for a shot at a decent future. And you'll be doing your conscience a great service as well.

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

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