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Why Hasn’t the NFL Been Cancelled?

Updated: Feb 03, 2022 11:47
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The answer to this question is, in many ways, obvious. A combination of cultural tradition, absurd amounts of money, and many people’s genuine love for the sport of football are enormous contributors to the NFL’s continued success. It’s one of those shocking-but-not-really-surprising things that the brutality of football and the NFL’s systematic efforts to cover up players’ severe brain injuries, doesn’t inspire half the outrage of, say, Janet Jackson’s nipple at half time. There was even an Oscar-baity Will Smith movie about it, which essentially flopped, and was later found to have been edited to remove “unflattering moments for the NFL,” possibly accounting for some of its narrative failures (admittedly, it wasn’t a very good movie). Seems like perfect kindling for an internet tire-fire, but…nope.

The ethical issues surrounding football have all the makings of a classic social media outrage machine: racism, physical abuse, conspiracy. Think about it. The NFL, a white-owned (there are only two non-white owners) and controlled organization, has been systematically covering up and making excuses for the fact that their majority black players are consistently suffering not only serious injuries, but a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to the player murdering random families and/or committing suicide, among other horrible things (Oh, and our tax dollars pay for their stadiums, which is also some bullshit).

When players decided to kneel for the national anthem to protest police killings of black men, it was an enormous controversy and the talk of the nation for months. Besides this satirical piece, I didn’t see anything pointing out the fact that football at its core involves watching black men harm their bodies in what are essentially modern gladiatorial matches. Or that the common CTE symptom of mood change and aggression seem to be regularly dismissed – especially in black athletes – probably because, as is continually demonstrated, many white people have a tendency to already view black men as aggressors even if they’re just walking down the street. Doesn’t it seem kinda weird how little people care about this when you think of it in that context? It ties into all the same issues as the kneeling controversy. Why aren’t the internet mobs more up in arms about it?

As a former non-competitive athlete with lots of experience getting injured and zero interest in watching team sports, I’ve become slightly obsessed with following the ongoing stories of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) studies and violent acts committed by NFL players. So much so that my family and friends are sick of hearing about it. But seriously– a researcher studied 111 NFL players’ brains and found CTE in 110 of them. That’s an insane percentage. Even if 50 of them had CTE, it would be pretty upsetting. But 110 out of 111?!?

They were all players whose families sent their brains to the researchers once they died because they already suspected their family member of having it (upsetting in its own way), but still! CTE can cause major memory loss, aggression, and eventually dementia. Like, a 30-year-old getting dementia, not your 90-year-old grandpa. The NFL has known about this for decades and repeatedly evaded it, covered it up, and claimed they are making changes that will prevent it (spoiler alert: they aren’t, and if you’re thinking of mansplaining to me that those changes have worked, this article sums up why you’re wrong). That constitutes, essentially, a real conspiracy. No need to interpret a bunch of random numbers and secret messages! It’s all right there in front of us!

It is easy and convenient for me to be outraged by this because I have no interest in watching the sport, no family memories of watching or attending games, no particularly warm or positive associations with it. I understand that for many people, it is very inconvenient to learn that this beloved game might be harming its players to the point where it is clearly unethical to watch or support it. And convenience does play a major role in outrage. I did not hesitate to believe the accusations against R Kelly, whose work I’ve never cared for, but I admittedly still struggle with my love for Michael Jackson’s music, and as a result find myself scrutinizing the claims against him more closely. When a societal shunning isn’t taking away anything I love dearly, it’s much easier to jump on the bandwagon. When it is, I am naturally inclined towards making excuses for it. Sure, I try to see things as objectively as I can, but I’m a human person and I sometimes can’t. We all do this to one extent or another about something– don’t try to argue that you don’t. So look, I get it. People love watching football.

A neuropathologist found an “unusually severe” form of CTE in the brain of Phillip Adams, the 32-year-old former N.F.L. player who killed six people before shooting himself.

I also get that this is an unpopular, even annoying, viewpoint. When I mention my rejection of football for ethical reasons in social situations, I always sense immediate unease and decided disinterest in the subject, so I usually drop it so as not to be a Debbie Downer. Realizing some of our favorite actors, musicians and filmmakers are abusive people creates one level of discomfort; recognizing the omnipresent American game of football as an abusive sport is a whole other one. Even if you agree with that, the NFL feels like one of those monumental institutions that just is what it is and will never change. But why can’t it? Many issues have made progress over the last few years because of protests, boycotts and internet outrage. It just takes enough people creating enough momentum and, I guess, a really clever hashtag.

Look, we’re all hypocrites here – unless you live in a solar powered cabin in the woods and grow your own food, you are necessarily participating in systems that create harm. We all do unethical things every day and often don’t have much of a choice. However, some things are easier to untangle than others. Most of us are aware that the cell phones we rely on daily for communication contain rare minerals and are assembled by underpaid workers. But our entire society is now built around using them, so it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to sort out that problem. Making sure football players don’t suffer horrific side effects for our entertainment just seems to me like low hanging fruit on the list of societal atrocities to correct.

It genuinely seems weird that something so easily fixable as a literal game – yet totally interrelated with popular movements of our day like BLM – goes basically unnoticed. I’m obviously no expert in sportsing, but it seems like they could just…change more of the rules? Sure, it might be less exciting to watch when men aren’t ramming their heads into each other, but when the side effects of that are dementia, suicide and murder, I feel like that’s a justifiable compromise? I know it can’t be that simple, but…maybe it actually is?

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Genie

Genie

Genie Cartier is a San Francisco native. She graduated from UCLA with a BA in English/ Creative Writing and earned an MFA in Creative Writing/ Poetry from SFSU. Check out her novella Fog City Summer on this website. When not writing, she is also a professional circus performer of 24 years and will be directing Dark Side of the Circus, a circus choreographed to Pink Floyd, in April 2020. Find out more at http://cartiersisters.weebly.com/.

2 Comments

  1. January 28, 2022 at 4:46 pm — Reply

    Hell, you and I have both written about the NFL’s inability (by both players and execs) to evolve: https://www.sfweekly.com/opinion/watching-the-games-in-black-and-white/

    I don’t expect anything different from them now.

  2. Joe J.
    February 3, 2022 at 11:35 am — Reply

    Great points, and reform is sorely needed. However, attributing it all to racism is misplaced. When the NFL had majority white players, the same abuse, CTE, exploitation, etc. was established and encouraged. Peter Gent’s 1973 book, North Dallas Forty is required reading (and the 1979 movie). Also Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League (1970). Meggysey went on to coach football at Tam High in the early 1980’s. Of course there is racism, but the problems go back farther and affect more people than African-Americans. I suggest it will be easier to gain support for reform if the negative impacts are understood as affecting everyone.

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