I suppose I grew up with football as much as, or more than, any other sport. I never played a competitive down — baseball was my game — but football was what we played on the sandlot, and though my hometown is no Dillon, Texas, I started spending Friday nights at my future high school’s games sometime in elementary school. Saturdays were, for as long as I can remember, reserved for college football; Sundays, for the National Football League.
Those are blissful memories, before I knew about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, before thousands of former players sued the NFL over concussions sustained playing the game, before I learned that playing football even at the grade-school level can cause cognitive problems for the rest of a boy’s life.
I realized this weekend, during college football’s opening weekend, that I can’t watch the game the way I used to. Not after a summer filled with reports about the dangers of the game, a suicide perhaps caused by concussion-related depression, and a dispute over player safety. I notice every bone-crushing hit, every whip of the head, every helmet-to-helmet clash in a way I never have before, and I wince not just because my favorite team’s best player might be hurt, but because somewhere, at some level, young men are racking up seemingly routine hits that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
The thing that makes me wince hardest, though, is that I still watch.
Football isn’t our most beautiful game, but it is our most pure. It combines speed, grace, and unadulterated brutality in a way that no other sport does, and there is something uniquely attractive about that. But I’m starting to question whether I should find that attractive, or whether I should even watch at all.
I’ve already made the decision that my hypothetical future son, should I have one, won’t be allowed on a football field. The proven dangers are too risky, the unproven dangers riskier still. I don’t want my child damaged beyond repair by a brutal hit; even more, I don’t want him cognitively mangled by repeated, constant bodily abuse.
And yet, for some reason, I spend hours watching other people’s children do exactly that.
At what point does it become too much? At what point is our game more than just a weekend break from reality, a Friday night under the lights, a Saturday afternoon on campus, a Sunday on the couch? At what point do we — do I — become too conscious of the damage caused by the sheer violence of the game we love? At what point do we see our Junior Seaus and Dave Duersons as modern day gladiators who sacrificed their well-being, and ultimately, their lives for our entertainment? At what point do we realize that our Matt Saracens are jeopardizing their futures by playing a game they hope beyond hope will be their futures?
I don’t have the answers to those questions. I don’t think anyone does. I watched football this Saturday, and I will watch it next Saturday too. When the NFL starts, I’ll be watching, rooting on the players on my fantasy teams and my beloved, if beleaguered, Miami Dolphins.
For the first time, though, I will be troubled by the game, by the injuries, by the endless brutality. I will be worried knowing that across the country, hundreds of thousands of men and boys who won’t ever get a scholarship or a paycheck will be killing themselves to live for one moment of gridiron glory. I will be cognizant of the fact that my entertainment is derived from a sport that is slowly but surely killing its participants. I will be scared that one day, I’m going to watch someone go down and never get up.
And yet, I will still watch.
I will rationalize the game by repeating that football is inherently dangerous, and that no matter how safe we try to make it, it will always be so. But now that we are learning just how inherently dangerous it is — not just to knees, elbows, and shoulders, but to brains and futures — I keep wondering: is there a point where it all becomes too much?