I love football, and I’ve come to love it even more over the years as the increasing demands of work and my life outside of it have made it the one sport I feel like I can follow in anything close to a comprehensive way. Football’s brought me closer to a lot of great men, and this year, playing fantasy for the first time (I wrote about that, and The League, for Salon today), I’m as excited for the season to start tonight as I’ve ever been. But I’ve also come to love the game at a time that coincides quite precisely with the beginning of Alan Schwarz’s masterful reporting on football and brain injury for the New York Times, my understanding and ability to appreciate football deepening simultaneously with the realization that to care for the game as it exists may require accepting that men are selling their future mental function for my entertainment.
As someone who is professionally both a progressive and a fan, as someone who cares about occupational safety and the ability of employees to reach agreements with their employers that make their work livable, football is not an easy game to love. The National Football League is perhaps the one area of sport where players would benefit from a dramatically stronger union than they’re ever likely to achieve. Some high, heavily conditional salaries serve to disguise the short average careers and the financial and emotional costs of giving up your body and brain to the game. The bodies and brains we pay to see battered in pursuit of glory are disproportionately African-American: 67 percent of the league was black in 2010.
I have a hard time with the idea that players don’t have the right to put themselves on the market, knowing all the risks. Troy Polamalu isn’t a stupid man, and seems determined to keep making tough hits no matter how much it costs him financially or physically. But, as Ta-Nehisi wrote last season, “In some measure, pro football is quite beautiful because it gives us human beings willingly giving up themselves for something they love. I don’t have any real way to relate to that…This is a separate question from the responsibility of the viewer. There’s no real reason why I have to sit and watch Hines Ward destroy his body.” I’m not quite at the point where I’m ready to stop buying. But I would like a way to be a more active, and activist, consumer, to demonstrate that I’d rather spend my money on a game that is consistently regulated and substantively dedicated to making itself safer. I’d happily, for example, pay a $1 per-ticket fee to donate to brain injury and helmet improvement research, or kick in some money through my fantasy league for the same cause. I’d like to purchase part of a solution as well as the status quo. And I’ll watch football this season as a way of reminding myself of my progressive values, rather than as a way to set them aside for an afternoon.
And as a side note, this may be the best parody of the disturbingness of football commentating that I have ever seen: