The dangers of playing American football are increasingly becoming common knowledge. Further scientific evidence emerges almost on a daily basis relative to a condition in former players known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or C.T.E. There are currently only two kinds of football fans. There are those football fans who know the danger and are interested in honest discussions about the potentially drastic change necessary to ensure the safety of future generations of football players. And there are those football fans who know the danger and choose to ignore the facts in favor of some rationalizing equivalent to “But I love it so much!” and/or double down, as did Donald Trump, claiming that new safety rules are “ruining the game.”
The National Football League is too busy trying to curb the first amendment rights of players to even begin an honest discussion about real and substantial safety reforms. It wasn’t always this way, but at this point, violence is an irreplaceable part of the appeal of professional football. The way players hit each other evolved over several decades and went completely unaddressed by the existing regulations of the time. There are now important rules penalizing teams when players lead with their helmets, for instance. But for literally hundreds of deceased former players, these rule changes are too little too late. The only definitive way to diagnose C.T.E. is through autopsy. The rate of C.T.E. found in the brain of former players via autopsy is extremely high. This does not mean that C.T.E. is a foregone conclusion for everyone who plays football. After all, many former players are alive and exhibiting no symptoms. But what it does mean is that football is quite literally destroying lives.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is equally too preoccupied profiting off the free labor of mostly non-white student-athletes to give serious concern for safety. Coaches receive millions while players receive early stages of C.T.E. Perhaps a revolt over the non-payment of college players could lead to the ultimate unraveling of N.C.A.A. football. College football is an unsustainable institution with inequity built into its very existence. It is difficult to estimate which is more insurmountable, the monetary value football represents to universities or the shear enjoyment and tradition enjoyed by more than a hundred million fans. In many parts of the country (and this is especially true in Oklahoma), the NFL is big, and college football is bigger.
College football is an unsustainable institution with inequity built into its very existence.
High school football has been at the very center of community life in rural parts of the U.S. for well over a half century. On any given fall Friday night in a major U.S. city, entertainment options range from cinemas, to performing arts, to live comedy. In rural America on a fall Friday night, high school football is literally the “only game in town.” The movement to end football must take this into highest consideration. Rural communities will need help from schools finding rallying points that do not include minors injuring each other on a regular basis. Weekends should not include sleepless Friday nights for parents of concussed teenagers. These communities must be about the business of making new traditions. Imagine taking all the hype surrounding high school football and giving it to a considerably less dangerous sport like fast pitch softball.
Youth football leagues have seen a steady decline in participation in the last several years over concerns about head injuries. The overwhelming majority of football players’ first team experience is in middle school or junior high, around 6th or 7th grade. At the same time, there also seems to be a growing disinterest in football among middle school students. It is not uncommon in August to see coaches cajoling perceived athletic boys to join the football team. Instead of understanding disinterest as a reflection on the sport itself, many middle school coaches prefer to respond with generalizations about the decline of discipline and toughness in American society. The pure intentions of the majority of middle school coaches are not to be doubted. For some, however, coaching may best serve to fuel their own obsession with the sport and ultimately not be about the players at all. This is perhaps more true at the high school level.
There seems to be a growing disinterest in football among middle school students.
The movement to end football has already begun. It has started at the bottom and is beginning to trickle up. The best way to end middle school football is to convince the next generation of teacher/coaches to allow the sport to quietly decline into irrelevance through lack of interest from students. The best way to end high school football is to raise an army of angry and vocal parents unwilling to risk the lives of their children. The best way to end college football is to starve high profile university programs of experienced high school players. And the best way to end professional football is to embark on a massive campaign to boycott the National Football League.