On Watchin’ the Game

The health risks of American football have been getting a lot of attention in the press lately, no doubt in anticipation of the Super Bowl. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran articles on the frequency of head injuries in professional football. The articles highlighted former Patriots linebacker, Ted Johnson, who received several concussions during his career. Johnson’s head injuries resulted in severe depression and drug addiction.

Like many other professional and amateur football players, Johnson felt trapped by expectations that he should play through the pain. American football inspires a culture of toughness. Encouraged by fans, coaches and other players, many continue playing even after sustaining major injuries. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that N.F.L. players faced a 37% higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Yet the kind of press that portrays the dangers of football is not commensurate with the overwhelmingly positive depiction of star athletes. The Super Bowl regularly draws audiences of between 75 and 95 million television viewers. Professional athletes are idolized.

Even successful coaches receive vast amounts of attention (and wealth). It is telling that at least 23 college football coaches are paid salaries in excess of $1 million. In several cases these coaches’ salaries far outweigh the university presidents’ annual income, let alone the professors’ and administrators’ pay. Clearly the United States has a fascination with what can at times be a very violent sport.

Are there inherit problems with this country’s massive consumption of professional football? This is an important question for Mormons. We have several members on N.F.L. teams who sometimes function as unofficial spokesmen for the church, including Ty Detmer (and his little brother Koy), Chad Lewis, and, of course, Steve Young. The LDS church has tacitly endorsed football. For example, Elder Wirthlin, who never made it into the professional leagues, was nevertheless awarded for being a “lifelong supporter” of college football.

There may be arguments both for and against the idealization of football stars (be they LDS or not). On the one hand, football is a dangerous sport. By idealizing the athletes of aggressive sports like football, don’t we become party to the inevitable injuries players sustain? On the other hand, audiences of football tend to also play football; and participation in any sport – even dangerous ones – seems preferable to inactivity. Obesity, after all, will kill a lot more people than concussions from flag football.

3 Replies to “On Watchin’ the Game”

  1. The problem is with professional sports and organized youth sports in general in which coaches persuade athletes to do things to permanently injure themselves in order to satisfy their egos. Its purely ridiculous… it’s so ridiculous.

  2. Not to deny the role of the coaches/organization, but what about the agency of the player?It would seem that many of these people are also wanting to play through the pain. This is not to deny the fact that there are many people pushing them to do so, or that if they bow out there will be someone immediately there to take their place (so they’ve lost their “chance”). But a “good” (and again, I would not deny the role of society at large constructing this value) athlete, or anything for that matter is one that is willing to make sacrifices to bring themselves or their team to the next level.

  3. Diahman,You’re right to point out the agency of the players. There are lots of dangerous sports with no coaches, managers or fans to encourage the athletes to ignore danger/pain (e.g. skate and snowboarding, BMX biking, etc; I’m thinking here of “extreme” sports, but I’m sure there are others). The problem, from my perspective, is when the culture of toughness is institutionalized to such a degree that athletes feel ashamed to admit having pain or fear. I further see a problem with situations in which athletes are encouraged to “take one for the team” when “the team” may not stand to gain much. To give an example, I would think a coach’s priorities were out of wack if he or she encouraged players to sacrifice their health for a high school game (of any sport).

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