by Barry Edelson


Why I Don't Watch Football Any More


When we were kids, we played sports according to the season: baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, basketball in the winter. Occasionally there was street hockey during the cooler weather. The games were spontaneous eruptions of youthful energy, and adults played no role whatsoever in organizing them. Apart from Little League, which was played by absolutely no one of my acquaintance, sports leagues for kids, of the kind that have become ubiquitous features of the modern suburb, were few and far between. In fact, the biggest youth sport of the past 30 years, soccer, was virtually unknown. To this day, it's a mystery how the kids on the high school soccer teams of my era learned the game in the first place.

This seasonal rotation mirrored exactly our habits as spectators. We followed like lemmings whichever sport was currently on the television and radio, and, like kids the world over, we emulated our heroes of the moment in our daily pick-up games. In such innocent fashion our routines of fandom were born. Unquestioningly, we joined the phalanxes of fans streaming through the turnstiles of the stadiums, when we could afford to go, and the countless millions more watching at home and listening in the car or at the beach. The custom of sport flowed in our veins, with rules and statistics as intricately woven into our beings as strands of DNA. We were bound to every other kid in every far corner of the country through the common culture of bouncing balls. Sports would give shape to our days even as the shadow of responsibility cast its pall over our emerging adulthood, as tennis and golf gradually replaced the fantasy of stardom with the reality of competition for the ungifted and inevitably graying multitudes.

One way in which we most decidedly did not imitate our professional exemplars was in contact sports. Touch football was by far the norm. A body that fell to the ground in the course of play invariably did so from its own inertia or clumsiness. Collisions were mostly accidental, not deliberate. The few who aspired to wear shoulder pads and helmets and play with the big boys were, literally, big boys. In the early stages, height and bulk mattered as much as skill in football, much as a six-foot seventh grader of minimal ability could make it onto the basketball team. In adolescence, as the few who were sufficiently physically endowed and truly talented emerged from the throng, the rest of us settled into the vicarious enjoyment of watching other people's bodies perform the feats that we could only imagine in our dreams. We also accepted as truth that the genuinely able athletes were inherently different from the rest of us, and that an essential part of that difference was their ability to absorb blows that we mediocrities could not withstand. We watched them over and again return to competition within minutes from injuries that would have sidelined ordinary mortals for weeks.

Awareness of the consequences of professional sports on the human body has only recently arisen in the public consciousness. We always knew that boxing was uniquely harmful to the head, but we also knew that it was a sport practiced almost exclusively by the urban and ethnic poor, whose prospects in life were otherwise severely limited. We did not chastise ourselves for this subtle form of class and race bigotry, because, on the one hand, we accepted it as part of the history and legacy of sport, and, on the other, because the practice of any sport is voluntary. That some people, including many fans of other sports, were too squeamish to watch men attempt to beat each other senseless in the ring, was no argument for preventing them from doing so if they chose to. We were not dissuaded from this view even in the face of mounting evidence of the harm caused to boxing's practitioners: neither by the exploitation of fighters depicted explicitly in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and others films, nor the occasionally fatal knockout blow, nor Muhammad Ali's prematurely aged and trembling limbs.

And yet, the National Football League has in the last few years suddenly taken notice of the dreadful toll that years of violent collisions have had on its former stars. Repeated traumas to the brain have left quite a few players with degenerative neurological conditions, often leading to severe disability and early death. The prevention and treatment of concussions has taken center stage in this newfound concern, and rightly so. But even the majority of players who are spared this particularly awful fate suffer from a host of orthopedic agonies. This is not limited only to football. Almost all professional athletes are at risk of a retirement of debilitating pain and diminished quality of life. Recent studies have made it clear that the average retired athlete is far less healthy than the average person of the same age, contradicting a long-popular notion that an athlete is robust and healthier than the rest of us. Notwithstanding the abuse of steroids, competitive sports played exactly as intended are dangerous to the body.

John Branch's extended feature in The New York Times this week about Derek Boogaard, a player in the National Hockey League who died at the age of 28, makes for gruesome reading. Boogaard was the kind of player commonly known as an enforcer, which meant that he made it to the professional ranks less on the quality of his play than on his ability to intimidate and rough up opposing players. Years of hard hits against others, combined with countless punches to the head, led to serious brain injury and an addiction to pain killers, which eventually killed him. Had he not succumbed to an overdose, he would have faced a dismal future. Those who knew him saw that his head injuries had already changed his personality. Whether he could have survived even to middle age is questionable.

It would be only a half truth to say that I stopped watching ice hockey over the years because of the violence of the game. The more important factor was that the New York Islanders, the glorious team of my youth, has been consistently one of the worst teams in the league for more decades than its beleaguered fans would care to count. Hockey holds some of my fondest and most thrilling memories as a sports fan. Played at its best, it is an elegant game, requiring players to be fast and near perfect skaters, in addition to possessing the unique skills of the game itself. Unfortunately, this inherently beautiful and exciting sport has harbored a culture of violence attractive to a lot of goons, so that even those players who shun rough hits and fighting face shortened careers and shortened lives.

Until about 10 years ago, I also watched football with the same interest and excitement as other sports. But as more stories came to light about players who had been crippled by their brief sojourns in the NFL, at a certain point I just could not bear to watch it any more. The knowledge of what these players were doing to themselves overwhelmed any appreciation for their superior athleticism, or any pleasure in the outcome of a game. As in boxing and hockey, it seemed more and more like a form of human sacrifice, in which players with exceptional ability and courage risked their very lives to give us pleasure.

A stubborn libertarian impulse stands in the way of calling for any game to be abolished, for players to stop playing or fans to stop watching if that's what they want to do. It's the athlete's right to take a chance on his long-term health for a shot at glory and riches, and the spectator's right to watch from the sidelines. But if we are going to derive satisfaction from the efforts of athletes, and lay down our money for all of the paraphernalia that accompany the experience of the modern sports fan, we are obliged at least to acknowledge that our patronage is in part responsible for the shattered bodies that these exceptional human specimens will have to inhabit for the remainder of their unnatural lives.

December 8, 2011


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