The Future of Football

At the New York Review of Books, David Maraniss surveys the ongoing debate over football’s merits (or lack thereof). He evaluates the dialogue between two books, one by Steve Almond titled Against Football, and a response by Gregg Easterbrook called The Game’s Not Over.

The problem, Easterbrook argues, is not at the pro level but earlier, in “youth football”—played by adolescents—and on high school teams, where the vast majority of concussions occur in brains that are more vulnerable. There are about two million boys playing youth tackle football and another 1.1 million on high school teams, while there are about two thousand in the NFL. Easterbrook would prohibit tackle football for kids below a certain age. He believes that changes in NFL rules and improvements in equipment will diminish the likelihood of long-term brain trauma for the pro players. He advises:

Yes, keep watching the NFL. The games are fabulous; the players know the risks and are well compensated. I watch the NFL on television avidly, and attend many games with enthusiasm. I never feel the slightest compunction. You shouldn’t either.

Almond, a reformed Oakland Raiders fanatic, struggled with conflicted feelings for years, but finally concluded that “our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” Where Easterbrook sees the sport as that magnificent incarnation of the American character, Almond asks:

What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America…features giant muscled men, mostly African- American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?

And he sees no reason to trust that the NFL will clean up the game: “As fans, we want to believe that league officials will choose the righteous path over the profitable one. This is nonsense and always has been.”

A few thoughts:

I am an admitted NFL fanatic. I love the Rams, have invested an embarrassing amount of money and time into them, and plan to pass on my love of the team and the game to our unborn child. It’s no small thing to be emotionally attached to a team or a sport, as Maraniss (and Almond and Easterbrook) understands. Given the unique–some would say religious–characteristics of fandom, any approach to the football debate should take into account the cultural stakes. This isn’t just about a particular corporation like the NFL or the NCAA; it’s about an institutional expression of identity that has transcended many racial, generational, and class divides.

That’s an important point, because I think many who would otherwise be open to the ethical case against football have dismissed it preemptively because of a fundamental lack of understanding (empathy?) from those launching the critiques. Most football fans understand the testimony of a daughter who says her football-playing father changed drastically toward the end of his life. They don’t understand a Malcolm Gladwell or Ta-Nehisi Coates op-ed that proclaims football devoid of virtue, and pivots seamlessly from concussions to capitalism.

In the last couple years I’ve found myself in greater alignment with the Christian critiques of football from people like my former professor Owen Strachan. I still watch football all season long, and like Easterbrook do not feel any guilt about it, but I do think that the more thoughtful expressions of the debate, as well as helpful reporting on the medial aspect, have made me watch football a little differently. The Christian is to take everything captive to the mind of the Lord, and that includes football. In many aspects it is a game desperately in need of change, both on the field and on the university campus.

There are some practical ideas that could accomplish much. For example, some have suggested reducing the number of players on the field, or eliminating kickoffs (where players are most likely to be running at full speed right at each other). Another option would be placing playing time limits on lineman and linebackers, and raising roster limitations so teams could sub more players in and out. These are the kinds of changes that are feasible and would have a measurable impact on the game.

But if lasting change is going to come to football–the kind of change that will actually save brains and families–cultural commentators are going to have to do more than declare the nuclear option on an American sport that is beloved as well as wealthy. Tying in a medical case against football with a class-based, partisan critique of football’s structural “homophobia” may curry favor with magazines but it’s not going to convince kids who relish the Friday night lights. There are good changes that need to come to America’s favorite sport, but hyper-politicization isn’t one of them.

We can protect brains without monopolizing minds. Much may depend on whether football’s dissenters can figure that out.

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