Does Watching the NFL Support Brain Damage?

Each fall, along with an estimated 60 million other North Americans, I join a fantasy football league. Last year, thanks to Jalen Hurts, I even won it. 

Most days, I see this league as a welcome entertainment. There’s community, trash-talking fellowship, the strategy of team management, the up-down thrill of Sunday game day. 

But for me, each year, there’s also something I can’t shake: a low-level sense of guilt, unease, and sadness. I never fully enjoy fantasy football. I simply can’t. I can’t mute this tiny voice inside that quietly, consistently reminds me of four truths:

  • Brain damage is an inherent part of the NFL.
  • The NFL is a business. Any business is upheld and supported by customers and consumers. 
  • By watching games and playing fantasy football, I am a customer and consumer of the NFL.

The fourth truth is the real kicker. 

  • As a customer and consumer of the NFL, I am thereby supporting, encouraging, and condoning brain damage in its players.

Last year, Tua Tagovailoa, the beloved, well-known quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, suffered not one, not two, but three concussive, brain-damaging hits. Slammed to the field against the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth week of the season — just days after being hit and removed from the game in week three — the quarterback went into a sort of momentary seizure known as “fencing,” his hand contorting in a neurological response. He was taken off the field again — his second concussive hit in two weeks. It was a vulnerable moment for the NFL, where most injuries are kept hidden and out of sight. For many of us, though, it was a sobering reminder of the reality of the NFL that we fans are often so far removed from. Fans, understandably, were outraged that whatever necessary protective guidelines had been trespassed or ignored. 

Here’s the queasy part: I had Tagovailoa on my fantasy team. So as this human being, made in the image of God, dignified beyond my wildest descriptions, goes down and begins to shake and seize, possibly receiving the seeds of what will later mature as some neurological disease, part of me is wondering: How will this affect my fantasy score?

It was a sobering moment; the next day, I talked with friends and other fantasy players. Someone, the game seems spoiled after that. What, exactly, are we watching? Why am I cheering for a game replete with so much violence? And what has become of my own inner landscape, where another’s injury and well-being is overlooked for fantasy?

I know, I know. By now, I’ve heard — and used all — all of the justifications. 

They sign up to play. No one makes them. They know the risks. They’re earning millions. (Tagovailoa will earn some $23 million in 2024.) The NFL has made football so much safer. Other sports are violent, too. Yep. All true. Every single statement is true.

But so is this: The NFL is dependent upon violence, collisions, and injury. You can’t play pro football without physical violence. It’s baked into the formula. Other sports may contain moments of physical violence, but such direct, intentional, physical collisions aren’t as inherent, save boxing or mixed martial arts. 

The NFL is also dependent upon its fans, just like any business that succeeds or fails dependent upon support. And supporting is a form of approval. By supporting the NFL, am I not also supporting the eventual brain damage, deterioration and possible suicide of its players? 

“Every time I sat down to watch a game, I was basically agreeing that this form of entertainment was worth whatever injuries the players might suffer,” the writer Steve Almond told me in a 2015 interview with The Sun. “That’s true of any sport, but in the case of football, which is much more violent than most other sports, the price is higher, particularly when it comes to brain damage.

In the fall of 2014 the NFL admitted that 30 percent of its players — nearly one in three — will suffer “long-term cognitive ailments,” and that they are likely to develop such problems at “notably younger ages” than the average American. That means that if there are 1,700 active NFL players at any given time, about 500 will end up with permanent cognitive disabilities. And when we watch football, we’re not only okay with that, but we pay good money to watch it happen.

Almond, like you, like me, was a fan. Talk radio, fantasy leagues, games Thursday, Sunday, Monday. But a decade or so ago, the author of Against Football: One Man’s Manifesto began rethinking his relationship to the sport. It began when his mother was hospitalized with brain disease. Witnessing her anguish woke him up. 

“At that point, the whole idea of a ‘cognitive ailment’ stopped being an abstraction to me,” he said. “All those stories I had ignored for years, about ex-players with dementia, suddenly became quite real.”

Do I want reality or fantasy?

This seems to describe my push-pull inner distress. Look, I don’t want to ruin football for you. Or me. Or my son, with whom I watch, laugh, talk, criticize, $1-gamble, and enjoy countless games. When I speak or write about this, I encounter tremendous resistance, not only from others, but within me. I have tried for years to sober up off football, but in the end, the allure, entertainment, and connection are simply too great. I allow the NFL to attempt to fill a painful internal restlessness. It’s never fully satisfying, and often leaves me even more stressed or empty, but I still can’t pull myself away. I connect with others through the NFL, but there remains this sense of hangover. It doesn’t feel clean to me.  I’m simply trying to make peace with this sport and entertainment that carries within it tremendous risk and damage for its players. 

Plus, there’s the sense of football as inescapable. This fall, starting tonight, pay attention to its omnipresence. Could you even experience one day in America without encountering football in one form or another? It’s an American god. This is why I admire Almond so much. Despite his deep love for the sport and despite its behemothic presence in American culture, he walked away, cold-turkey, all of it borne from witnessing his mother’s suffering. 

“The experience made me realize that I needed to reexamine my relationship to football,” Almond said in the interview. “I understood that once your brain is compromised, your self essentially begins to vanish. It’s heartbreaking to witness. And I realized that, by watching football, I was contributing to players losing brain function. It wasn’t something I could rationalize away anymore.”

The spiritual life is a movement toward wholeness and integrity. Like athletes, we, too, must practice. We practice integrity. We practice generosity. Practice honesty, courage, and alignment. Sooner or later, all parts of our life are enveloped into what we call spiritual work. Nothing is ignored. Not even the NFL. 

So, I keep enduring this question that can only be answered by me alone: Does my relationship with the NFL cultivate and strengthen my spiritual life? Or not? Can I enjoy the ballet-brutality of the sport, which features some of the most athletic men on the planet? Can I enjoy the camaraderie of fanhood? The dopamine hits of entertainment? 

Or is it simply too much? The inherent violence? The hyper-sexualized nature of the NFL? Its racially problematic tendencies? 

“What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America features giant muscled men, mostly Black, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?” Almond writes in Against Football

So, as a spiritual practitioner and NFL fan, how do I reconcile it? Is such reconciliation possible?

Not long ago, Tagovailoa announced he had considered retirement after the 2022 season. But then, doctors assured him. The injuries, they said, weren’t that bad. 

Such reassurance, received half-heartedly and semi-desperately, is what keeps me hooked.

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