To me, watching professional football on cold fall Sunday afternoons is certainly one of life’s great pleasures. Judging by the TV ratings the NFL generates, I’m certainly not alone in that sentiment. Professional football players display equal parts athleticism, ferocity, and bravery, and are, as the overused cliché states, truly America’s modern day gladiators. The games themselves offer what you would want from any good soap opera: good guys and bad guys, dramatic turns of events, and cliff hangers. And now that Christmas has been turned into happy holidays by the PC crowed, it can be argued that the Super Bowl, the pinnacle event of the National Football League, is the last cultural experience we as Americans all share.
But over the last several years it has become increasingly clear that the playing of professional football can be hazardous to your health. A recent study conducted by researchers for the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University showed 96% of deceased NFL players had suffered with a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Critics of the study can point to methodology and sample size issues of this study, but what critics can’t do is explain away the linkage between playing professional football and permanent brain damage. The list of players who suffered irreversible brain injuries is too long to list, and includes enough names to make a Hall Of Famer roster: Junior Seau, Mike Webster, Tony Dorsett, Bernie Kosar, Brett Favre, Jim McMahon, and so on and so forth. Making this more tragic is the general youth of the men who start showing symptoms of degenerative brain injuries, often being only in their late 30s or early 40s. Brain trauma aside, it is also generally acknowledged that retiring players often leave the gridiron with permanent orthopedic disabilities as well.
All this is back in the news again with the pre-release buzz of the movie Concussion starring Will Smith about a forensic pathologist’s fight with the NFL. Yet again we will be subjected to the debate about what to do about football. The tone and shape of the debate certainly has a distinct left/right divide, with the left more disposed to suggest banning and/or regulating football, with conservatives on the other side of the coin, supporting one’s right to play if one desires. For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than at liberal outlets like the Daily Kos who have run editorials calling for the banning of the game, and the New York Times which cites polling that suggests white parents who vote Democratic are increasingly against their children playing the sport. Even President Obama has indicated if he had a son he would think twice of allowing him to play football. On the right, Rush Limbaugh has led the charge for the last few years on his popular radio show, warning his listeners that the left’s ultimate goal on the subject is to ban football.
In many ways football is the new smoking, as it illustrates how both liberals and conservatives deal with the issues of risk and personal responsibility. If history is any indicator, we can expect liberals to play the long game when it comes to their attack on football. Like smoking 40 years ago, I wouldn’t expect the left initially to make a serious push to ban football. It will be more death by a thousand cuts. In the tobacco wars, first they advocated warning labels, then fought to ban tobacco advertising, then taxed smoking through the roof, and finally pushed to make it illegal to smoke in all sorts of public spaces. Following this model, I would expect a long, slow march for the NFL to football purgatory.
Personally I have a great deal of sympathy for any players who have suffered brain injuries playing football, especially those who played back in the day before the risks were known. But I will always side with the rights of individuals to gauge what risks they want to take on without interference from the State. I may wear seat belts and don’t smoke, but what business is it of mine if my neighbor does the opposite? If you are like me, you are undoubtedly overtired with the constant harangue from the government, media, and busy bodies the world over who feel it is their right and duty to tell everyone else how to live. Enough. If a person wants to take on the risk of playing in the NFL, let that be his right. As former star football player Brian Urlacher once said, “If you don’t want to play and get concussed, then don’t play.