I spend more time on the internet than I generally should. A topic for another post altogether, but one of the consequences of being constantly plugged-in is that you read a lot of things that you are not particularly interested in, or even interested in learning about, solely to fill the insatiable need for that blog-reading brain-tickling “intellectual” stimulation. One of these things, for me, is sports. Websites like Grantland and Deadspin are erudite enough to be interesting to the layman, and so I read them occasionally; Ta-Nehisi Coates, of the Atlantic, writes a hell of a race-polemic, but has also written, in the wake of all of these studies on the dangers of football, a series of blog posts about the responsibility of sports fans.
I view football from an outsider’s perspective, but I admit to having a stake in this conversation: as a hockey fan, after the death of Derek Boogaard last fall, and the suicides of two other enforcers around the same time, I am in a similar place as Coates. Is it right to watch these sports, to revel in the atavistic violence, knowing that it’s likely that you’re cheering on another injury that will build up in their brain into the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that’s been coming up in sports news for the past several years?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a neurodegenerative disease that is caused by years of repeated head injuries. Its symptoms include dementia, confusion, aggression, depression, and related co-morbidities such as drug abuse and suicide. When the media first started talking about the dangers of football several years ago – I’m thinking particularly this article in Time from January 2010 – they focused primarily on full concussions. Unfortunately, since then the research has suggested that concussions are only half the problem: repeated head injuries of any level of severity are enough.
A lot of pixels have been spilled talking about the statistical significance of these findings, about whether we should do anything and what that ‘anything’ would be. Bill Barnwell over at Grantland just published a statistical comparison of football and baseball players from 1959 to 1988, showing that baseball players died at higher rates; Greg Matthews at Deadspin offered a riposte by controlling for age, and concluded that the difference in mortality rates were statistically insignificant.
But here’s the thing that these and a lot of other analyses have been missing: the labor rights perspective. Sports are great, sports are fun, they’re fun to play and it’s nice to be good at them – but to professional football players, this is their job. This is the thing that they are paid to do, to entertain the rest of us. Is it fair to expect them to shave off a good potential twenty-plus years of life for the sake of their job?
There are a few ways to think about this. The more intersectional sociological way of thinking marks a difference between hockey and football, absolving my own complicity as a sports-fan, so we’ll talk about that one first: race and class exploitation. Hockey in a lot of ways presupposes a middle-class upbringing, especially given the expense of the equipment and ice-rink practice time. It is also predominantly white. Football, though, especially in its youth-based incarnations, does not require as much monetary investment. It is more easily accessed by the underprivileged. It enticingly waves a ticket out of poverty, wrapped up as it is in the racist narrative of African-American success. The narrative says, even now, that the only way out of the ghetto for young black men is through sports or entertainment. Already this is inherently exploitative, a production of the white supremacist gaze: entertain us, and we’ll reward you. When we tie in our growing knowledge of the dangers of football, it becomes gladiatorial.
But racist exploitation aside, there’s still plenty for a leftist to criticize. White or black, underclass or middle-class, in this day and age it’s reasonable to assume that your job is probably not going to kill you. That’s why we have OSHA, it’s why we have safety regulations in mining and manufacturing, it’s why we have (largely-ignored) laws about breaks for service-industry workers and why, in many white-collar office environments, standing desks are coming into vogue after some breathy hysterical reports about how sitting all day, day after day, is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes. The larger organizations, NFL and NHL and NCAA et al, need to take some responsibility.
If CTE is a systemic problem, and it’s looking more likely that it is, something needs to be done on that level. Sports fans can’t solve the problem. Many don’t want to – violence is an inherent part of the game, a modern-day analogue for tribal warfare. How many times have I sat in front of hockey play-off games, shouting “Punch him! PUNCH HIM!”? (Answer: a bunch.) And the players themselves won’t do it, not just because this is their job, but also because of the perks of money and fame offered to – let’s be fair – teenagers and men barely out of their teens. Neither the running-back from Compton nor the enforcer from Toronto suburbia is going to turn down the money and accolades offered to them straight out of high school or college because there is a chance that they’ll acquire the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in their 40s. Not after spending most of their young lives training for this moment, creating an identity for themselves that revolves solely around athletic prowess, not after the community praise and cultural expectations. Expecting players to make that choice for themselves is short-sighted and naïve. The only way to handle this situation is top-down. The market ain’t gonna do it.
I don’t have a solution to the problem. I don’t know what the NFL or NHL can do. I don’t know if there’s a way to keep these sports recognizable while mitigating the chance of brain damage. But we owe professional athletes the same consideration that other workers get. It is reprehensible to use these people for our entertainment and then discard them when they’re done. Your job should not be the cause of your death, even decades later.