On Thursday night, like millions across the country, I’ll park myself on the couch for the start of the NFL season.
I’ll do so with the weight of a growing moral dilemma — a quandary of conscience that’s become a nagging, unavoidable part of trying to enjoy a game I’ve spent my entire life following.
It’s 2017, and how long will I be able to continue this tradition while still being able to feel decent about it?
Or, more accurately, how long will I be able to find ways to justify enjoying a pastime with baggage like football’s before the feelings of guilt and complicity become too much to bear?
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The NFL is big, lucrative business. We’ve known this for some time.
But with every passing season — and every troubling brain-trauma study, every new case of domestic violence and every glaring example of the league’s skewed, greedy priorities being made clear — it becomes harder and harder to sit idly by and pretend like it’s all honest entertainment to be enjoyed without second thought.
The NFL is big, lucrative business. We’ve known this for some time. But with every passing season — and every troubling brain trauma study, every new case of domestic violence, and every glaring example of the league’s skewed, greedy priorities being made clear — it becomes harder and harder to sit idly by and pretend like it’s all honest entertainment to be enjoyed without second thought.
My Sundays used to be fun. Now they’re complicated.
I’m a football guy. Always have been. Football runs in my family. It was instilled in me at an early age. And I didn’t just watch football, I participated in it. Even today I’m grateful for some of the life lessons I learned from the teams I played on.
The sport has a similar hold over many. There’s long-held tradition involved. And real emotions.
Which is why the growing realization of just how problematic the sport really is — especially at the professional level — leaves me so conflicted.
The obvious impetus for my inner second-guessing is the toll the game takes on the brain. Once upon a time, we didn’t really understand what was happening inside someone’s skull when they “got their bell rung.” We simply relished the big hits as part of the game.
Today, big hits are still very much part of the game — despite extensive efforts to reduce them and to better identify and treat concussions at every level of the sport. Perhaps some progress has been made on this front. Perhaps not.
What we know for sure is the game does more damage than was acknowledged for decades.
Earlier this year a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that CTE — or the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy — was diagnosed in 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were donated for research.
Overall, the study — which was the largest of its kind — found CTE diagnosed in 87 percent of 202 former football players, a total that includes not just the NFL, but also high school and college players.
While the gridiron warriors of yesteryear might not have known the risks inherent to the game, today’s players do. There’s enough information available to make a somewhat informed decision about whether to play.
At least that’s what I’ve told myself as justification for continuing to support my team and the sport I’ve always loved.
The rationalization, however, raises an uncomfortable dilemma.
If we acknowledge it’s a player’s decision whether or not to take part in a dangerous sport that could leave them debilitated and suffering once their days on the field are over, it’s also a decision whether or not to financially support the sport, or to sit on the couch or bar stool and happily consume the violence as entertainment. And if we take that deal, we’ve got to take it for its full value.
If only the ethical questions stopped there.
The latest red flags for professional football come in the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick — which can’t be untangled from the quarterback’s decision to exert his constitutional right to peacefully protest. Or in the reaction of fans and sports commentators alike when the Seahawks Michael Bennett exercised the same constitutional right this year, sitting for the national anthem to put a needed spotlight on racial inequality and injustice.
Publicly, the league has generally offered carefully crafted statements supporting a player’s right to protest. But privately?
Is there really any question Kaepernick would have a job if it wasn’t for his choice to kneel? And do we really think Bennett wouldn’t be expendable, too, if he didn’t play for an organization like the Seahawks, rare in its open handling of contentious societal issues? Or if his on-field production hadn’t been deemed worth the distraction — to cite the sentiments of TNT columnist John McGrath — that using his “platform” has caused?
Earlier this season, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was asked during a fan forum what he thought about his team’s contemplation of signing Kaepernick to a roster in need.
“I hope we do what is best for the team and balance that with what is best for our fans,” Bisciotti said. “We're trying to figure out what's the right tack. So pray for us."
The answer spoke volumes. Ultimately, this is a league beholden to the bottom line, running with 4.3-second, 40-yard speed from anything that puts it at risk. And if enough ignorant fans express displeasure — or threaten to close their wallets — the NFL has absolutely no problem shunning players who choose to speak up.
The Ravens didn’t sign Kaepernick. To date, no team has.
Which brings us back to Thursday night.
When it comes to the NFL, I’m still hooked. I’m a hypocrite, to put it another way, whether the reasons are understandable or not. Like many, my continued support of the league and the sport is what allows the NFL to persist and prosper. It also allows the moral and ethical questions to continue to be swept under the rug.
I can’t help but wonder just how long I’ll be able to keep this up.
With the start of another season, I have to ask myself: Am I really ready for some football?