NFL season is here but I won’t be following anymore. I can’t un-see the harm it causes

On Sunday, the NFL season will kick off in earnest. Sports news websites, team message boards and social media are already awash in coverage. To the unbridled joy of many, football is back. But for the first time in almost 20 years, I won’t be following.

This summer, I decided I’m out – done with football. I can’t justify supporting the ongoing carnage in the sport. As a sociologist who studies violence, gender and labor in sports, perhaps it was just a matter of time.

But this decision didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t read my first article or investigative piece about concussions or violence against women and immediately throw away my Eli Manning jersey. To varying degrees, I’ve known about the harm caused by football for years and continued to watch.

I’ve been obsessed with sports since I was 8 years old, poring over the sports section of the Montreal Gazette, listing off batting averages and NHL point totals to my amused-verging-on-annoyed father. I studied sports analytics then sociology in grad school, and wrote a dissertation on the career outcomes of NFL and NBA players accused of violence against women.

Over time, I developed a more critical eye. Scouting reports for the weekend’s games were replaced by exposés on the pitfalls of public spending for new stadiums; instead of glorifying the white receiver who announcers praised for their football IQ, I questioned why Black receivers with similar skills weren’t celebrated in the same way.

Beyond the feats of athleticism and strategy of the game, I loved the routine of football. For years, I spent Sundays at my best friend’s house watching games. His mom would cook a feast (talk about traditional gender roles), and we’d chat, laugh, watch the Dolphins (usually) lose and complain about our fantasy teams. These are still some of the best memories of my teen years and early 20s.

But I hit my breaking point last summer. Researching concussions in football, and specifically the lengths the NFL has gone to obfuscate the clear link between the sport, chronic traumatic encephalothapy (CTE), and violence, early dementia, and death among its players, I decided I can’t continue to watch.

I had known about the concussion epidemic in football and (to a lesser extent) in other sports for a while, but in a distant, abstract sense. I hadn’t really dug into the stories of the individuals and families who suffered. It’s one thing to know that “a former NFL player has dementia”, and another to read about ‘Iron’ Mike Webster, the first of Dr Bennett Omalu’s CTE patients, who was “occasionally catatonic (and) in a fetal position for days” before dying at 50. Or Terry Long, who died at 45 with a brain described as that of a “90-year-old with advanced Alzheimer’s”. Or Vincent Jackson, a four-time NFL Man of the Year award recipient who died alone in his hotel room in February 2021, at age 38.

There are also the suicides: Junior Seau, a 20-year veteran and fan favorite who shot himself in the chest at 43, just three years after his retirement; Aaron Hernandez, who killed himself while in prison for murder (violence being another symptom of CTE), and had “one of the most severe cases of CTE found in a person his age”; Greg Clark, a four-year veteran of the 49ers who committed suicide just last July, aged 49.

Remember, these are just some of the cases we know. CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, and only if the deceased agreed to have their brain examined. In the 15 years since Dr Omalu’s first diagnosis, over 320 former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE, but this still represents only a fraction of those who likely have suffered. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found CTE in 177 of 202 former football players of all levels. Of the 111 NFL players studied, 110 had the disease. That’s 99%.

At this point, we know that CTE is linked with football and especially NFL football, and we know it causes “progressive degeneration of the brain tissue”, leading to “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia”. Players are only getting bigger, faster and stronger, leading to more violent collisions.

The bodily harm suffered by football players for our entertainment isn’t the only reason to stop watching. The NFL is where Deshaun Watson, accused by 24 women of sexual misconduct and assault, just signed a five-year, $230m contract with the Cleveland Browns, with over $200m guaranteed. Time and again, the NFL and its teams have shown a willingness to acquire players who have committed acts of violence against women, with little in the way of consequences for players who perform at even an average level.

High-contact sports like football have long been associated with a domineering, patriarchal form of masculinity linked with violence and misogyny. Combine this culture with abusive coaching, high rates of brain injury and concussion, and a win-at-all-costs ethos that ignores the misbehavior of players as long as they perform on the field, and the NFL can be considered complicit in the ongoing violence committed by players.

There are also labor issues, present in both the NFL and most notably its feeder system, the NCAA. The plantation dynamics of college football and men’s college basketball are plain to see. These two sports are responsible for considerable profits for university athletic departments, profits produced by the labour of athletes who are predominantly Black. However, instead of those profits being returned to the Black workers responsible, they are divvied up among mostly white coaches and administrators. In most states, a men’s basketball or football coach is the highest paid public employee.

The NCAA still categorically refuses to recognize athletes as workers, failing to offer compensation, labor protections and benefits. This past year, campus athletic workers finally gained the right to benefit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) and accept sponsorship with outside businesses, but this simply passes the responsibility for paying players from the schools onto other businesses.

Though NFL players are thankfully paid salaries and recognized as workers, careers are notoriously short (averaging about three years), and contracts often contain little guaranteed money. Many players are one bad game away from being cut and not having their contracts paid out.

Career trajectories are also partially determined by factors outside of athletes’ control; the bloated football ecosystem ensures there’s always a new crop of players ready to enter the league, and because salary rules limit rookie contract compensation, new players cost significantly less. Even as players destroy their bodies and their brains for the profits of ownership and the amusement of fans, they are treated as disposable ‘assets’ by their organizations.

I can already hear the questions. I get them all the time: What about the players who worked their whole lives to reach the pinnacle of their sport and make money from their athletic labor? Don’t they deserve our support? There’s lots of exploitative industries, should we boycott all of them? Football is the lifeblood of so many communities, do we want to take that away from them?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, especially those around supporting athletes and their families. Whenever we think about fixing inequity, exploitation and systemic harm, there’s always a difficult balance that must be struck between the need for revolutionary, systemic change soon and the need for harm reduction right now.

I do want athletes compensated for their years of sacrifice, and to be treated humanely and fairly; but most of all, I want these athletes to have paths to emotional fulfillment, fun and economic security that don’t involve destroying their brains and bodies.

Given the current structure of the American sport and education systems, I know that football is sometimes the only way certain oppressed groups can access college. For many, football is seen as a “way out”. Football does bring communities together, and teaches some young men about resilience, leadership and hard work. But these positive outcomes do not wash away the harms, and maybe just as importantly, these positives can be accomplished in a variety of other ways, none of which involve brain injury, violence or exploitation.

I can’t un-see the harm football causes, and my own tacit support of this harm. So until there are drastic changes in the sport and its systems, I’m out. I hope I’m not waiting the rest of my life.