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Because, Football.

February 3, 2014

As we are getting ready to leave Asia and move back to the US, the question I am most frequently asked is, “Are you excited?”. My answer always depends on american-football-67439_640the person asking the question, but my feelings about it are complicated. Of course I’m excited for some things, many things, but honestly the reality of returning stateside and raising my children in the US gives me a great deal of pause. I can go on and on and list point by point the things that have me worried but much of what I am concerned about can be summed up in one word: Football.

I have no issue with the game itself. I grew up playing football in the backyard with my brothers, I’ve watched plenty of it on TV and in person, and I understand the game and it’s rules well. (So please no accusations of just being a girl who doesn’t get it. I get it. ) What I do take issue with is America’s obsession with the sport, especially as there is now very clear evidence that, as it is played now, it is directly responsible for a brain disease that kills. And CTE is not a quick, merciful death. It is a slow slide into memory loss, depression, dementia,  and aggression, that often ends in suicide.

What could the NFL do to make professional football a safer sport for it’s athletes? Most experts agree that it would require various rule changes both on and off the field for injuries to be minimized. One of the most obvious ones is that players who sustain a concussion should not be allowed back on the field, as they are now. The reaction to these suggestions to make football safer? Fans, players, and NFL execs complain that it would make the sport “too soft”. Too soft? Protecting these men from a life-threatening and life-altering injury is not worth it? Are we not happy as fans and consumers unless we see these men literally risking their lives every time they play (and also while they train?). Who are we as a nation if what we love about football is not the sportsmanship and the teamwork but the aggression? When did professional sports become a means to entertain the masses no matter the cost to the individual players?

Some will say that players are paid a lot of money and that they know the risks going in. It is true that they are paid stupid amounts of money, another thing that I really can’t stand about professional sports. But in terms of knowing the risk going in, CTE is only now beginning to be fully understood. For many years, many of the legendary players that I grew up watching did not know what they were risking. But do you know what doctors and therefore sports doctors have known for years and years? That concussions are serious and require medical attention. It’s never been a good idea to let a guy who sustains an injury like that back on the field even within a few days, let alone within the same game. And yet, that has been happening. For years.

Could fans make a difference? Well, the NFL is a huge corporation that relies on consumers to make money. And it makes a lot of it. Pro football is the most popular sport in America and the most lucrative, raking in an estimated $9 BILLION annually. Also? They don’t pay a dime in taxes! Yes, that’s right – the NFL is a tax-exempt organization! Are you disgusted yet? Because, we should all be outraged. How can we, as a nation, continue to consume their products, including games, while they make money hand over fist on the backs of the players they knowingly and willingly put in harm’s way week after week? Just like any other money-making enterprise, if enough fans refused to participate in the immorality of this and demanded change, it would happen. I believe that.

And yet, what happens when you bring up any of this to the average American? Well, I’ll tell you, because I bring it up a lot. I am usually laughed at and accused of being self-righteous, a party-pooper, uptight, no fun, and my personal favorite, anti-American. Because apparently speaking up about the hypocrisy of the middle-class drowning in unemployment and stagnant wages while one of the most lucrative enterprises on the planet pays ZERO in taxes, while it also puts on these spectacles that are becoming more and more like the gruesome displays of the coliseums of ancient Rome makes one a real Debbie Downer.

And I haven’t even mentioned college football, which is no less disturbing. These young men are put under immense pressure to perform, generating in some cases millions of dollars for their universities, and aren’t paid a dime. (Some players are trying to unionize now and are getting immense pushback from the NCAA.) Sure they are given a scholarship, but one that is, for all intents and purposes, an empty gesture. These scholarships are revoked if a player can no longer play due to injury or illness and it is no secret that those who play all 4 years and do graduate, in many cases, do very little of the academic work required to do so. Many of them hope and expect to be drafted into the NFL, but the vast majority will not be. Those that do graduate may do so with a sub-par education and years of injuries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. How is that fair or moral?

And one last thing: the hysteria. The crazy fandom surrounding teams both collegiate and pro. It is completely mind-boggling to any person who is not participating in it. Sane, intelligent Americans will fight – really truly fight, not just joke fight – over team allegiances. College towns will go berserk with both wins and losses by their team. (dumpster burning, anyone? how about some car-flipping?) Grown men and women will show more loyalty and fervor for their team of choice than they will show human decency to their neighbor. Seriously, what is going on, America?

So, while football the game is not my problem, it is what the realities surrounding it say about America and Americans that gives me pause about returning. You can tell a nation’s values by what they invest time, energy, and money into. Given how much time, energy and money is put into football, while we now know the terrible human cost, one cannot help but question the morality of our nation. When we care more about the outcome of a Super Bowl than our faltering education system, to name just one thing that desperately needs the attention of all Americans, where are we headed as a nation? What future can we possibly have if our priorities are so completely out of line with the common good?

So, am I excited about returning to the US? I’m excited about some things, but mostly I’m worried because, football.

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