Why this may be the final week I watch football, and why Americans should quit it, too (COMMENTARY)

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Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) is brought down by Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) and defensive back Josh Bush (20) during the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Dec. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters. 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 30, 2015.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) is brought down by Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) and defensive back Josh Bush (20) during the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Dec. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 30, 2015.

(RNS) Imagine a major motion picture about NFL football, featuring Will Smith as the superstar lead actor, which got solid reviews. How do you think its opening weekend would go in our football-obsessed culture?

Just such a movie, “Concussion,” opened on Christmas Day and finished the weekend in an embarrassing sixth place — behind a terrible Alvin and the Chipmunks film.

The reason for this is related to the reason meat-eaters don’t like to look at animals in factory farms and abortion-rights activists don’t like to look at what abortion does to prenatal children. The ostrich approach keeps us from having to think about the moral implications of the practices we support.

Americans are addicted to football — especially this time of year — and we simply don’t want to be confronted with the results of the violence inherent in the game.


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Alec Baldwin, left, and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion." Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Alec Baldwin, left, and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.” Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries

But no fan can watch “Concussion” without being so confronted. Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a man who heroically challenged the NFL juggernaut and forced it to admit that the game was causing serious brain damage to many of its players. His medical breakthrough came with examining the brain of the great Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster — who died at age 50, living in a van, regularly firing a Taser on himself to deal with the pain.

Since then, we’ve come to know the stories of many others who have been affected by football concussions. Brett Favre cannot remember his daughter’s childhood and has publicly said that he would not permit any child of his to play football. Dave Duerson and Junior Seau had brain injuries that led to them taking their own lives. Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon said of his struggles: “I am glad I don’t have any weapons in my house or else I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be here. It got to be that bad.”

Even if one’s life is not in immediate jeopardy, plenty of NFL players can relate to Super Bowl winner Leonard Marshall, who said, “I just noticed that my behavior was starting to change. … I would forget things, forget financial responsibilities, take things for granted, have a short fuse with my daughter, a short fuse with my ex.”

The NFL, under severe legal and social pressure in recent years, has taken some steps to address the problem, adding new penalties for “targeting” the head of an opposing player and putting protocols in place for those who suffer head injuries. But as “Concussion” director Pete Landesman rightly notes, “there’s a very limited range of things they can actually do” with the game as it currently exists.


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I take a back seat to no one when it comes to love of football. The game has been a very important source of community for my friends and family. (Indeed, because my parents met on a train going to see Notre Dame play Alabama for the 1973 national championship, I literally wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for football.) Left unrestrained, I could easily watch five, six games in a typical weekend. Football is an intoxicating combination of ridiculous athletic talent, the complexity of a grand master chess match, and raw caveman force.

Growing up a football fan in Wisconsin during the 1990s, I was obsessed with the rise of the Green Bay Packers’ Mike Holmgren, a coach who pulled no punches in connecting the sport to violence. “Football is about physically pounding the opponent. If you want to win this game, you have to beat the crap out of these guys,” he said.

As much as I love to try to recognize a zone blitz, or am awed by a wide receiver laying out for a diving touchdown reception, I have to admit there is a primal part of me that loves the violence. I’m not proud of it, but a blind-side hit on the opponent’s quarterback, or a ball-hawking safety taking out an opponent’s wide receiver as he comes over the middle, gives me a thrill.

But it is precisely this aspect of the game that is so morally problematic. As long as we continue to support a game deeply connected to violence, each of us is implicated in the terrible toll this is taking on football players in their retirement.

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

The game has changed its relationship to violence before. In 1905, 18 players died from their football injuries. In response, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned coaches and athletic directors to the White House with the goal of “reducing the element of brutality in play.”

Football must again fundamentally change its relationship with violence. Though such changes will likely cause short-term growing pains and complaints from the fans, the wild popularity of fantasy football, which focuses on things like touchdowns, yards, receptions and interceptions, indicates football would still flourish without the violence.

But this will not happen without pressure from the fans. We must make our desire for change loud and clear. And, yes, we should refuse to watch and otherwise support the game as it currently exists.

Perhaps this should be the final weekend we watch football until it fundamentally changes its relationship with violence.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. Twitter: @nohiddenmagenta)

 

 

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  • Fantasy football is just that, a fantasy, not football. If you take violence out of football, you also take football out of football. Perhaps the author is not a fan of football and doesn’t want to say it? BTW, hey Charlie! 😉

  • John Cahill

    Did you ever see the great film’ North Dallas Forty

  • Carla McClafferty

    For more about concussions in football and how repetitive head injuries relate to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) read FOURTH DOWN AND INCHES: CONCUSSIONS AND FOOTBALL’S MAKE-OR-BREAK MOMENT by Carla Killough McClafferty.

    http://www.carlamcclafferty.com/fourth_down_and_inches__concussions_and_football_s_make_or_break_moment_119519.htm

  • Russell King

    Whatever valid point you may have been able to make about the health risks of football was lost when you started out with prejudicial sweeping statements about meat eaters and pro-choice advocates, along with the lame attempt to equate a movie’s box office performance with collectice moral guilt. There is so much wrong here.

  • Grow a pair.

  • “The reason for this is related to the reason….abortion-rights activists don’t like to look at what abortion does to prenatal children.”

    That is an uneducated cheap shot.
    The bravest defenders of Abortion are the countless doctors who put their lives on the line every day to help women deal with the agonizing choice. And I assure you they all know exactly what the result looks like.

    And for your information 99% of abortions happen way to early for any of them to look like “pre-natal children” (good grief!) – they are a cluster of cells no larger than a fingernail.

    And yes, Football should be abandoned like every other dangerous idea.
    Unfortunately, America has no problem with violence or blood sacrifice.

  • john

    Yep, get one more weekend in before you act on your new beliefs. Next week is a better time to start.

  • Scott Shaver

    Why is it not enough for these politically and socially correct pundits to exercise their convictions QUIETLY.

    NO, they have to drag the rest of us through their little personal guantlets of guilt and inadequacy in the effort to take the fun out of living and the human experience for everybody.

    Competely egocentric IMO.

  • Philip

    This guy has no convictions and I’ll bet $100 he never stops watching football. He just wanted to make a statement with no way to know if he has integrity behind his words.

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    A few decades ago my sons were nagging me to let them sign up for football. At the time Daryl Stingly had just been strongly tackled and paralyzed for life. So they got an emphatic NO! Today we are all glad I stuck by my decision and the concussion issue gave me the chance to point out that Dads sometimes have to make tough decisions that bring out tears and stamping feet.
    The movie “Concussion” is great–I saw it this morning. Will Smith should get an Oscar. And as a Catholic I was proud of the strong Faith of the Nigerian-African Catholic doctor who is the “hero” of the movie.

  • Ryan

    Unlike the rest of the sophisticated, civilized world, who routinely get trampled to death or badly beaten at soccer games?

    There’s also no shortage of money coming in from films with gratuitous violence. The amount of money taken in internationally for such films dwarfs the US box office.

  • Ryan

    It’s one thing when you’re talking about excruciating (but completely recoverable) injuries like torn ACLs and even chronic effects like problems with the knees. Even paralysis is a known, apparent risk of playing football.

    There are few enough paralysis injuries in football that I would call it a calculated risk. The innovations in helmet design have reduced these risks significantly.

    CTE is transparent. It’s effects are not readily known and vary wildly from person to person. When faced with the prospect of making millions, who wouldn’t go for it, especially since it’s so easy to be in denial about it ever happening to them?

    Ask Junior Seau’s family about the “fun” and “human experience” they’ve had since he killed himself. Jovan Belcher, the guy on the Chiefs who killed his girlfriend and himself. And these are just the extreme cases; the regular old, run of the mill dementia sufferers and their families are sentenced to a fate worse than death.