Beaton column: Will football follow the circus into oblivion?
As a fan, I’ll mourn the demise of football. What happens at football games during the national anthem is bad, and I’ll get to it in a moment. But what may end the game is what happens after the anthem.
Post-mortem dissections of the brains of 112 former NFL players recently revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) in 111 of them. The study was published last summer in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association and summarized by The New York Times.
The Times reports that the symptoms of CTE include “memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. The problems can arise years after the blows have stopped.”
Football players sustain CTE through frequent impacts to their heads. Their helmeted heads routinely collide violently with other helmets, shoulder pads and the ground. Even with a helmet, the impact is equivalent to driving a car into a brick wall at 30 mph.
You may respond that playing football is voluntary. You may say that if people want to risk their brains and bodies to be rich and idolized, that’s their right.
I disagree. We don’t allow people to play Russian roulette, and we don’t allow them to sell their lives or limbs. We draw the line on activities that are consensual but destructive to our psyche, our soul and our civilization.
Remember the circus? In the ancient circus, it was considered sporting to watch people stab, dismember and kill one another with swords and spears. In Rome, bread and circus mollified the masses. So long as the masses were kept fed and entertained, the thinking went, they wouldn’t make trouble.
We eventually evolved past that.
But the evolution took time. In the modern circus as recently as the last century, it was considered sporting to torment and mock caged animals.
But we eventually evolved past that, too.
Maybe it’s time to evolve past football. The impact of football on the players is appalling, but the impact to the rest of us is troubling as well.
It plays to our worst traits — our violence and our tribalism. I suppose it’s better for people to be tribal about Broncos and Raiders than to be tribal about blacks and whites, but tribalism of any kind is habit forming.
Don’t even get me started on the colossal office time-waster called “fantasy football.” Or end-zone dancing and other poor sportsmanship in front of children, some of whom are in their 60s. Or the football factories that used to be institutions of higher education.
The violence of football so placates people that we subsidize it with billions of dollars. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, private donors anted up millions for renovations to their football stadium, and the quarterback just signed a $110 million contract. Meanwhile, the struggling symphony orchestra went out of business.
In Atlanta, taxpayers help fund a new $1.5 billion stadium, and the quarterback has a $104 million contract, while the school district is running a $12 million shortfall, and there’s a postcard campaign to fund the struggling arts.
What does this say about society’s priorities? Is this a good use of our resources?
Now, about that kneeling stuff. One week, the players were so outraged by the injustice of white-on-black violence that they felt compelled to display their conscience by disrespecting the flag and those who died for it (a large number of whom in recent generations were black). Their outrage apparently did not extend to the disproportionate victims of black-on-white violence or the epidemic of black-on-black violence but, OK, I suppose their conscience goes where it goes.
But then the next week, after realizing that their conscience threatened their livelihood, they effectively muttered, “Never mind.”
In short, their conscience overrides their respect for their flag and country but not their respect for their paychecks.
The owners didn’t exactly wrap themselves in glory either. They chose to pander to the players by pretending to sympathize with their racial cause, but only until the mood of the masses turned against them and threatened their profits. Then they, too, muttered, “Never mind.”
Hypocrisy, greed, violence, tribalism and muttering are part of human nature. But let’s stop glorifying it in football.
I’ll miss it. Football is the greatest spectacle since, well, the Roman circus. But a bright sunny afternoon beckons. Maybe I’ll call a friend and get a life.
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