Beneath the fireworks, concerts, and breathless hype that will mark the start of the 2012 NFL season, is a league that’s haunted. It’s haunted by future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau who killed himself in May at the age of 43.
It’s haunted by the recent suicides of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and OJ Murdock. It’s haunted by the now widespread knowledge that the country's most popular sport can leave you damaged in ways never before suspected. What a sign of the times that the start of the season wasn’t punctuated today with chest-thumping and military flyovers but with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement that the league’s owners would be donating $30 million to the National Institute of Health to further study the effects of brain injuries.
This recognition of the danger inherent in the sport has sparked a high profile debate across the political spectrum. The terms of the debate are simple: Given all we are learning about head injuries, should football be banned? Should it be the focus of a new prohibition movement? Both sides of this debate, I would argue, leave much to be desired.
On the right, you have people like Rush Limbaugh saying that any discussion about prohibition, or even mild reforms like rule changes or limiting full-contact drills isn’t about science or the welfare of players but really about a nefarious plot to end freedom. As he said, "It's not going to be long before the wusses, the New Castrati in our society are going to suggest that tackle football be banned.”
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Perhaps the best response to this “wuss” argument was Junior Seau himself who said to his friend, Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, "Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don't have a father who can't remember his name because of the game, I'm pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids' name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn't there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren't changing. That's not right."
But there is one thing Limbaugh is poking at that’s actually true. A lot of the people who are making the prohibition argument are reasoning that players somehow need to be saved from themselves as well as saved from us, the bloodthirsty mob. The most prominent prohibitionist is probably celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell’s argument is that football is like dog fighting, another "barbaric" sport that was once legal but which, as he argues, we now look down upon and criminalize. He implies that players are like the dogs: good people, bred to be violent, who need to be saved. As he wrote in the New Yorker, “In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain….A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess ‘gameness,’ and game dogs are revered. Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness.”
It’s an argument drenched in condescension as well as well as a kind of neo-missionary racism. This is one of those moments when having some perspective is very important. If people like Gladwell want to raise awareness against unsafe working conditions, there are much more productive places to turn to than the NFL. The United States has the most unsafe workplaces in the industrialized world and more US Workers died on the job in 2011 than US soldiers have died in Iraq since 9/11. If you want to see US workers treated like "dogs" visit a non-union auto-plant.
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To really get at the fundamental error here, we can go back to another prohibition movement, the movement a century ago to ban alcohol. Prohibition found sympathy among a diverse set of characters including the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. But Debs never went all in on prohibition.
In one letter to a prohibition leader, he said, “I admit all you say about the liquor evil, and we differ only in the way this evil will be destroyed. Prohibition will never do it[….] Theft and murder are prohibited but it is to be doubted if these crimes are lessened to any appreciable extent on that account. The world pays too much attention to the effects while it ignores causes and this is as true of the liquor evil as it is of any of the evils that afflict society.”
Apply this reasoning to football. It’s a violent sport that reflects our violent world. If we want to change the culture of the sport, we’d be far better off rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on changing the world.
The best way to understand the NFL is to see it as another of this country’s profoundly unsafe workplace. Efforts by the NFLPA to make it as humane as possible should be supported. The insistence of NFL owners to use untrained replacement “scab” referees should be seen as a direct attack on the health and safety of players. As fans we should also never forget that the people on the field are actual human beings taking a tremendous beating for our entertainment. And here we get to a kind of knowledge that’s very difficult to shake. As Arundhati Roy said in a rather dramatically different context, “The trouble is, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” For the first time in my life, I could imagine myself drifting away from a game that’s brought me such joy over the years. I can’t unsee Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. None of us should. And if that affects the bottom line of NFL owners, it serves them right for caring so little for so many years about the people we’ve tuned in to watch.