Over and over I asked my smart sports fan friends: Is there any justification for watching football anymore?
It's a question we've all grappled with since former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau killed himself last week, becoming the latest in a string of former players' suicides possibly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. At a Slate debate scheduled for tonight, accomplished writers Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger will argue that college football should be banned. The pro-football lobby will be represented by former NFL player Tim Green, whose claim that there's no "conclusive evidence" linking football and brain injuries smacks of climate change denialism, and sportswriter Jason Whitlock, who's most famous for saying racist and sexist things. Meanwhile, plenty of football fans—even the intelligentsia—seem content to turn a blind eye: Grantland, which bills itself as the thinking man's sports publication, hasn't mentioned Seau's death, or the issues it brought to the forefront, once in the past week.
But just because our voices have been drowned out doesn't mean there aren't thousands of us grappling. When I asked one friend about his reaction to the Seau news, he sighed and shook his head, not saying a word for a solid 30 seconds. Another opened his email "A great question … I don't know, I really don't."
We may never know whether Seau's brain demonstrates signs of CTE, the degenerative brain diseased that's a result of repeated hard hits and causes dementia and depression—his family reportedly is torn on whether to donate it for research. But it doesn't matter, really. People will assume CTE killed him, and maybe it's better that way, you know? Because if CTE killed Junior Seau, we can't ignore CTE anymore. For players, ignoring Junior on the field was a recipe for a sack. For football fans, ignoring him in death is proof that the game really is irredeemably brutish.
I don't watch football because of the violence, but I don't exactly watch despite that, either. And so my fandom is becoming a harder and harder to justify as evidence piles up that a hard tackle results in more than "getting your bell rung," as coaches used to say. In all likelihood, it results in serious mental problems and early deaths from suicide and Alzheimer's.
But I'm still not going the Ta-Nehisi Coates route and declaring "I'm out" of football fandom—and neither are any of the thinking-fan friends I talked to this weekend. Are we all too weak-willed to make the choice Coates says he's making? I know that I'm going to feel far more conflicted about rooting for my beloved Oakland Raiders, that I'm going to wince even harder when a player—whether a Raider or a Bronco—doesn't pop back up immediately after a tackle. I may still watch football, but I won't do so naïvely.
In fact, I've come around to believing that asking whether fans will still watch football is the wrong question. While I admire Coates' moral boycott, I'm more interested in what he plans to do about the twin epidemics of brain injuries and institutional silence that prompted it. Emotional divestment from football doesn't solve the problem. Ex-fans like Coates and Gladwell aren't going to do a damn thing except point fingers and make pointless calls for bans.
And ethically minded fans have standing to push for real change. We should demand rule changes that have been shown to decrease the risk of concussions: trading the three-point stance for a sumo-style crouch and awarding fair catches on every kickoff. We should demand that the league settle all of the 61 lawsuits against it and award generous settlements to the former players who are part of them. We should donate generously to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is leading the pioneering research into CTE and has requested Seau's brain.
Football isn't going away, and it shouldn't. The societal benefits of sports are real. Paying hundreds of young men handsomely to pursue their passion is worthwhile, whether that passion is football or math. That doesn't justify standing by and watch the game kill people. It doesn't justify just pointing fingers, either. So make your demands and your donations. The path forward requires us to care.