FOOTBALL HAS ALWAYS BEEN MY SPORT. As a kid and teenager in Cincinnati, football was the shared emotional language of repressed Midwestern men. Rage and impotence could be expressed through the latest Bengals failure. Feelings of joy, disgust, rebellion, and indignation could be expressed through support of our chosen college teams. If you thought someone was a dick, you could attack their team’s loudmouth quarterback. If you thought they were a sniveling phony, you could suggest that their allegiance was a bandwagon allegiance. In the pre-hipster age, “I rooted for them before they were good,” was the only available expression of originality to straight, white, upper-middle-class teenage douchebags like myself.
In college, football was the event that we organized our keggers and binge drinking around. After college, it was an excuse to meet up at a bar and shoot the shit for 7 hours at a stretch. It even provided an acceptable excuse to shut up and ignore your friends for a while at the bar: don’t want to talk? Stare at the screen and sip your beer. Football kept silences from becoming awkward. It made a social life a much easier thing to maintain.
I even owe football my marriage: while living in London four years ago, I went to our building’s Super Bowl party, which was being hosted by a cute Giants fan from New Jersey. I sat next to her and we chatted on and off for the next 5 hours, interspersing the usual small talk with jokes about how terrible the British announcers were, or about what a tremendous douchebag Tom Brady is. We started dating shortly after, and we got married three months ago.
But this year, as Super Bowl 50 approaches, I’ve come to think that football won’t mean to my kids what it meant to me. In fact, football probably doesn’t have a half century left in it. And it’s not just because of the concussion thing.
Football is an environmental nightmare.
First and foremost, professional football is not good for the environment. To be fair, major events across the board are not great for the environment: first there’s the electricity usage at the stadium, then there’s the carbon cost of flying entire teams across the country to the stadium, then there’s all of the carbon-emitting activity that occurs on the part of the fans (using charcoal grills, driving cars, eating lots of meat). The 2013 Super Bowl alone pumped out 3.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
That alone isn’t enough to condemn football. As environmental website Grist reports, there are ways to make the game more green friendly, but at the moment, football is one of the least green-friendly American events. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Football is economically exploitative.
Perhaps more concerning are the economic effects of football. First off, the NFL does not pay for the stadiums in which their teams play. They leave that to the taxpayers of the city the team is based in. The justification used for shoving this investment off on taxpayers is that building a stadium will be good for the city, that it will create jobs, and that it ultimately be an economic boon. This is nonsense. Stadiums are not the best use of public funds, not least in part because, especially in the case of local football stadiums, they are only used for actual games around 8 times a year. How many people can make a living off of 8 days of work per year serving nachos to drunk football fans? Even factoring in concerts and other events that could be held during off-season or away-game weekends, the economic returns on a football stadium are not as high as they would be if a similar amount had been poured into other urban revitalization projects.
But that’s not where the NFL’s economic exploitation ends: until 2015, the NFL operated as a non-profit. That means that they had to pay much less in taxes than they would have otherwise. It’s hard to understand completely how they could be considered a non-profit, considering that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made $44 million in 2012 alone. As of 2015, they no longer hold non-profit status, but some, like the Washington Post, suggest that this means they’ll be able to make more money at the end of the day, thanks to less public oversight.
Some teams even have deals with the cities they’re based out of that gets them out of what would normally be tall property tax bills: for example, Jerry Jones doesn’t pay anything in property taxes for the Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas. That property would normally cost him $6 million a year in taxes. That loss gets passed on to the local taxpayers.
As for their recruiting, the NFL doesn’t pay for the training of its future athletes (as many soccer teams do around the world using youth clubs): instead, they farm that task out to colleges. While my alma mater of Penn State is certainly the most extreme example of the football business’ corrupting effect on public universities, it is hardly the only example.
America loves its football. But how much longer are we going to be able to subsidize our favorite diversion with billions of dollars when we have hundreds of thousands of people living homeless in this country, a crumbling infrastructure, and education and healthcare systems that are lagging in comparison to the rest of the world?
Football is bad for its players.
All that said, concussions are probably the primary reason football is likely to decline over the next few decades: I was talking with a cousin a few weeks ago about playing football as a kid. He smiled and then looked over at his two kids. “They’ll never play football, though,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Are you crazy? I won’t letthem play. I don’t want to give them brain damage over a one-in-a-million chance of making it to the pros.” It’s a fair point, and it’s one that I’ve heard multiple times over the last few years as the evidence has piled up over the awful things that football does to its player's bodies. I myself, while playing football in the 9th grade, received what a doctor later said was probably a concussion. My coach told me to walk it off and had me practicing 10 minutes later. But I (probably) didn’t receive any lasting damage. Professional football players get their bodies ripped apart. In Nate Jackson’s (a former Bronco) memoir, Slow Getting Up he describes the insane amount of injuries he sustained, and how the doctors who dealt with him were basically pressured to give him the all-clear for insurance purposes: even in an age where we know about the dangers of football injuries, the “walk it off” mentality still stands. The scariest affliction that NFL players have to deal with, though, is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s basically a disease that occurs when the head goes through repeated traumas. Its symptoms can include aggression, dementia, depression, and even suicide. High-profile players like Adrian Robinson, Junior Seau, and Dave Duerson all killed themselves, and were all posthumously diagnosed with CTE.
Then there are the myriad of spinal issues, joint problems, back pains, fractures, tears, and sprains that all come with the territory when your job is to be hit by guys who resemble military vehicles on a weekly basis. Football is not good for kids, and we’ve always known that, but just how not good for kids is just now becoming apparent, and many parents are deciding to direct their kids towards less violent sports: between 2010 and 2012, participation in youth football leagues dropped by 10% out of concerns related to CTE. Despite my love of the game, I certainly won’t be letting my future kids play.
What happens when an entire generation of parents stop risking their kids to football?
Can football be saved?
There’s still hope that football will reform in the next 50 years. After all, the NFL could do a lot to cut its carbon footprint, it could stop demanding that cities build new stadiums, it could stop behaving skeezily with its money, and it could pioneer new equipment that could better protect against injuries. It could even change some of the rules (who wouldn’t want to watch the NFFL, or the National Flag Football League?).
But a lot has to change: right now, the NFL and the NCAA are treating Americans’ love of football as a given. And that’s probably fair. But you can only destroy our environments, mess with our economy, and allow grievous physical harm to our kids for so long until we start to turn against you. And while sport is an eternal human pastime, no individual sport is.
Except maybe soccer.