Magazine article Kennedy School Review

One Hit Too Many: The Moral Responsibility of Football Fandom

Magazine article Kennedy School Review

One Hit Too Many: The Moral Responsibility of Football Fandom

Article excerpt

I was a junior in college before football fandom got its hooks into me. A few friends and I bonded over my fledgling love for the Denver Broncos, one of the only sports teams close enough to my home state of New Mexico to catch my interest. On Sundays we would watch football all day at Hail Mary's, a sleazy dive bar. We were the only college kids in sight, drinking cheap beer and eating terrible bar food with the locals.

Toward the middle of that season, the Broncos were forced to start Steve Beuerlein, their backup quarterback who had previously done well playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. During a game against the Minnesota Vikings, a star rookie defensive back caught Beuerlein as he was releasing a throw, knocking him against the Minnesota astroturf hard enough to crush the quarterback's hand. Beuerlein stood up and held his mangled hand up in front him; it looked like he had two thumbs. (1) He could barely stand and had to be helped off the field. The pain must have been tremendous. I felt sick to my stomach.

When my friends and I turned back to our mozzarella sticks and cheap beer, we all tried to forget what we had seen. The National Football League (NFL) was happy to further obscure our memories, editing out the footage of Beuerlein's mutilated hand from replays, showing us the hit again and again while leaving out Beuerlein's tortured realization and his broken digits. (2) The announcers commended him for his bravery, and we all were thankful that nothing more serious occurred. It seemed so civilized.

I've learned since that it is precisely what the fans don't see that shapes the game for professional football players. They get hurt and get back up again, hoping that the injury isn't so bad that they are called out of the game. And only in those moments before the whole thing is sanitized and reprocessed do fans see the real horror that comes with the territory. We cheer for those who tough it out, who suffer through, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that the damage that football players suffer stays with them long after their careers are over. Toughing it out, it turns out, can kill people.

Hidden Trauma: The Dangers of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy

Recent research has shown that the routine hits football players take can lead to a form of early dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Beginning as headaches and depression, CTE is a degenerative disease arising from repetitive brain trauma that eventually leads to cognitive impairment and full-blown dementia. In other words, every football player, from the quarterback to the linebacker to the kicker, is at risk of enduring some of the worst kinds of brain damage a person can endure--while entertaining people just like me.

To be clear, I'm still a football fan. I spent most of 2011 keeping up with quarterback Tim Tebow's hijinks in Denver, and I was crushed when the New England Patriots routed my Broncos at Foxboro in the second round of the playoffs that year. I almost bought tickets to that game, hoping that Tebow would pull off another late-game miracle while I stood in the freezing cold next to thousands of Patriots fans. Perhaps there was part of me that knew Tebow's magic wouldn't last the season, but I was a believer all the same. Denver's wins were my wins; their losses were my losses.

The 2012 season was different. Even though the Broncos signed an elite quarterback in the offseason, I managed to catch only a few games. I found other things to do on Sunday afternoons, projects that needed tending on Monday nights. I kept up with my fantasy football league, but there was something keeping me from making football a priority.

I tried to downplay my lack of enthusiasm, but perhaps it's time to be honest with myself: there is some nightmarish news coming out of professional football that's making it hard for me to even watch the sport. Amidst the usual news of trades and locker room drama, a steady drip of suicides and damning research studies have revealed that professional football's dark side doesn't end with broken hands on rough plays. …

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