The Super Bowl is approaching, and, despite a tragic shortage of chicken wings, fans are rallying around the biggest day for the game they love. And while I’m excited, because I’m a football fan to my core, I’m also conflicted–and not just because my team didn’t make it. I’m conflicted because, between hoaxy girlfriends, the never-ending push to play with an injury, the brain damage, and the legacy of sexism, violence, and abuse, there are about a million reasons why football, as a professional sport and as an institution of higher education, should be decried by feminists, parents, concerned citizens, and generally moral human beings.
But, as a person who’d like to think I’m at least three out of four of those things, I just can’t quit football. I can’t turn my back on it. I have to believe that it can get better. Better for the players (at all levels), better for the fans, better for the employees, and better for the family members of players, who frequently suffer through years of crippling medical bills and devastating mental illness. I have to believe that football can, with pressure from fans and players and the families of players, become healthier for everyone involved.
Everyone knows that football needs to change. In the last five years, the sport has gotten a lot of attention for what happens off the field–and while some of it has been good, most people are paying attention to the bad. Which might be for the best, because, realistically, the bad is bad.
Following the tragic suicide of Junior Seau, the dark side of football’s long-term physical effects became a dirty secret that could no longer be contained to whispers between league officials and team doctors. Now, his family is suing the league for wrongful death. Because traumatic head injuries aren’t just about cognitive problems: Ongoing behavioral problems, including violence and depression, have been found in players who suffered brain injuries that didn’t impair them, but did change their personalities.
League officials are already looking into changes to the game which may be able to protect players (and their families)–but what about the culture of football at all levels? Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, whose already-injured knee buckled during a critical game against my beloved Seattle Seahawks, is a prime example of the drive to play while injured. Which, in his case, took a not-great injury and made it a career-ender.
Even at the high school level, though, the pressure to “play through” serious injuries needs to be considered. Because, in rural areas where football is the only ticket out for many young men, just a single game can get the attention of a scout from a big-name college. Unfortunately, a single game played on an injury can also stop college-level dreams in their tracks. And repeat concussions? They’ve been found to lead to traumatic brain injury in adulthood.
In some areas, that’s been enough to spur proposals for wholesale bans on football at the high school level. Even President Barack Obama stated recently he’d have a tough time deciding whether or not to let a son of his play the sport as a teen, and has voiced concerns about the future of the game in general.
But others are taking less-drastic steps — in Ohio, where football is “akin to religion,” according to the AP, one school is trying to ensure that its students heads stay safe. And they’re not alone. Because change, in football, matters.
And what of the latent sexism, misogyny, and homophobia that runs deeply through the culture of football fandom? The machismo and lack of tolerance and rampant domestic violence in players? There’s plenty of room for improvement, both on the field and off. Until just a few years ago, every announcer, coach, referee, player, and sideline employee was male–the only place for women was under a pair of pom-poms. But in the last year, even that has begun to change.
The NFL hired their first female referee, Shannon Eastin (though she was immediately bullied by sexist pundits who had a problem with a “hormonal” woman making critical calls). And during primetime games on Monday night, almost every channel has at least one female announcer, speaking to the coaches and players. Small steps? Sure. But at least there’s some level of inclusion–which shows that things can change when people want them to.
Players, too, have been showing progress. Vikings kicker Kris Kluwe gained national attention for his scathing (and hilarious) piece on Deadspin, wherein he criticised the league for silencing players who spoke out in favor of same-sex marriage. Brendon Ayanbadejo, linebacker for the Ravens, has also recently spoken up. The New York Times reported that he has reached out to prominent LGBT advocates, telling them he wants to use the Superbowl as a platform for gay rights.
Football has some serious matters to work through. Colleges and the NFL need to intervene to prevent players from exacerbating injuries. They need to educate and assist players with their finances to ensure that they are stable long after their careers are over. Emphasis on mental health and counseling needs to become a priority. Gender inclusion and a culture of tolerance and progress need to be adopted on a larger scale.
Which is maybe a tall order, and it’s definitely not going to happen before this weekend’s Superbowl. But as a fan of the game, I have to believe we can get there.
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