The Universal Notebook: Time to boycott, or ban, football?

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Two weeks ago I had all I could do to keep from watching the Patriots’ first pre-season game. I love watching football, but I am making every effort not to do so.

It’s an ethical issue.

Yes, I am so partisan that I now root for the Pats to lose because Brady and Belichick are Trump buddies, but politics alone would not stop me from watching football. There are better reasons, among them racism, economic exploitation and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

I started thinking about boycotting the NFL after the league effectively blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for protesting racism and police brutality against African-Americans by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. The owners have every right not to hire him, but we have the right not to aid and abet their racism.

With racists in the White House giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis and white supremacists such as those who demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia, it is more important than ever to stand up against racism in America. As sports commentator Stephen A. Smith writes, “Who can now doubt that the racism that Kaepernick was protesting is real — and far more dangerous and deadly and visceral than previously believed?”

Then there is the inherent hypocrisy of football as a business at the collegiate level. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen caused a national stir when he dared say out loud what everyone secretly knows – college football players are employees, not students.

“Look,” Rosen said, “football and school don’t go together. They just don’t. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they’re here because this is the path to the NFL. There’s no other way.”

Rosen also had the temerity to suggest that a lot of football players would not be able to get into college if they didn’t play football.

“OK, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have,” said Rosen. “You lose athletes and then the product on the field suffers.”

The NCAA should just pay players and stop pretending they are scholar-athletes. They are promotional vehicles. Why not just sponsor a NASCAR team?

Since University of Maine football has never amounted to much anyway, I’d like to see the Black Bears drop down to Division III and field a team of Maine kids. Better yet, drop football altogether. There’s something wrong when the football coach at most universities makes more than the college president.

The biggest argument for banning (or at least boycotting) football, however, is that long-term brain injury is epidemic in the sport. CTE causes depression and dementia in football players, no matter what level of competition.

A recent Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found that 99 percent of the brains donated by former NFL players showed signs of neurodegenerative disease and 87 percent of all the football player brains showed CTE, including 21 percent of the brains of those who only played high school football.

Obviously, the risk goes up the larger and higher you play, but brain trauma has a lasting effect no matter when it occurs.

Given what is now known about CTE, nothing short of head-in-the-sand denial explains why any responsible parents would let a son (or daughter) play football. Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Ditka and Brett Favre are among the NFL legends who now say they would not let a child play football.

Brain trauma deniers like to cite a 2012 study of some 4,000 former football players in Wisconsin that found no correlation between playing football in high school and cognitive impairment. But that study focused on players who graduated from high school in 1957. Football was a different game in the 1950s. Padding and helmets were primitive by modern standards and players were smaller and slower than they are today.

The violence that makes football – a form of ritual war with ground offensives and aerial assaults – so captivating is in large part a product of equipment that makes players feel invincible. You don’t launch yourself like a missile at a 265-pound running back going full tilt if you’re wearing a leather helmet or no helmet at all. So the obvious solution to the ethical dilemma of football is either to ban it or get rid of the helmets. Aussie Rules football, anyone?

In the meantime, I will do my level best not to watch the NFL. But when the days get short and the Thanksgiving turkey is in the oven, I may need a support group to help me get through gridiron withdrawal.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Chew H Bird

    We are all free, (or should be free), to make life choices. Some people drink, some smoke, some engage in risky behaviors such as auto racing or ski racing. The freedom of individuals to make life choices is one of the great thing about our country.

    While I share your concerns about brain injury in football, and respect and admire your decision to care your inner ethical self, I will be watching football from time to time this season as my enjoyment of a sport (from a spectator perspective), has nothing to do with the choices of individuals who play (and those are the people we want to protect).

  • Charles Martel

    Interesting. I watched much less NFL football last season because Kaepernick was receiving so much attention and, worse yet, adulation.

    I wasn’t a Pats fan for so many years because they were losers. When they started winning again I couldn’t simply jump back on the bandwagon. However, after learning Brady and Belichick were Trump supporters, it was easy to cheer for them again.

    I also like the fact that the Pats work extremely hard, operate as a team and the players perform at the highest level or they sit down or are traded. Gone is the participation trophy mentality because in the real world life ain’t fair.

    Finally, I support your right to boycott watching the games but, unlike most liberals, I’m not going to persuade Congress to pass a law against an American tradition.

  • Ted Markow

    Paraphrasing Frank Deford: With what we now know, any parent who lets their child play football probably played football themselves.

    The NFL is one thing, but young developing brains should not be pounded into lower IQs and early dementia.

    • danmaine

      So is it now time to also ban cheering, skateboards, skating, skiing, insert physical activity with any risk here? We live in a free Country where individuals get to assess the risk/reward of their activities and be responsible for the outcome. My daughter got a big time discussion cheering, I blew out my knee in college playing softball with friends. Drained my knee a couple times a year from playing sports after college. People get hurt doing many things do we make everything with any risk illegal?

      • Ted Markow

        What a nonsensical argument.

        The risks associated with tackle football are well known, as brain scientists and ex-NFL players will attest to. Ignoring this data is foolish. And while I agree that adults should be free to play whatever sports they want, children need adult guidance, especially when there is a risk of potentially life-altering harm. I’m not talking about bumps and bruises, but hits to kids’ heads that cause severe problems with cognitive ability as early as their 20s or 30s.

        We do not get to do whatever we want with kids, even our own. Mature, intelligent, loving parents know this, just as they know that it is their responsibility to minimize the risk of severe harm. Not doing so is irresponsible and frankly, bad parenting.

        • danmaine

          So since kids get concussions cheering is it to be banned too? What about hockey and skiing? Answer the question please. The NFL study was not scientific you can’t reach a reasonable conclusion.

          • Ted Markow

            First, studies on CTE are scientific, as they are performed post-mortem by scientists. So, a reasonable person can reach some kind of reasonable conclusion about head trauma and CTEs.

            Second, the more scientists learn about CTEs, the more evidence there is that young brains should not be bashed on a regular basis. There seems to be a matter of time where the brain can recover…up to a point, but regular banging of the brain within the skull creates trauma to the brain and long-term consequences.

            Lastly, there are some sports, like football and hockey, that have hitting/checking as a regular part of the sports. Those sports should be looked at first and perhaps modified for young people. Maybe, no tackling or checking. Or, maybe do away with violent sports…? I know, that denies a lot of people some fun and much fewer people a lot of money. However, if we are in favor of entertaining ourselves over the well-being of our kids, our problems are much larger than what sports we ban or allow.

  • poppypapa

    PETA is watching, Eddie. Shame on you.

  • Mainer1

    You are a true liberal jerk.

    • Just Sayin’

      Last I knew football wasn’t really owned by either side of the political spectrum, both sides tend to have a lot of watchers. He’s also speaking out to save the brain function of the players.

      How does this exactly make him a jerk?

      If you’re really suggesting he ought to shut up so you can continue to enjoy a sport that fails to take enough safeguards to avoid causing brain injuries in players without having to think or talk about any of the moral quandaries involved, wouldn’t that make you the jerk here?

      Just sayin’..

  • Ted Markow

    “I started thinking about boycotting the NFL after the league effectively blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for protesting racism and police brutality against African-Americans by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. The owners have every right not to hire him, but we have the right not to aid and abet their racism.”

    Fortunately, Ed, more NFL players, as well as some cops, are following Kaep’s lead.

    Funny how some movements start with one courageous person.

  • knighthawk

    “The brains were donated by families of former NFL players who showed signs of the disease. The study was not conducted on a set of random former NFL players, and Dr. McKee notes “tremendous selection bias” in the samples.”

    I apologize that I don’t have a better way to put this Ed, but you’re an arrogant butt-head for taking a sensationalized headline instead of actually critically evaluating the study. The way you utilize this in the piece here perpetuates the stretched truth that came from this study. It’s like saying 100% of college students are women and forgetting to mention that you sampled simmons college.

  • danmaine

    Racism and Colin Kaepernick … In his last 2 years his stats are HORRIBLE, placing him close to dead last statistically. record 3 W 16 losses in 21 games, completion % 59%, QBR 52…. With the team destroying antics, he won’t get much of a look by any GM or Owner since winning is the key to making money and he won’t help a team.

    • knighthawk

      no kidding. his only success was inheriting a superbowl bound team from alex smith, and he lost. he’s simply not a good player and now he comes with potentially unwanted media attention. i can’t think of a reason to sign him

  • LeRoy

    Sorry to read that having the NFL turn a blind eye to domestic violence did not make your hit parade of reasons not to watch football.

    • EdBeem

      Yes, you’re right, I should have listed domestic violence as well. Of course, law enforcement officers have a much higher rate of domestic violence than football player s do.

      • LeRoy

        That may be true about law enforcement. However, the subject is the NFL. Having the league excuse violent behavior towards family members and spouses is inexcusable. I hope that it was an oversight that the battering of women did not cause a pause in your Sunday TV schedule.

        • EdBeem

          Yes, you are correct.

  • Drooo

    “I started thinking about boycotting the NFL after the league effectively blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for protesting racism and police brutality against African-Americans by refusing to stand for the National Anthem.”

    A hypocrite rarely knows the evil of his own words.