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.

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