In a span of four weeks, football fans enjoyed thrilling national championships in both college and professional football. At the end of the Super Bowl, it is now common to ask stars of a certain age, “Do you plan to retire?” For professionals, the question often means, “Will you retire before another concussion endangers your mental health?” That prompts a broader question: Is it time for football to go out on top and retire, since so many players suffer brain damage?
Let me state my disclaimers quickly: I love sports, including football; I enjoyed it enough to play flag football until I was 40. I have played and occasionally coached other competitive sports—chiefly basketball, baseball, and tennis—since I was 9. Football is a classic team sport that can be supremely rewarding for spectators—few things are as beautiful as a well-thrown, well-caught pass.
The rules and pace of the game allow maximum strategic planning by coaches and maximum effort from players, who can gather themselves for five- to ten-second bursts of dashing, throwing, kicking, and colliding.
Unfortunately, football can also be ugly. Bad games include a stultifying barrage of penalties, injury timeouts, official reviews, commercials, ostentatious celebrations, and extracurricular hostilities—the game is violent enough without them. But the real problem with football is darker: it damages the body and the mind of almost everyone who plays for long.
Football damages the body and the mind of almost everyone who plays for long. . . . It is uniquely, irreformably dangerous.
Before I continue, let me praise football again. It builds character and relationships. It teaches teamwork, sacrifice, discipline, and endurance. It lets boys and men channel their strength and aggression. They also learn to heed authority. It unites communities who cheer for a common team.
Football isn’t even the most dangerous sport; that title goes to boxing or mixed martial arts. All true sports pose dangers to feet, knees, hips, and shoulders. But football is the most dangerous popular sport, and it is uniquely, irreformably dangerous, especially to the brain. Recent research on brain injuries leads me to say I would not let my son play football.
Conflicts with Principles Behind God’s Law
I believe the problem of brain damage places football, at the highest levels, in conflict with God’s law and character. The Lord creates, protects, and sustains life, but football damages life. Jesus heals, but football wounds. The law says “You shall not kill” and for centuries the church has taken that to forbid all kinds of harm, whether deliberate or careless.
The detailed laws of Moses, which we neglect to our loss, support that view. If someone “swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these [refuge] cities and live” (Deut. 19:5). Thus accidental manslaughter results in banishment (Num. 35). Another law says, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8). The principle is that we are responsible to keep careless people from harming themselves, if we possibly can. It means I am my brother’s keeper.
Brain Trauma Is the Clincher
I sincerely appreciate the virtues of football, but they do not overcome my concerns, especially touching brain damage. Sadly, changes in rules and equipment seem to have failed to protect players. According to recent research, the chief problem is the cumulative effect of repeated blows to the head. A 2003 study of the Virginia college football team found that players cumulatively suffered 3,300 “head impacts” over a span 10 games and 35 practice sessions. Severe blows were like car wrecks. Typical blows were like a punch to the head. That is the core problem.
Football causes brain damage. How many blows does it take until brain damage begins? I don’t want my grandson to participate in that experiment.
I had misgivings about football for years, but believed it was morally acceptable because the goal of the game is to score points, not, as in boxing, to pummel opponents into defenselessness. But the 2017 research of neuropathologist Ann McKee renders that point moot. When she studied the brains of 111 NFL players, she found that 110 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
Now we know: Football causes brain damage. How many blows does it take until brain damage begins? I don’t want my grandson to participate in that experiment.
Given these facts, other arguments for football evaporate:
- Football inculcates teamwork and creates life-long friendships. So does every team sport.
- Football promotes toughness. So does tennis, a sport that allows no substitutions, only forfeits.
- Football teaches performance under pressure. So does basketball, which often ends with a contested shot or free throw that decides the game.
All sports can promote virtue, but others are safer.
Football does bring fans together, but this is also true of safer sports. Besides, communities of fans may be what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon, large but shallow associations, like people born in the same state. And players change teams so rapidly that, as Jerry Seinfeld quips, fans are essentially cheering for their laundry.
Professional football players know these facts. As competent adults they can do what they wish. I don’t ask that we outlaw football; I propose that we help football retire by following other sports and enrolling our sons in safer sports: baseball, basketball, tennis, ultimate Frisbee, track and field, lacrosse, volleyball, or soccer. Soccer is intriguing because headers also cause concussions. But the game can eliminate headers, which are not essential to soccer the way potent tackling is to football. (Soccer already forbids the use of hands; surely it can forbid the head.)
Sports rarely die, but they do pass into twilight. Horse racing and boxing were America’s leading spectator sports in the 1930s; now they are niche events. If we help football dwindle, we may save a lot of headaches and heartaches in coming years. Beyond that, we follow our Lord, the giver of life, the healer. He became our brother, our keeper. Let’s follow him by keeping our sons and grandsons from needless harm.