Come Sunday in America in 2013, there's always God. But for a truly secular autumnal nationwide Sabbath, there's nothing like football and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL is America's game, America's true national past time. Sorry baseball.
The NFL is the most popular TV sport in the United States. Super Bowls are the top twenty one most watched TV shows of all time: 167 million people saw the New England Patriots play in Super Bowl XLVI. The NFL is a cash machine, generating $8 billion dollars in yearly profits. Millions "play" in fantasy football leagues, turn to the sports page first thing, talk football around the water cooler. We fill up secular cathedrals on Sunday, from the last hot days of summer to the bone chilling days of February.
So what's not to love about the NFL and football?
I've absolutely loved football since I was a kid. Attended my first Patriots game when I was ten, went to the Pats-Saints game last Sunday, cheered until I was hoarse. Played for five years too, relished the crunch of a hard hit, the elegance of a caught ball. Even got my head hit so hard once, my "bell rung", that I saw the world in shades of lime green for a few minutes! May have been a concussion, who knows? Coach told me to just shake it off and go right back in and I did.
So how could there be anything wrong with football: as sport, entertainment, youth activity, national obsession? Start with the most vulnerable part of the human body, the brain. When we watch a game, the most exciting moment, the one so many love, is when players run full speed into each another, often head first, violence writ large. SMACK. CRASH. BOOM.
How hard is that hit? Researchers report these collisions generate force equivalent to crashing a car into a stonewall at 35 miles per hour. The average NFL player experiences this jolt up to 1,500 times per season. Scientists are now discovering that such long term repeated head trauma takes its toll on the brain, for pros, college players and even for youth. "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), is a progressive degenerative disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma...[and can lead to]memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia." (The Sports Legacy Institute).
The players know this truth. Sunday at the Pats game wide receiver Danny Amendola took a vicious hit to the head, lay face down and motionless on the turf for thirty seconds and when he finally got up you could see in his foggy eyes and wobbly legs just how hard he'd been smacked. Take Junior Seau, the Pats all pro linebacker. Soon after retiring, Seau's life spiraled out of control into a morass of crazy behavior. Seau eventually committed suicide. When his brain was examined it was found to contain CTE. A group of brain researchers at Boston University (a program funded by the NFL) found CTE in the brains of 45 out of 46 retired NFL players after their deaths too. Last August the NFL settled a class action concussion related lawsuit with retired players for $765 million.
And now as a fan I know this truth too--the potential danger of football to its players. Not always. Not every time or every hit. But CTE seems to be true for too many gridiron players. Where's that leave football in America, the big deal and big business that is the "beloved" NFL? The secular religion which is football in the United States.
One of the gifts of faith is that it forces me to remember that life has consequences, good, bad, but always definite. Faith asks, "Are the consequences worth the enjoyment I receive from any given past time or activity?"
When comes to football and my fandom: is the fun I get out of watching the NFL worth the consequences? Can I be a fan knowing that the men who entertain me, potentially, put their lives on the line, and then just for a sport? A game. An event that outside the lines means little or nothing in the largest sense. A three hour Sunday afternoon diversion, as I munch on my hot wings and cheer away.
And what about the 70,000 college players, the 1 million high school youth who play football, the 285,000 kids ages 5 to 15 who play in Pop Warner leagues?
Is football, as it is played today, worth it? As the most sports obsessed culture in the world, are the risks that players take for us too much to ask to satisfy the appetite we have for a really, really great hit?
As a lifelong NFL fan, a former youth player and one who still loves the game, that's what I'm asking. How about you?
(Writer's note: much of the information for this article appeared in the PBS TV Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis", which aired last week.)