By Tom Krattenmaker
There is mounting evidence and public awareness that playing football is bad for your brain. And now, to dramatize the statistics and grim anecdotes about ex-players succumbing to dementia and early deaths, we have Concussion — a major Hollywood movie starring Will Smith.
But is this having any effect on our country’s passion for the fascinating, violent sport that holds our attention more than any other, by far?
A new survey released in the run-up to the Super Bowl this Sunday suggests yes — and no. More Americans than ever before say they would not let their sons play football. Yet football remains our favorite spectator sport (it’s not even close) and there is nothing to indicate that’s about to change.
So at the same time that more and more of us would not let our own sons play, we apparently have no qualms about watching while other people’s sons risk brain damage to entertain us on the fields of the NFL.
The new Public Religion Research Institute survey shows that in just one year, there has been a 9 percentage point rise in the number of people who would not let their own kids don the helmet and shoulder pads. When PRRI polled Americans on this question last year, 22% said they’d keep Johnny off the gridiron; now the figure is 31%.
This bodes ill for football’s long-term viability as a venue for boys and young men to chase athletic glory and develop character, teamwork skills and the like — benefits of football long touted to justify its popularity despite the fact that you tend to get hurt playing it.
As a spectator experience, however, football stands taller than ever in American culture. The television ratings of last year’s Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots set a record — not just for a football game but for any TV program of any type. This is not only a Super Bowl phenomenon, the product of viewing parties, halftime spectacles and the best the advertising industry has to offer. As USA TODAY reported in November, the dozen most-watched TV “shows” last fall were regular-season NFL games.
When it comes to football, “show” is definitely the right word. Surprisingly, few of us have actually played the sport. Unlike the other popular athletic pastimes in America, football is played almost entirely by males, which halves the potential participation rates. Of those surveyed by PRRI, a skimpy 12% report having played football in their youth, in contrast with the 27% who report having played baseball or softball.
Juxtapose the sport’s massive spectator popularity with our growing knowledge of its dangers, and with the reality that most of the men playing in the NFL are black and/or from disadvantaged backgrounds, and you end up with a creepy feeling.
At least I do, which is why I stopped watching the NFL three years ago and why, despite relapsing during last year’s playoffs, I have resumed my football abstinence this season despite retaining full knowledge of the fact that it offers the best spectating of all our sports (notwithstanding the incessant commercials). Seriously, what other sport combines the athleticism, action, strategy, violence, unpredictability and drama in one package?
In view of the TV ratings, I appear to have little company in my quixotic exit from the crowd of people watching football. That’s not surprising. Football is embedded deep in our culture. Vast amounts of money, passion and loyalty are invested in the game. These will not vanish overnight.
But as the years pass, I suspect qualms like mine will start infiltrating more fans’ heads. More will begin to see the ways in which our football spectating resembles the “sport” perpetrated in The Hunger Games, albeit without the direct killing. More of us realize that what we take to be a “game” that young men “play” is actually not a game, but a path out of poverty pursued mainly by the desperate.
As the sports-and-politics columnist Dave Zirin aptly puts it, the day is likely coming when “no one will play this game if they don’t have to. … The pool of players will become smaller and less economically affluent in the years to come. We will then have to reckon with just what the hell it is we are watching every Sunday.”
Or, in the case of more and more of us, what we used to watch on Sunday.
A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His forthcoming book is titled Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.