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My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, January 27, 2014

January 27, 2014: Football Focalizes: Concussions and Hypocrisy

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On the gap between what we know and what we do.
In the decades prior to the Civil War, virtually every Northern (and American) household contained numerous products made from cotton and other materials produced by slave labor. We tend, in our narratives of slavery and the war, to oppose the North and South, but the realities were significantly different: not only because abolitionism was a minority opinion even in a place like Boston; but also and even more saliently because of those economic and material interconnections between the regions. Those interconnections don’t mean that the North was pro-slavery, exactly—but they certainly mean that the North cannot be viewed or understood as separate from the realities of the slave system. Indeed, if anything it could be argued that the North existed in a state of deep hypocrisy, benefitting from those realities of slavery without having to confront their dark, horrific, everyday details.
As I transition to this post’s main topic, I need to be very clear that I am not equating NFL players with slaves, nor the league with the plantation system (equations that have occasionally, and very controversially, been advanced by players or commentators). Instead, I’m making a parallel to the state of deep hypocrisy in which most NFL fans and viewers—communities to which I belong—exist in this early 21st century moment. The scientific and medical consensus about what the sport does to those who play it—or at least what it can do, and has done far too frequently—has become clearer and clearer, and the tragic results of those effects more and more overt and undeniable. Yet we still watch, in record and if anything increasing numbers—numbers that amplify the profits and successes of the teams, of the networks that broadcast their games, of the advertisers who flock to them, of the sport as a whole. All those entities are of course caught up in the web of hypocrisy as well—but so, again, are we fans and viewers, including this AmericanStudier for sure.
So what’s the answer, not for the league or those other entities but for fans and viewers? One of my favorite current writers and one of the most thoughtful observers of American culture and society, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written extensively about his own decision to stop watching and supporting the NFL, a decision that would seem the only way to meaningfully act upon what we now know. My knowledge, and in most ways my perspective, mirror Coates’ very closely; yet my actions have not, and I can’t say that I plan to stop watching football games any time soon. (Although I most definitely would discourage my sons from playing the sport if they showed an interest.) Which is to say, I don’t have an answer, not for myself and thus certainly not for anyone else or our culture more broadly. But at the very least, as I hope this blog consistently illustrates in relationship to all its different focal points, it’s pretty important that we think, openly and collectively, about the question.
Next issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. Cf. this recent NYT story:

  2. It's funny that you mention this. Today I met a new group of students, and many play football. They asked if I would let my children (presumably they meant sons) play football and were shocked when I said "sure, over my dead body."
    What is truly alarming about the NFL's stance on player health is their blatant disregard for medical statistics proving the destructive nature of repetitive head injury, but the over-all lack of concern of the players in general. I had watched a brilliant documentary on ESPN's 30 for 30 "Broke" in which I learned of the lack of financial preparation these men get. Granted, I guess it's inappropriate of me to assume that the NFL would care about their players, and even less what they would do with their incomes, but these young men, who give away their health and mental stability only to find that their money is practically gone by the time they retire just seems heartbreaking.
    And we should get rid of the college "farm system" and replace it with a minor league run by colleges in which the athletes can take classes if they want but are not obligated to be students. Don't get me wrong, I love that this is an opportunity for people who would normally not get a college/uni education, but to be honest... they aren't.

    okay, and one last thing, let's sack Carthage!

  3. Thanks for these thoughts! I agree that there are many parts of the system that need significant revision, at each level--and unfortunately, as long as we (and I'm included for sure) keep watching, those things are far less likely to change. Le sigh.

    1. keep up the good work, pepe l'pew! (because you said "le sigh")