Unpopular Opinion: American Football Is Barbaric

Unpopular Opinion: American Football Is Barbaric

The Roman poet Juvenal came up with the phrase “bread and circuses” a long time ago, but it’s still chillingly relevant. Sometimes it’s literally translated as “bread and games” — and it refers to the way a ruling class can appease a population by 1) satisfying their basest physical requirements and 2) providing diverting but otherwise empty spectacle in the form of gladiatorial games and other events.

With capitalism and fascism now joining forces in America, the “bread” is about to become scarcer than ever for an ever larger number of people. But what about the “games”?

Did you know that even though the NFL is the most profitable sports organization in the world, American taxpayers provide 70 percent of the funds for building and maintaining stadiums?

We’ve chipped away at the problem a little bit by shaming the NFL into surrendering its ill-gotten tax-exempt status. But even with their thievery from public coffers supposedly curbed a bit, there are still several extremely uncomfortable truths about American Football that the NFL and its associated organizations and advertisers definitely don’t want you to know about.

A better understanding of the physical toll football takes on its players might chill you. At the very least, it might make some progress toward convincing you: American Football should be abolished and rendered an unpleasant memory — just like Rome’s gladiators.

Football Takes a Lifelong Toll on Players’ Health

It was by no means the first public dispatch to do so, but a recent article in Journal of the American Medical Association shed some additional light on the devastating impact that playing American Football can have on the long-term physical and mental well-being of players. The paper described research conducted at the School of Medicine at Boston University by Dr. Ann McKee. She has been actively drawing attention to this issue since 2009.

Dr. McKee’s team studied the brains of 111 former players for the NFL. What they found were 110 brains with all of the telltale signs of CTE, or “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

Does it need to be said? That’s a horrific ratio. The condition known as CTE does its work on the same parts of the brain that fall victim to Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, CTE is so bad that those suffering from it, according to doctors, often become shadows of their former selves. Sufferers of CTE are known to be prone to anger, impulsiveness, near-constant fear and anxiety, and/or an intermittent sense of “living in a fog.”

There’s more.

Playing American Football has a very, very, compelling (scientifically speaking) and eminently tragic correlation with players committing suicide. Football is linked with concussions and other brain injuries, and concussions and other brain injuries are linked with high rates of suicide. This is true of high school football players, college football players, and football players in the NFL. There are very few things as important to human health as preventing head injuries, and yet we continue to act as though we have an option.

There are helmets available that purport to protect against the types of head injuries that can result in long-term problems, personality changes and even suicide — but they’re outrageously expensive. As though we expected anything else. They might be accessible to an organization with coffers the size of the NFL’s, but what about college players? What about high school players?

This country is practically inundated with football — and the “team spirit” brainwashing seems to begin, for American children, just moments after birth in many households. We’re a Patriots family. Are you, though? Rather, do you really want to be?

Nobody sends children into mines anymore to breathe coal dust for years at a time. Most civilized countries don’t employ slave labor or child labor anymore, although we’re fine with prison labor and choose to overlook sweatshop labor for the most part.

The point is, we’ve been learning to stop doing things that bring social harm. Sometimes we take huge leaps backwards, like we’re doing right now with climate change, but mostly we’ve been figuring things out. Now that we’ve got football “figured out,” it’s time to kill this beast. The price is just too high for everybody involved.

We Can Live Without Millionaires Playing Catch

This is all ghoulish, isn’t it? Now, compound this ugliness with the fact that the NFL generates enough revenue in an average year to fly humanity to Pluto 10 times over. They make more money in one year than Steven Spielberg grossed at the box office from every single one of his movies combined.

The NFL is awfully profitable. Sure, they create jobs and excitement and a sense of … team pride, one supposes. Insofar as it makes sense to take “pride” in a “team” from a “city” in which none of the players actually come from that city — or has any real ties to it that can’t be measured in dollars.

But look how they’re making those profits, and paying those paltry taxes, and creating those jobs, and creating that “team pride,” which must surely be one of the few forms of pride lower than nationalism. Team spirit butts shoulders with “brand loyalty.”

The NFL does these things by destroying human minds and human potential. It’s like cigarettes and cancers and burning coal and climate change. Playing football causes brain damage and raises players’ likelihood of committing suicide. Yet, somehow, we still haven’t connected all those dots to our satisfaction yet.

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Kate Harveston is originally from Williamsport, PA and holds a bachelor's degree in English. She enjoys writing about health and social justice issues. When she isn't writing, she can usually be found curled up reading dystopian fiction or hiking and searching for inspiration. If you like her writing, follow her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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32 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinion: American Football Is Barbaric

  1. Sometimes I wonder if football isn’t a sublimation of some sort.

    If it is, I think we might find out that having that sort of thing is important.

    If it’s not… sure. We should totally get rid of it. (Don’t touch pro wrestling, though.)


  2. I don’t disagree with any of this. I also feel no small amount of guilt in that I love watching MMA fights. It’s one of those things where i have to admit my hypocrisy. If they ended both sports, I would get over it, but in the meantime I keep tuning into both.

    * Ironically, long before we knew about CTE, football was the one sport we were not allowed to play.


    • I’ve always felt MMA, UFC in particular, does a pretty good job overall protecting their fighters and the refs stopping fights quickly when in doubt. Once a fights stopped, it’s stopped, and the governing bodies usually have rules about fighting again after a knock out of certain amount of time.


      • I agree that they try very hard to limit damage, but there are some guys that have been knocked out many, many times and the UFC keeps letting them fight. Alistair Overeem, Gray Maynard…these are two guys that come to mind recently. Ben Saunders got KO’d last night and I know I have seen him knocked out at least 4 times. And then there is just cumulative damage. Frankie Edgar has taken a lot of abuse in fights. Tony Ferguson likes to trade punches with people and push a hard pace until they wear out. That stuff adds up. I fear that in the next 5 years or so we will see the older generation of fighters (Chuck Liddell, etc) starting to have the problems we have seen in the NFL. Jason Hairston, founder of KUIU clothing company, recently killed himself and was diagnosed with CTE afterwards. He only played one year in the NFL but had been playing football since his youth.


  3. I read an article a while ago about how the rise of organized sport during the Victorian Era coincided with the decline in street riots and brawls. I’m not sure how legitimate the claim was, but it was an interesting article. I wish I could find it.


  4. I’m a bit angry that in the American Empire we get no bread and have to pay for our circuses. Say what you will about the Roman Emperors, they were at least generous in their subsidies and handouts. Our decadents just want to keep it alll for themselves.


  5. I used to love football. I played football in school. I wasn’t any good, or very big, we just had a small school, and everyone that showed up was on the team. I pulled a ligament in my back in 9th grade and broke my hand in 11th grade. I didn’t play as a senior, everyone was by then much bigger than me.

    I had season tickets to see the UW Huskies play, and attended Rose Bowl games they played in. (That should date me!).

    It just faded away. Part of it was marrying someone who preferred baseball. But part of it was just tiring of the “great hit!” mentality.

    It’s obvious that I’m out of step with a lot of people. I’m with Jaybird in wondering about sublimation, and whether our obsession with football might be pro-social. But then again, lots of other countries don’t have football (as we know it), and seem to keep it together.


  6. Boo hoo hoo go watch guys with perfectly quaffed hair flop for three hours to a nil to nil outcome. How thrilling! You can even pretend there’s no safety risk in even that sport, just because it isn’t quite as apparent.

    Anyway I will be watching the Redskins, drinking a beer, and being entertained by people taking some gladiatorial risks for the big bucks. Unapologetically, obviously.


  7. I agree but I also have no love for watching sports. The gene passed me by completely. The idea of spending an afternoon watching sports baffles me.

    The NFL will always win though because lots of people really like sports. LGM has no love for the NFL’s management or the NCAA. They still have weekly NFL open threads because the readers are addicted.


  8. Your tastes may win out in terms of what circuses are offered, but if that’s the topic you mean to address, then it leaves the bigger question in which you framed it – the (fascist?) capitalist ruling class defusing dissent by providing food and divertment – unaddressed. They’re not without their wiles – they’ll reliably offer circuses that match prevailing tastes as those tastes change. That’s what they’re good at.

    Now, if your issue is merely that the circuses we’re offered are barabaric (because our tastes are), in that case you do a good job addressing that.


    • …Do folks differ with this: do you think that if football could be replaced with a more humane spectacle, then the bread-and-circuses form of social control that this piece posits could be significantly disrupted?


      • Something like Pro Wrestling would allow for moral lessons to be imparted.

        If the Broncos go up against the Patriots, everybody knows that the Broncos are the good guys and the Patriots are evil. But the Patriots might win even though it’s a very important game.

        What kind of lesson does *THAT* teach?

        Pro wrestling can have a good guy and a bad guy go head to head and the good guy can win and then tell the kids at home that they need to be good guys too. Parents can tell their kids “eat your vegetables! Like that pro wrestler! That’s how he beat the bad guy!”

        Everybody’s happy.


            • I was going to say I stopped watching WWE way back when everyone had to job for Triple H and McMahon. It got really, really, really, boring. And the formula was blatantly obvious: teaser matches on cable and only “good” matches on overpriced pay per views. No thank you. (of course, this model works for lots of folks and that’s cool and the ppv’s are cheaper than many pro-sports tickets, and you can buy cheap beer to have at home, so wrestling definitely has that going for it.)


              • The WWE network has changed things entirely.

                205 Live is the wrestling you remember from the 80’s.
                Every single PPV. Watch the 2001 Royal Rumble again!

                And it’s only $9.99 a month. (Get you a gift card from Wally World and you won’t have to give them your credit card or anything.)

                (Edit: this is not to say that 205 Live is as bad as wrestling was in the 80’s. It’s leaps and bounds better! But it’s the wrestling you *REMEMBER*.)


                • I thought NXT was the wrestling I remember. Then again, I have not watched much 205 Live.

                  Last week’s Crown Jewel was also wrestling I remember. Undertaker, Kane, HHH, Shawn Michaels. A McMahon screwing over wrestlers to win a tournament (that he was not a part of) to be declared the Best in the World.


                  • I think that 205 Live is amazing. Even better than NXT. (I wish they wouldn’t do a dive every dang match, though.)

                    As for the Crown Jewel… sigh. The King asks for a PPV, the King gets a PPV. The King asks for matches that he’s always wanted to see live, the King gets the matches that he’s always wanted to see live.

                    I only wish that these PPVs weren’t canon.


              • I dropped pro wrestling for the same reason that Kate wrote this article. For me, it was the tearful memorial to Eddie Guerrero. A bunch of steroid-bloated freaks saying good-bye to a guy whose heart exploded from all the chemicals and years of abuse. It was maybe a year later that Chris Benoit went insane and killed his wife, his son, and himself.

                As I get older, it’s harder for me to watch football. When I was young, I believed that we recover from injuries. Now my body tells me that every injury goes away for a couple of decades then comes back as joint damage.


                • I have at times debated whether or not to keep watching pro wrestling for the same reasons. Injuries still happen. I cannot imagine a way to eliminate the injury risk while keeping it entertaining. However, they have done a lot to address concussion issues, and the wrestlers are less likely to wrestle with major injuries than they used to be. Partying is not a prevalent among the wrestlers than they used to be. Now they are more likely to be playing Madden than getting drunk or high in their downtime.

                  There have still be some high profile injuries, broken necks most notably, but I also think that wrestlers know the risks. On top of that, most wrestlers do it because they love wrestling. In that light, I do not feel guilty about watching.


                  • I’d like to intellectualize my decision to stop watching wrestling, but it was more a gut thing. I couldn’t enjoy it anymore. I started to flinch at, like, every move. OK, not the choke holds, because those are clearly just two guys taking a break, but anything involving the spine and brain.


  9. Fifty years ago, Formula 1 motor racing (and many other auto racing variants – Indy, NASCAR, CanAm, Le Mans) were incredibly dangerous. There were many deaths every season.

    Today auto racing deaths are vanishingly rare. There are still crashes, but most drivers walk away from accidents which would have meant certain death a few years ago.

    The change occurred because the drivers insisted on rules and technology that would save lives.

    There’s a lesson here, but I doubt it will be heard.


  10. It would probably be pretty easy to replicate football with CGI at this point. It might be like watching CGI stuntwork though in that there’s no real thrill to it because nobody’s risking breaking their neck.


  11. How can football be barbaric if coaches, players, and team owners are calling for time-outs every ten minutes so they can figure out their next move?

    If football moved faster, maintaining brutality, and avoided politics it’d be hella more popular.

    If I wanted a game of chess, I’ll play a game of chess. If I want men crushing each other without regard for anyone’s safety, for something stupid (like a ball) then I reckon I’m stuck with videogames because the NFL and its ilk are sorely lacking nowadays.


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