Joanna Schroeder wonders what the recent deaths of NFL players say about the disposability of men in our culture.
My mom was very nervous when my brother Matt started playing football. She was a medical social worker in the emergency department of our local hospital and knew the injuries that came from football. Her strong background in psychology gave her a deep understanding of what head injuries, even minor ones, can do to a person. Didn’t help that she is a worry wart in her nature.
When Matt was playing Varsity football, a fellow player was paralyzed in a game. This young man lay on the field, unable to move. I don’t know what ever happened to that boy, who could have easily have been my brother or any number of you who are reading this, but I can only imagine the torment his parents experienced at watching their teenage son lie paralyzed on the ground in in a Municipal Stadium in Michigan.
After that my brother lost his zeal for the game, and despite being a pretty good nose guard, decided he enjoyed volleyball and track a lot more. My mother was relieved. We’ve always been more of a school nerd/distance runner kind of family anyway.
Until recently, my husband Ivan and I were excited at the prospect of our sons possibly playing football. Ivan had wanted to play when he was young, and his mother (a nurse) hadn’t let him. He always felt he’d missed out on something by not giving it a chance, and while neither of our sons possesses a killer instinct or incredible athletic prowess (yet), I like the game and especially like the energy and community spirit of high school football.
But right now, in the wake of the death of Junior Seau (which has not yet been linked to brain injuries) and reflecting upon the devastating story of Chicago Bears’ Dave Duerson, my husband and I think we will not allow our kids to play tackle football. In case you don’t know the story of Dave Duerson, CNN sums it up:
His was a suicide with a macabre twist. In February, former Chicago Bears safety David Duerson shot himself in the chest, but not before leaving behind a note requesting his brain be studied for evidence of a disease striking football players.
The plaintive note read, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”
Today, scientists announced that Duerson’s brain tissue showed “moderately advanced” evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a dementia-like brain disease afflicting athletes exposed to repeated brain trauma.
HLNTV.com writer and father Jonathan Anker wrote this, about how his perspective on football has changed, in regard to his son:
Former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters was 44 when he killed himself in 2006. Studies found his brain, according to Sports Illustrated, “resembled what one would expect in an 85-year-old man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.”
Knowing this, and knowing how prevalent and often undiagnosed concussions are at even the lower levels of football (to say nothing of all the other serious injuries accepted as ‘just a part of the game’ in football), why would any parent choose to enlist their child to join these ranks? To volunteer them to have their head smacked around inside a plastic cage? Children have been playing tackle football for generations, yes, but only recently have we become aware of what it’s doing to them.
Both our Sports editor Oliver Lee Bateman and our resident college student/sports-lover Kaleb (who called the deaths of NFL players slow gladiatorial deaths), have written movingly about Chronic Traumatic Encaphalopathy and professional sports. Just this week, Liam Day compared allowing a 5 year-old to play tackle football to the “Tanorexic” mother who put her 5 year-old daughter in a tanning bed.
As a mother of boys, I cannot help but ask…
Why are our young men so disposable?
As we learn more about CTE, can we continue to sacrifice our young men for our entertainment in the NFL, knowing that in their 40s they will most likely be cast aside, many with very little education and outside skills, and some with brain diseases like CTE? There is good evidence to suggest that the life expectancy of an NFL player hovers around 55-59, which is a full 20 years less than the average American man (though this varies based upon position and years in the league).
As a feminist, I can’t help but compare this to the modeling industry for women. We’ve been outraged about the unhealthy beauty and thinness ideals our society has put upon young women, and the physical torture many women endure in order to have modeling careers, which often start at ages 14 or 15. We hear stories of Carre Otis, Ruslana Korshunova—and so many more—stories about drug addiction, depression and suicide, anorexia, bulimia, exercise bulimia, laxative abuse, among other things, and we are outraged. Justly so.
And we respond. Not quickly enough, but we do. Just last week Vogue pledged to stop using underage models or models with eating disorders. We’re making progress, and we need to continue to make progress. This work is good, and will hopefully get better.
When evidence began surfacing about young women being more at risk of torn ACLs when training in soccer, we responded. When five and ten years ago, girls trained the same as boys, we understand now how hormonal changes make their bodies more likely to be injured by standard training methods. Most reputable soccer clubs have taken into account protecting girls’ ACLs in their training programs.
But where is the progress when it comes to allowing young men to enter into sports careers—for which they aren’t even paid until they go pro—that take such an enormous toll on their bodies? Where is the progress on developing helmet technology further, or somehow changing the game so that this isn’t a “lead with the head” sport?
I strongly believe there is a sense in our society of men being disposable. Yeah, our society has been marginalizing women for many generations (or centuries, or eons, depending upon whom you ask), but there are many ways in which we take for granted the disposability of men—think about the draft, think about the traditionally male careers of mining or working on oil rigs or fishing on deep sea fishing boats.
And now we have a deeper understanding of the damage likely being done to young men via the NFL, boxing and the NHL. And who is responsible for this? Certainly the forces behind these massive money-making machines… But what about us? What about when we buy a seat to watch the Bears or the Steelers or the Chargers play? What about when you buy that Manning or Tebow jersey? What about when you watch Monday Night Football?
Who’s responsibility is it to do better? Does one fan who says, “What the hell?!” even count?
And if your little boy wanted to play Pee-Wee, JV, Varsity or College-level football, would you let him?
Also read Joanna Schroeder’s update to this post: Will the NFL Be Able to Fix Football in Time?
Also read: Should There Be Laws Protecting Children From Playing Football? by Liam Day