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Guest column, Douglas Young: Why you should think twice before paying to watch football

Football season has arrived. But do fans who financially support the sport bear any responsibility for the fearsome health toll endured by far too many of the young men who play professional, college and even high school football?

The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed a 2017 study of 202 brains of men who had played high school, college or NFL football. It found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 87%, including 29% of those who just played the game in high school. Of the 111 NFL brains, 110 had CTE. Many studies show CTE causes or exacerbates problems with basic cognitive function, memory loss, dementia, depression and even suicide.

CTE is caused by being hit in the head too often, which is a fundamental fact of football. As sportscaster Bob Costas acknowledged, “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains — not everyone’s, but a substantial number.” That admission cost Mr. Costas his NBC Sports gig.

Aside from the nightmare of brain damage, I know far too many men who played high school football and who, when still young, in middle age, or even older, suffer intractable problems with back pain, knee trouble, etc., dating back to their long-faded days of gridiron glory.

Also troubling is that, as The Atlantic reports, it’s ever more boys from poor and black homes who play competitive football. More affluent, white fans increasingly shield their own boys from the dangerous sport while paying to enjoy other sons’ exploits on the field — and without having to face the ultimate health damage and suffering inflicted upon them and their loved ones.

There is a credible case for football. I grew up a big football fan who loved playing touch football, and many of my few happy times in high school were at football games. And, in a school full of racial tension, the one time we seemed united was at a Friday night football game.

There are millions of young men, especially those without a father, whose lives have been majorly enhanced by having a strong father figure/football coach who instilled priceless lessons in the value of hard work, teamwork, shared sacrifice, self-discipline and so many other virtues.

May God bless every conscientious coach who has tried his best to protect his players from harm, and there has apparently been a real effort in many places to reduce football injuries. But the virtues of football can still be taught in so many other sports and competitions without remotely as much risk of serious, life-altering brain damage.

Indeed, no matter how many precautions are taken, how natural and healthy is it for young men and, even worse, growing boys to hit their heads so hard again and again and again? Like boxing, organized football boils down to a game of brutal combat.

While more high schoolers today may be warned about the long-term risks of the sport, how many 14- to 17-year-old boys think seriously of what the game may do to their health in middle age — or even next year? Are they remotely mature enough to make such an important decision with such potentially profound, life-altering and lasting results?

Furthermore, how many boys are pressured by parents, peers, coaches and the popular culture to make short-term decisions with all too often devastatingly painful, long-term consequences? How many authority figures and fans coax vulnerable youths to risk serious injury for others’ profit and entertainment?

As a boy in the 1970s, I loved seeing Muhammad Ali box Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Floyd Paterson, Jerry Quarry and Duane Bobick. But the terrible brain damage every one of these gentlemen suffered in the ring now prevents me from watching a boxing match. Recall Ali after he left the ring. The enormous evidence of the tragic toll taken on the bodies, and especially brains, of football players similarly precludes me from supporting organized football.   

As a libertarian, I oppose outlawing football — or boxing or “ultimate fighting.” God gives us free will, and being the freest nation is a huge reason why we’re the best. However, every right should be exercised wisely, for we must live with the outcomes of our actions — all of them.

All scientific evidence of football’s health risks should be scrutinized by athletes, parents, coaches, school administrators, reporters, businessmen and fans so we can each make an informed decision whether to subsidize an inherently violent and all too often merciless sport.

Everyone must account for his actions, and whatever we back with our money and time makes us morally responsible for the results. So may we educate ourselves on football’s dangers and recall the all too many players whose health is irreparably harmed by the very same hits on the field that fans cheer.

Douglas Young is a political science professor at the University of North Georgia.