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Are You Ready For Some Complicity? The Football Industrial Complex, And You04:48

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Let’s say you’re the parent of an 11-year-old boy who loves football and desperately wants to play in a league. You’ve seen articles and a few TV segments about the link between football and brain damage, but you’re hoping, on behalf of your son, that maybe these dangers are limited to college and pro players.

Okay, so here’s the thing: I’ve got some bad news.

Two new studies by researchers at Boston University suggests that young kids who play tackle football from 10- to 12-years-old — a crucial phase in the development of the brain — could be at greater risk for cognitive ailments down the line, including potential problems with memory, reasoning and planning. They’re also more likely to develop depression.

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The data is quite limited, but the notion that getting your brain bashed around as a kid could mess you up later on in life isn’t exactly far-fetched.

For you, the parent with a football-loving kid, these studies may be enough for you to put the kibosh on your son’s gridiron dreams. Because why run the risk, when there are lots of other ways your son can express his athletic talents, his desire to be part of a team, etc.?

But now here’s the part that is pretty far-fetched: if you happen to be a football fan yourself, this study isn’t going to stop you from watching the game. In fact, there’s virtually no study that would cause you to stop watching football, especially at this time of year, with the Patriot’s second pre-season game teed up and football fever running rampant.

You’re part of the reason these guys get paid so much money, and part of the reason they choose to risk their health every week. Without fans, in fact, there is no NFL, no NCAA football, no Football Industrial Complex.

Because, after all, the guys you watch on TV aren’t your kids. They’re somebody else’s kids. So the fact that nearly a third of them are going to suffer brain damage really isn’t your problem. Besides, those guys are grown men. They accept the risks of the game and they get paid huge amounts of money to do so, right?

So how is any of this your problem?

Here’s why: because being a fan of football — just sitting there on your couch, watching the Pats — makes you a sponsor of the game. You’re part of the reason these guys get paid so much money, and part of the reason they choose to risk their health every week. Without fans, in fact, there is no NFL, no NCAA football, no Football Industrial Complex.

The reason we can all afford to watch such a violent game as a form of entertainment, in other words, is because we incur none of the risk. And neither do our sons.

Instead, the risk gets shifted to another set of boys, ones who don’t have parents (or a parent or a guardian) who put the kibosh on their football dreams. These boys usually hail from communities where football is viewed much differently: as a golden ticket to fortune and glory.

New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, pictured here on Jan. 10, 2010, had a degenerative brain disease when he committed suicide in 2012. (Charles Krupa/ AP, File)
New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, pictured here on Jan. 10, 2010, had a degenerative brain disease when he committed suicide in 2012. (Charles Krupa/ AP, File)

The odds of a high school baller ever playing college football are tiny. Their shot at the pros is infinitesimal. But football is still mythologized as a form of salvation primarily because our society simply doesn’t provide decent schools and job training and economic opportunity for poor kids.

What our society provides is a lottery ticket that they earn by getting incredibly good at a really violent game.

Now I realize that I’m totally bumming you out here. You’re just trying to do the best for your boy. And trying to enjoy America’s most popular sport, a spectacle that is — no argument here — utterly thrilling.

The reason we can all afford to watch such a violent game as a form of entertainment, in other words, is because we incur none of the risk. And neither do our sons.

But the point I’m trying make here is that our allegiance to football is really only a reflection of broader cultural pathologies: the vast inequality of opportunity in America, the way we consume violence but eschew risk, our refusal to extend the compassion we show as parents to the world beyond our children.

The saddest part of all is that you’re in such good company. Our own president, a bi-racial man raised by a single mother, is one of many who have declared that he would never let his own son play football.

Obama is a huge football fan, of course (what U.S. politician would dare to be anything else?) which means—if you do the ethical math here—that he’s just fine with watching a game in which the offspring of other parents risk brain damage.

We don’t view this as sad or crazy.

No. We view it as downright American.

Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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