Boycott Football?

It’s a hard time in history to try to enjoy anything.

You’re not allowed to make fun of anyone, and you’re not allowed to watch anything written, acted, produced or directed by anyone who has sinned. A recent study found that two in three Americans have been Me-too’ed.

I can’t even make the above statement without adding a disclaimer that sexually harassing people is totally not OK.

I recently watched the latest Dave Chappelle special on Netflix. I loved it, mainly because he goes out of his way to make every single viewer feel uncomfortable at least a few times. In doing so, he exposes the hypocrisy of the entire present-day culture, where you’re allowed to be as mean as you want to people you philosophically disagree with but can’t say anything to anyone else. Chappelle just scorches everyone.

While I wholeheartedly approve of everyone taking themselves a lot less seriously, I am having a bit of a personal crisis over the great game of football.

The other day there was a great story in The Oklahoman about Rickey Dixon. Dixon was a national champion and All-American at OU before playing several seasons in the NFL. But because of football, he now has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He’s only 52 years old but his quality of life has steadily been declining for the six years since he was diagnosed and it seems he doesn’t have much time left.

It’s not an isolated case. In the past 15 years or so the long-term toll of football has become more and more evident. We’ve learned a lot about CTE and the brain damage caused by football, which leads to ALS, dementia, migraines, severe personality changes, and other side effects that can best be described as no bueno.

If every single football player had these symptoms, nobody with a conscious would watch football. But of course that’s not how it is. Many ex-players are fine. And football is undoubtedly safer than it’s ever been before, although it will take several more decades before the current generation of football players is old enough to examine what kind of difference better helmets, less hitting in practice, and stricter penalties are having.

Where do we draw the line? If we can all agree that we shouldn’t watch football if 100% of players are facing ALS or early-onset dementia, where is the tipping point? 50%? 25%? 10%? 5%? 1%? Does it make a difference if the players with these bad outcomes made life-changing money because of football? Should I boycott college football but not the NFL?

Prominent author Malcolm Gladwell is among those leading the charge to boycott playing or watching football. I have a couple of friends who have decided to join him.

Personally, I find it much harder to watch football games that don’t involve OU or the Philadelphia Eagles. No matter who is playing, I hate seeing guys laying on the ground writhing in pain. Nowadays it’s enough for me to turn the channel if it’s not one of my teams.

Nevertheless, I enjoy watching my teams play now as much as I ever did. I’m sure that’s partly because both of my teams have been really good lately and entertaining to watch. OU is winning Heismans and breaking offensive records like nobody’s business. The Eagles have won a Super Bowl and the “double doink” game in the past two seasons. But there’s also a nostalgia involved. I can’t imagine a day when football is completely canceled and Missy and I are walking on the OU campus on a Saturday and looking at six-foot weeds growing on Owen Field, nary a soul in sight. Football is such an integral part of the experience of attending that school.

Football is also an integral part of the American Sunday experience. My dad didn’t even have a favorite NFL team, but every Sunday after church he parked on the couch and we watched whatever game was on TV (unfortunately this always involved the evil Dallas Cowboys). Now that I’m the dad, I love killing a Sunday afternoon by parking in my big recliner and watching the Eagles or the Red Zone channel.

I’ve never been a fan of boxing or the UFC, simply because those sports seem barbaric to me. The whole goal is to hurt a fellow human being. It’s not that far removed from a time when people crammed into the Colosseum to watch lions rip apart slaves or prisoners. At least in football, the goal is move the football into the end zone. People getting hurt is merely a byproduct of that, not the actual goal. Still, I’ve seen a handful of boxing/UFC pay-per-views with my friends, purely for the social aspect of it. Is that wrong?

My dad was ahead of the curve when it came to football parenting. He wouldn’t let me play, specifically because of the long-term health risks. Even before I had two boys, I’ve said they won’t play football. There are lots of other sports out there that won’t scramble their brains, and of course the overwhelming majority of football players will never even get a college scholarship from the game, much less a lucrative NFL career. Is it OK for me to watch a game I won’t let my sons participate in because it’s unsafe?

Yes, I understand the whole “there’s risk in everything” argument. I accept the risk of my son tearing his ACL playing basketball because that can be fixed with little-to-zero long-term effects. I accept the risk of dying in car accident or being gunned down by a madman in public because you can’t live life being scared of everything that could possibly go wrong.

Football has always been in third place on my list of favorite sports. I would say the CTE revelations have widened the gap between football and my top two sports, but I still can’t get there as far as boycotting it completely.

To me, football carries too great a risk to allow my sons to play. And yet I still feel OK about watching other people play for my entertainment.

Is that hypocritical? I really don’t know. For better or worse, that’s just where I am with it right now.

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