Sports Nut

The Ethics of Football Fandom

Mike Shanahan


If pro football is about anything, it’s about instant gratification, for fans and players alike. The NFL has, better than most sports leagues, manufactured an enduring mythology on the back of a handful of definite-article moments: The Immaculate Reception, The Catch, The Fumble, The Kick. (OK, I made that last one up; as a placekicker, I believe that all kicks are enduring.) But the sheer insanity of 250-pound men running into each other with what physicist Timothy Gay calculates at 1,150 pounds of force—that’s the size of a small killer whale—dictates that fans focus on the here and now. No person of conscience could, on reflection, advocate what transpires on a football field. Players perform the same trick, only with greater consequences. Live in the moment. The future is too potentially painful to contemplate.

Alan Schwarz’s excellent reporting in the New York Times over the last two years has changed and will continue to change how the NFL addresses the obvious consequences of playing football for a living, but it won’t endanger the league’s top-dog status in the hierarchy of American sports. As Nate can tell us, football is a lot of fun to play at a high level, and it’s a lot of fun to watch, too, for its rare combination of balletic beauty and bone-crunching barbarism. I think the NFL needs to do much more than it does now to safeguard player health, during and after careers. But you sure as hell won’t see Ron Jaworski on Monday Night Football telestrating how a quarterback’s brain sloshes around in his skull after a sack or see Conrad Dobler in the Football Night in America studio discussing his 30 knee operations and his suicidal thoughts.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I love watching football; the athletes are remarkable, the choreography is spectacular, the violence is breathtaking. It’s a great sport. Fans who contemplate, let alone care about, what players feel on the morning after are a tiny minority. But the people who run the game should be expected to take a longer view. That’s why the big story of this offseason for me has been the NFL’s likely move to add two regular-season games to its current 16-game schedule. For owners, an 18-game season is about, as one said last month, capturing “incremental revenues” in a saturated sports economy. Some of those moneys would be shared with players, whose workforce would expand to account for the inevitably higher injury toll. This might be the fundamental call for the NFL circa 2010: Grab some extra cash or safeguard the players’ health? The league says it’s serious about understanding and reducing traumatic brain injuries, whose symptoms might not appear for decades. But more games played at full speed would only increase the number of predicate brain injuries, and countless others, too. As one player noted, two more games equals about 120 plays, or “120 more chances of something happening to me.” And not just something traumatic; the cumulative toll of thousands of blocks and tackles is what makes life after the NFL so painful and perilous.

The 18-game season is a bargaining chip in labor negotiations between NFL players and management. Which in its own twisted way makes sense. Playing pro football, or even just watching it, is about bargaining with your own brain over what’s intellectually sensible or morally right. In our entertainment culture, the choice is pretty easy: More football, please! I mean, the hardest hit I took in Broncos camp came when Nate shoved me in the chest after discovering I was wired for an NFL Films feature. Any of my larger teammates, a tight end like Nate included, could have had me eating through a tube for life. But fans don’t need to think about that, and if they do, it’s only to appreciate the sport’s intoxicating dangers.

Nate, last year the Broncos’ new head coach—part of a generation of young NFL tyrants—cut you without so much as a courtesy call. You hooked on with the fledgling United Football League but, before playing a down for the wonderfully named Las Vegas Locos, tore a hamstring and had surgery. This year, our former coach, Mike Shanahan, didn’t invite you to his new workplace in Washington, and a couple of months ago, you told your agent to stop calling teams in search of a training-camp job. I want to hear your take on the reality of NFL injuries and on an 18-game season. But I’m also curious about what it feels like to know that the monotony and the exhilaration of an NFL career are over. What is it about football that makes players simultaneously bitch about the game and fight desperately to make sure their reps never end?

I can still placekick farther than you,

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.