The most popular sport in America causes head trauma. Some of its most famous players have been convicted of domestic abuse, and the game's most glamorous star has been accused of defying the rules with deflated balls.
Sounds like quite a marketing plan, doesn't it?
But NFL football remains the most popular, lucrative sport in America, even as fans question the game. How do you enjoy a playoff game if you think a team might be doctoring the footballs? Or that half a dozen players on the field have been accused of violent crimes? Or that a dozen might be suffering brain damage at the very moment you are cheering?
Gregg Easterbrook ponders those questions in his new book, The Game's Not Over. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that football is a great game, but it's also the athletic expression of the United States. "It's too big, it's too loud, it's too expensive, and we can't figure out what the proper use of force is."
On comedian George Carlin's comparison of the languages of football and war
That famous monologue was 1975, just as the Vietnam War was ending, and the country was deeply conflicted about the use of the military there, was it right or wrong — I think the country was looking for something that was similar to military expression, and yet didn't have these terrible moral quandaries of life and death. And what did we find? We found football.
We wrongly think about this issue in terms of the NFL. No one wants an NFL player to suffer brain damage — but there's only 2000 of them; they're grown men who know the risks they're taking, and they're well paid for the risks that they take. Almost all concussions in football happen to children at the youth and high school level. There's somewhere around 200 concussions a year in the NFL — there's 200,000 concussions in youth and high school football, and that's where the head trauma crisis is.
On whether it's hard to watch now, knowing the harm that comes to players
I watch way too much football, I go to the Super Bowl every year, and I do so without the slightest compunction. I don't feel any ethical reason why I shouldn't watch and enjoy — people get hurt riding bicycles, there are far more deaths bicycle riding than there are in football, and we all watch the Tour de France, nobody think there's anything wrong with that. I don't think there's any reason why an adult can't make an informed choice to engage a relatively small risk per year in return for a lot of money. I think the equation is very very different for high school boys and youth players.
On announcer Terry Bradshaw's statement that no team should hire a man convicted of domestic violence
I would certainly agree with what Bradshaw said, yes. Anyone who's been convicted of a crime of violence not only shouldn't play in a football game, shouldn't be in an office environment or any other kind of workplace. I go over, in The Game's Not Over, the statistics showing the likelihood that an NFL player will be arrested, versus adult males of the same age. And it turns out that an adult male of the same age is three times more likely to be arrested than an NFL football player. So even if you assume that police are letting NFL players get away with things because they're stars — and I think you probably should assume that — the NFL, because of its outsized nature, becomes the mirror in which we see the reflection of a social problem that's very large. And it certainly doesn't excuse any NFL player who's guilty of domestic violence, it just tells us that there's a larger issue in the country as a whole.
On possible reforms, like getting rid of kickoffs and disclosing painkiller use
Head injuries are far more likely on kickoffs than any other play, because both sets of players are running directly towards each other at full speed ... If you talk to high school coaches about this, and I think high school coaches would be very big on eliminating kickoffs, it's the second-string guys who play special teams, they want to impress the coach by being reckless. So some second-string 17-year-old, who's never going to play in college anyway, recklessly injures himself on the kickoff. And the solution is get rid of kickoffs.
The scandal that hasn't happened yet, and will, is painkiller abuse. This is a game that generates a huge amount of pain, and yet the players play recklessly and seemingly fearlessly, as if they didn't care what damage they did to their bodies. That's because they're drugged. But if each team had to disclosed the volume of prescription painkillers consumed, I think the country would be scandalized.