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In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football

In his new polemic Against Football, Steve Almond argues that the concussion epidemic merely highlights the sport’s inherent rotten core. “Our allegiance to football,” he argues, “legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” This sort of argument would still get you laughed out of any sports bar in Chicago, but it increasingly speaks for liberal ­bien-pensant opinion in America, since football is a manifestation of traditional masculinity that is increasingly out of step with liberal society. What we are seeing is a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another. The thing is, that latter group includes me.

“He Died Playing This Game.Is ­Football Worth It?,” asks the cover of the September 29 issue of Time magazine. The story relates a tragic experience of Chad Stover, a 17-year-old high-school football player in Tipton, Missouri, who died last year after a traumatic brain injury.

The death of a child is obviously heartbreaking. What lesson should we draw from it? Time strongly implies that high-school football is a uniquely dangerous activity. “Eight people died playing football in 2013, the highest toll since 2001, when there were nine, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina,” the magazine reports. “All were high-school players. During the 2013–14 academic year, no other high-school sport directly killed even one athlete.”

Those statements are all factually true. The implication is false. The same organization cited by Time found that, over a 30-year period, football is not a uniquely deadly sport for high-school athletes. It is not even the deadliest sport. High-school football has a fatality rate of 0.83 per 100,000 participants. This is actually lower than the rates of boys’ basketball (0.92), lacrosse (1.00), boys’ gymnastics (1.00), and water polo (1.3). There were three heartbreaking deaths of high-school football players last week, each of which attracted wide media coverage the way that tragic low-frequency events often do. But the unusual cluster of unfortunate deaths does not indicate a broader trend any more than the crash of an airliner signals an increasing danger associated with air travel.

The tobacco and fossil-fuel industries have ruined the phrase “The science is uncertain” just as surely as Richard Nixon ruined “I am not a crook.” But some politicians actually aren’t crooks, and the science of the effect of concussions is, indeed, uncertain. We do know some things. The effect of concussions on the brain is serious and frightening. A set of eyes is all you need to tell that the problem is dire at the professional level, and participants endure far more punishment, from larger and faster competition, and for much longer, than a high-school kid might. Cases of broken professional-football players are everywhere, and they are getting younger; just last week an autopsy revealed that the brain of Jovan Belcher — an NFL linebacker who fatally shot his girlfriend and then himself at age 25 — showed signs of a degenerative disease.

But a set of eyes is also all you need to see that nothing like the effect of NFL brain damage is replicated at the high-school or youth level. More than a million boys play high-school football every year. If the effects of those games remotely approached those afflicting former professionals, there would be millions of American men walking around with brain damage and a national epidemic of male suicide. The tragic cases of brain-damaged NFL veterans that have filled the news — the Junior Seaus, the Dave Duersons — would be replicated on a scale a thousand times as large. That something like this has escaped attention until now defies plausibility.

But risk is not something Americans assess coolly. We prefer to alternate between ignorant bliss and spasms of moralistic hysteria, and as the moral panic around football has spread, it has not only expanded beyond the NFL, a well-deserved target, but has at times left that target behind. Buzz Bissinger, author of the classic 1990 Texas high-school football chronicle Friday Night Lights,argues, “There is a sickness in football, but one that has to do with its overemphasis in academic settings, high-school kids as gods and college players in college only to play.” Bissinger has argued for banning college football, and Malcolm Gladwell has compared the sport to dogfighting.

The NFL is, for all its cultural centrality, a case apart: a professional organization with plutocratic owners and the freakish tail of the bell curve as labor, which ignored for years evidence of the dangers of concussions (even resisting funding long-term post-retirement health care). Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice case is just the latest instance of his complete moral blindness; he absolutely has to go. The NFL must continue to reform its approaches toward player safety and domestic violence, and it is even possible that the safety level cannot be brought within tolerable bounds given advances in weight and speed training and that professional football as we know it will have to die. But the matter more immediately at hand is a broader indictment of a ritual of socialization for American boys that sits uneasily alongside modern tolerant mores. Before we prosecute that American obsession, we ought to try at least to understand it.