Football, Concussions, and the President

President Obama’s interview with Franklin Foer and Chris Hughes in The New Republic has attracted a lot of attention for comments the President made about working with Republicans and proposed gun control legislation, but the most interesting segment of the interview for me was a one-off question on what Obama thinks of emerging consensus that professional football poses a permanent risk of brain damage for its athletes:

FF: Sticking with the culture of violence, but on a much less dramatic scale: I’m wondering if you, as a fan, take less pleasure in watching football, knowing the impact that the game takes on its players.

[Obama:] I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.

I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.

This is something of a stunning answer for how well it mirrors my own evolving feelings about football.  I played football for over eight years at the youth and high school level, and made it through a grueling pre-season of collegiate practices before dislocating my knee for a second time and calling it quits.  I knew several players who struggled with concussions, and as was the case at the time, coaches encouraged players to snap out of it or take a day off before getting back out there.  Concussions were seen as a temporary injury, like getting the wind knocked out of you.  Today, medical science tells us that this was a very wrong assumption.

I love the sport of football, but as a former participant and current fan, I am pretty alarmed by the NFL’s lack of responsibility over this issue.  Clearly, players are suffering – if not while in the direct spotlight of their career on the field, then certainly in its aftermath.  This is a multi-million dollar industry that seems to understand the risk into which it puts its employees, and neglects to do anything about it.  This makes it very hard to be as passionate a fan of football as I once was.  I find myself, like the President, hoping that the football played in the future is a little less exciting and a little more safe.  It will make it easier to grapple with the moral culpability of cheering violence on the field, and will also make the decision about allowing a future child to play the sport a little less terrifying.