It is quoted that the Ancient Romans viewed the lives of gladiators only as valuable as the entertainment they could provide. They were slaves and nothing more. Hundreds of thousands of spectators gathered in a stadium all to watch individuals fight for victory. Victory or death. Fans associated themselves with their chosen side, finding a sense of belonging. The battle equated to an entertainment spectacle.
If asked to describe the Super Bowl, I’m convinced the description would align closely with the previous one. Without the incorporation of a death, of course. Rather than occurring directly within the game, death occurs in a different aspect.
In July 2017, Dr. Ann McKee examined one hundred eleven NFL players’ brains. One hundred ten were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. This is a disease caused by repeated blows to the head. It leads to the decrease of mental well-being including memory loss, confusion, depression, altered brain function, changes in drive (sexual, appetite, etc.) and dementia.
The most recent confirmed case of CTE was found in Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is a former NFL tight end, convicted felon, and suicide case at the age of 27. He is only one of many diagnosed with CTE who have also committed suicide. He is also only one of many that has experienced increased emotional liability, including high levels of violence. Alcohol and drug use are also continually increasing as many players attempt to self-cope with these shifts in their mental status.
The NFL has now publicly acknowledged a link between football and CTE. Regardless, since that time only recommendations for changes have been made. Minor rules have been changed to “protect players” but overall the sport has remained the same. Violence is the underlying desire of sports fans. If the violent aspects of football were changed, then the entertainment aspects would decrease and so would the revenue.
This isn’t just a problem arising in the NFL. It’s prevalent among college and high school football players. More players, on all levels, are being diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries. Why is nothing being done to prolong the quality of life for these athletes?
Some say it’s the athlete’s choice, to play or not, despite the awareness of the risks. But is it really a choice? Choices require options. For many players, due to their upbringing and socio-economic factors, they believe there are no other options besides football.
Football has been in-bred in them. It is their only ticket to college, their only way out of poverty, or their only avenue to success. Education, career development, and involvement in other activities have always taken the back seat. With emphasis from American culture and societal pressure, football has become all they know.
Many players who do leave the game because of brain trauma struggle to adjust in other places of employment. Not only is there lack of diagnosis and screening but there is also a lack of resources and support for players that have been affected.
There is also the factor that many who are diagnosed don’t share their diagnosis. They continue to play anyway. Athletes have been programed to play through pain at all cost. Showing pain is often associated with weakness. This transcends to emotional pain as well.
To quit football means to quit who they believe they are and what they believe is the only thing in the world they are good at. To quit means to potentially lose the only place of validation they’ve ever known. To quit means a loss of self. These players have been taught that they are football. “You were born for it” is a line they’ve heard their whole lives. In other words, a “slave” to the game.
Some say we have modernized since the time of gladiators. It is believed that we now value the lives of humans. But do we really value the lives of these athletes? They are seen as dollar signs and entertainment more than talented individuals who have more than football to offer.
Let’s bring humanity back to football and back to all sports. It doesn’t start in the NFL; it starts in little league. It starts in instilling identity, beyond football, from the very first practice.
Parents and coaches should be emphasizing character just as much as competition; through presenting a healthy understanding of wins and loses and instilling principles that separate results, playing time and performance from whom young athletes are as individuals. Emphasizing the virtuous principles of professional sports role models, rather than solely focusing on their achievement and talent can further edify this. Being involved in other activities, outside of sports, that instill further confidence and versatility, can also be used to encourage players.