I have been struggling with something since watching, of all things, a “Game of Thrones” episode that has made me decide I can no longer watch football games.
There’s an episode of “Game of Thrones” that takes place in the fighting pits, where men fight each other to the death for money. And in the stands, people cheer with every death while our heroes watch, squirming uncomfortably. I couldn’t help feeling disgusted by the (fictional) crowd’s obvious enjoyment.
But the really troubling thing is, I’m doing the exact same thing when I cheer during a football game.
According to a recent study, 99 percent of former football players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is a degenerative brain condition that at first just causes dizziness and headaches but as it progresses leads to social instability, erratic behavior, dementia and suicide.
Football players are killing each other for our entertainment. Not immediately, but 20 or 30 years down the road. Just look at Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and, most likely, Aaron Hernandez. People whose behavior was radically altered by playing football. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These people lived through hell after their football careers were over, and some of them did awful things.
I can hear the counterarguments, because I’ve been making them myself because I love watching football so much. These people made a conscious decision to play football. They knowingly sacrificed their bodies for the potential for fame and money. No one forced them to. They have free will and should be allowed to make this choice themselves.
The thing is, though: The amount of money we spend to watch football creates this choice. We gladly pay $200 to go into a stadium and watch players smash into each other. If we weren’t willing to do that — if we refused to watch slow death being inflicted — then young men wouldn’t be given the opportunity to destroy their bodies for millions of dollars on national television.
Think of it this way. Say a new sport, “Brickhead,” were invented. People go into parking lots, put buckets over their heads and throw bricks at each other’s heads. Sure, everyone who plays this game eventually gets hit in the face with a brick, but it’s their free choice to play the game, and for winning they get $10 a brick. Do you think anyone coming out of high school would choose to try to make a career out of Brickhead?
But instead, let’s say people start gathering in those parking lots, and the local car dealership sponsors Brickhead. Suddenly the demand for good Brickhead players goes up, and now you get $1,000 per brick. More young people might be interested.
Then a national television station starts broadcasting Brickhead, and now it’s $100,000 per brick. Yes, some players end up with broken teeth, smashed faces and subdural hematomas, but it was their choice to play, wasn’t it? Now all sorts of high school kids want to be Brickhead players because they can get rich that way.
If we had refused to watch Brickhead back when it was $10 a brick, it would never have become something young people chose to do, ever. That’s where our moral responsibility lies, in refusing to watch something that leads to suffering and death.
Anyone who knows me knows how avid a football fan I am, and how much I enjoy watching my beloved team play. I mean, I really, really love watching football. But until this problem with brain injuries is addressed, I cannot in good conscience continue to support it in any way.
The first step I took was to cancel my cable football package. It was a wrench to do, because I love watching all the games all Sunday. I’m also going to stop generating ad revenue by refusing to watch or read about football games on any kind of media.
We’ll see how long this lasts. Hopefully I have the courage of my convictions. But I hate the thought of how much I cheered while men slowly killed themselves in front of me. I can’t do it any longer.
Richard Lawson lives in Plymouth.