African-American males are only six percent of the United States population, but comprise nearly 70 percent of the players in the National Football League. When we focus on the sport's high collision positions, the number of African Americans playing by percentage rises substantially. Nearly 30 percent of white NFL players are kickers, punters, or quarterbacks, all positions that have a much lower chance of being involved in concussion-causing collisions. With nearly 1,200 of the NFL's 1,700 players being black, football's concussion problem is also clearly a racial problem.
For decades, young black men have laid themselves on the line for a game which has given most of them very little back in exchange. They have risked their bodies and minds to make millions for universities, and were compensated only with scholarships and the slim chance of an NFL contract. So how and why have families been tricked into sending so many young boys off to play this dangerous game? Black lives must matter on the field, as well as on the streets.
On television screens, the collision of bodies in a football game appear to be almost beautiful. On the field, it's necessarily un-beautiful—the NFL's violence is brutal and raw. It has consequences, too: while we may view players as superhuman, the pain they feel is real, as are the costs of all those hits. NFL players risk short-term injury and long-term brain damage every time they suit up for a practice or game. We know this by now. Americans will walk into movie theaters this weekend to hear it again, this time from Will Smith, as he portrays Dr. Bennett Omalu, the man who first diagnosed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), in the new film Concussion.
Concussions are a workplace hazard that should cause people to steer clear of playing the sport altogether, the same way people avoid professions likely to expose us to asbestos. But masterful public relations by the NFL and NCAA (and a sentimental, willful ignorance on the part of fans) has kept us forgetting football's true dangers—and the possibility of fame and riches are enough to encourage more and more kids to play a game in which the risks so clearly outweigh the rewards. While the concussion issue reaches far beyond the African-American community, we can no longer deny its heightened impact on Black America. Fifty years after Washington became the last NFL team to integrate, the rags-to-riches promise of the sport has become especially enticing for little black boys.
The awareness that football can cause brain injury at all levels of play has risen, particularly among educated parents. Over the past several years, the first level of football amateurism, Pop Warner, has seen decreases in participation. The youth organization has experienced some of their largest declines since they have kept statistics. But some parents keep signing their kids up.
"I know it's a big risk involved," said Bruce Williams, whose 12-year-old son plays Pop Warner in Los Angeles, and recently suffered a concussion. "Anyway, I would prefer he play baseball."
Writing for The Nation, Mychal Smith described the lopsided deal black boys make with football as they travel the treacherous path from Pop Warner to the pros.
As much as players, particularly the black ones, are chastised in the media for their lavish lifestyles, an NFL contract is the economic hope of many poor black youths and their families. There may only be little more than 1,700 African-American men with deals, but that is still 1,700 six-, seven- and eight-figure deals that families and friends of the players are relying on for their economic security. For all the expensive cars and frivolous clubbing, these guys are also propping up immediate and extended family on their salaries. As the checks get bigger, it's not surprising the number of kids playing at earlier and earlier ages increases. For too many, this is their answer to debilitating poverty.
Andre Waters was diagnosed with CTE after his suicide in 2006. — Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The fallout from these concussion findings may be that we see football becoming a sport largely played by those that either don't fully grasp the damage the sport will do to their bodies for the rest of their lives or, worse yet, are desperate enough to take that risk despite the data. "Information is reaching a lot of people, but it is reaching those who have higher incomes," Dr. Keith Strudler, Director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication told the site Diverse. It's easy to envision football becoming even more entrenched as a gladiatorial sport played by poor black men for the pleasure of people who would never want to risk the results of being tackled at full speed themselves.
Several years ago, writer Cord Jefferson wrote a piece called "Football as Black Servitude" at The Awl. His predictions have only become truer as recent findings about CTE have come to light
Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men... According to a study from last year, NFL players develop dementia and Alzheimer's at a rate more than five times that of average Americans...In other words, many professional football players–almost 70 percent of whom are black–are literally killing their brains...
This is truly a moment of reckoning for America's television viewers, as we come to realize to continue to support the sport as is may be morally unconscionable. Football is dangerous. It's that simple. Even Bob Costas, the lead anchor for the NFL's Sunday Night broadcast on NBC, thinks so:
"Common sense and evidence lead me to the conclusion that football has an existential problem ... with the very nature of the game," Costas said. "[During every NFL scandal] people in the media and some football people say, 'We hope to get our focus back on the field.' But it's when you get to the field that you find football's single most significant and ongoing problem... You can't play football at the [highest] level ... without a substantial portion of players suffering some sort of brain trauma."
In a country with a historical propensity to disregard and degrade the value of black men, football broadcasts the damaging of their bodies and minds on national television every weekend—for all of our enjoyment. For years, we've heard about the discipline that football instills, the values. But given what the game does, and how callous those getting rich from all that damage are about it, it's fair to ask: what are football's values, really? And even if they were something we could live with, or even desire, is instilling all those hoary virtues a fair trade off for the possibility—probability, even—of long term and short term brain damage?
America must decide whether it can support a game with such clearly devastating effects. If we do in fact care, we'll need to turn off the television on NFL Sundays or demand that the sport change itself. That would mean more honest research into brain trauma. That would mean more education and stricter protocols. It could even mean changing the way the game is played. It may ultimately mean the end of football as we know it.
As a nation we must finally start to consider football's lasting impact beyond the field. Black lives have to matter at every level of society, including on the gridiron.