With over a million high school kids playing football every year, concussions are a public health issue. So why not use tax dollars to research it?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
In the wake of the congressional report finding the NFL inappropriately tried to influence a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research project on the long-term effects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries, Jenny Vrentas at the MMQB wrote perhaps the most revealing and truthful sentence regarding the league's ongoing involvement in what is ultimately a public health issue:
"The NFL's business interests align with demonstrating a commitment to health and safety so future generations of parents are comfortable letting their kids play football."
Demonstrating a commitment. The NFL would very much like to convince the American public that it really is interested in learning more about brain trauma, including the subconcussive blows researchers increasingly believe to be the root cause of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Of course, that's not the same thing as actually researching, learning, and implementing changes to make athletes at all levels safer, regardless of what that might mean for football's bottom line.
Looking concerned aligns with the NFL's business interests, which require a player and fan feeder system rooted in parents feeling comfortable with letting their kids play football, but actual medical science, at least potentially, does not. Because what if research determines that the sport is unacceptably dangerous for children?
No surprise, then, that plenty of reports, including the aforementioned congressional bombshell, indicate that the league has no interest in finding out the truth. Instead, like most industries whose profitable products can be hazardous to one's health, the NFL appears most interested in controlling the narrative, casting doubt, and convincing the American people that everything is just fine, and getting better all the time.
And perhaps that wouldn't be a big deal, except for this: somewhere in the area of one million kids a year play high school football. Soccer, hockey, and cheerleading also carry significant head trauma risks. Learning how brain injuries affect the short- and long-term health of all ages is a public health issue, one that affects millions of Americans.
Yet for some reason, many people, including lawmakers, still look to the NFL—perhaps the single most obviously biased entity when it comes to football's dangers—to fund research into head trauma. This is ludicrous and dangerous, just as it is when the tobacco, oil, sugar, and food industries do the same, muddling scientific debate with sophisticated corporate propaganda and slow-walking actual progress to point where people begin questioning the value of science itself.
Also, funding brain trauma research seems to be what the NFL wants, which should be a sure sign it's a bad idea.
Ideally, this wouldn't be an issue in the first place. The NIH would have plenty of money to dispense to deserving researchers, and the science of brain trauma would be much farther along. But that's not the America we live in today. Combining budget cuts and inflation, the NIH has lost 25 percent of its purchasing power over the past decade. Science isn't cheap, and the money has to come from somewhere, which is how we end up with self-interested industries subtly controlling and corrupting researchers, institutions, and agencies that are supposed to be doing honest and vital work for the public good.
Fortunately, there's a simple solution to this conundrum. It's an idea first proposed by California-based traumatic brain injury advocate Kim Archie, one that would provide researchers with much-needed cash while removing NFL influence from the equation: enact a $1 federal excise tax on all league tickets, and give the money directly to the government for concussion and TBI research, no strings attached.
If this sounds radical, think again. Archie, who is also the founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation and a youth sports safety advocate, has joined forces with with a group of fellow mothers whose football-playing sons have died with CTE to lobby Congress on the idea. (Archie's specific plan would give the tax money to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which would in turn expand its role in regulating and overseeing sports, particularly youth football). "There's already a $4 surcharge for parking at NFL games," Archie says. "Why not $1 for safety?"
While getting a divided Congress and Republican-controlled House to agree on a tax increase of any kind might seem quixotic, there's plenty of precedent for such a measure. Gas, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and indoor tanning all have excise taxes. Some of the revenues from these taxes are earmarked for specific initiatives or programs; in other cases, the money simply goes into general funds. For example, roughly 85 percent of the federal fuel tax goes directly toward highway construction and maintenance. There is no legal reason an excise tax on professional football tickets cannot be done.
Philosophically speaking, it's wholly appropriate that the public should be funding research about public health issues, and not biased industries with an obvious desired outcome. Practically speaking, a per-ticket tax could raise plenty of money and remain trivial for any individual customer. The ongoing controversy between the NFL and the NIH involved a $16 million study. A $1 tax on all NFL tickets—a little more than one percent of the average price—would raise $17.5 million in a single regular season.
Granted, the NFL could object to such a tax. They could even lobby against it. But doing so would put the league in an incredibly awkward public relations position. After all, the NFL clearly has no objection to making the public pay for its shiny things: local, state, and federal taxpayers currently subsidize stadiums and Super Bowls to the tune of billions of dollars, and the league routinely demands tax exemptions, too, whether it's regarding property taxes on new stadiums or even Super Bowl tickets. As Richard Auxier at the Tax Policy Center has pointed out, the NFL demands all host cities exempt the NFL from sales taxes on tickets, parking, and entry to related Super Bowl events. The league argues this saves attendees money, but Auxier demonstrated that the money goes directly to the league office, not the Super Bowl ticket holders.
The NFL could argue, as many industries do, that an excise tax would be passed directly on to consumers, costing fans money and reducing demand. There's some truth to this: faced with a $1 excise tax, NFL teams likely would increase their ticket prices accordingly. But that only means the league shouldn't care. The cost is being passed onto the consumer; NFL owners don't lose a dime. Moreover, there's also no reason to believe a small surcharge would turn fans away from the gate—not when NFL ticket prices have risen 37.5 percent since 2006, and most teams still sell out. An extra dollar will hardly make a difference.
Indeed, it's easy to see how a TBI ticket tax could save the league money. By publicly supporting such a tax, the NFL would no longer have to spend millions of dollars a year on funding research to demonstrate they are committed to player health and safety at all levels. No more NFL/Under Armour Head Health Challenge, no more Heads Up Football, no more wasting money on convening numerous committees and subcommittees. It's easier to buy a ticket to the health and safety theater than put on the show yourself.
Oh, and if the NFL feels unfairly singled out on an issue that affects college football and the NHL as well? That's fine. Tax those sports, too.
The only real potential problem with this tax is that any piece of legislation can always be changed. A law that says a $1 tax on all NFL tickets goes toward the NIH could be rewritten in tough times to fund other government priorities or shortfalls. But this is true of any tax, anywhere, ever, and therefore no reason not to try.
Perhaps fans will object to this idea. After all, they're the ones paying for it. But it only seems fair that the people who enjoy watching gigantic humans collide at full speed fund the research about what said collisions do to their brains. Those fans can continue to enjoy football at a minimal cost increase—$16 more a season, plus a few more bucks for preseason and playoff games, the cost of about two stadium beers—and perhaps do so with even less guilt than they may already have, knowing that a portion of their purchase is going toward finding the truth.
There is, of course, one other possibility: that maybe it's the fans themselves—the ones who continue to watch football at unprecedented rates, who indirectly flood the league office with money and implicit permission to continue to obfuscate the truth—who really don't want to know what concussions do to the brain. Maybe they would be the most vociferous opponents to a ticket tax. Perhaps it's us, the football-loving public, who has no interest in this issue, and the NFL is just reflecting our desires.
Attempt to pass a ticket tax, and maybe we would find out that some of the very people who profess to care so much about head trauma and CTE won't give up a single dollar per game to do anything about it. As is the case when the CVS clerk asks you if you want to donate a buck to help children with cancer, perhaps when it comes time to vote with their pockets, America will say, "No thanks, I'd rather keep the dollar." In which case, the league wouldn't be the only ones whose interests align with keeping up appearances.
Editor's note: This column has been updated to reflect Kim Archie's proposal of and advocacy for a $1 NFL ticket tax.