For Black Boys, the NFL—and Traumatic Brain Injury—Can Be Lottery Tickets (Participation)

For Black Boys, the NFL—and Traumatic Brain Injury—Can Be Lottery Tickets

Mychal Denzel Smith on January 28, 2013 – 11:20 AM ET

Junior Seau committed suicide after suffering from brain injuries. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa.)

This Sunday, citizens across these United States will indulge in the country’s most cherished pastime: watching large men give each other life-threatening concussions. For about twenty weeks, millions of us sit riveted as players in the NFL collide into one another at breakneck speeds, delivering bone-crushing hits that thrill and excite, and it all concludes on our favorite holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. Buckets of chicken and kegs of beer will be consumed in raucous atmospheres at homes and bars across the land, as we all watch the next generation of Alzheimer’s patients and suicide victims ride on to national glory.

It sounds grim when put that way, but that’s exactly what is happening. Over the past few years, the dangers of the sport have come under more scrutiny, as more than 3,800 former players have sued the NFL over the issue of head injuries. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly referred to by its initials CTE, has become a huge concern for retired football players, as a number of high profile suicides have put the debilitating brain disease on their radar, including that of former star linebacker Junior Seau. Only 43 years old, Seau was found dead last year of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Like others before him, he chose to preserve his brain so that it could be studied after his death. During his playing career, Seau was never sidelined due to concussions, but it has been established that he did develop CTE, likely because of repeated hits to the head during his twenty year career. His family has filed a lawsuit, according the Associated Press, accusing the NFL of “deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries.”

On his MSNBC show, Chris Hayes hosted a roundtable discussion, including a former NFL player and the wife of one who committed suicide, on the future of football:

The conversation centered around our culpability/responsibility as consumers of the sport. As we learn more about the risks involved for the players, and knowing that the owners want the sport to continue so long as it is profitable, do we as fans hold the ultimate key to protecting these guys, in that we can change the channel? Yes, but here’s the problem. The average fan, aside from being enticed by the violence, is able to put some distance between themselves and the players, as they justify watching by telling themselves that these men are being paid millions of dollars to play a game they know is dangerous.

The Seau family’s lawsuit alleges the NFL was not forthcoming about the risks involved with head injuries, and perhaps had he known what those risks were, Seau may have stopped playing. Mary Ann Easterling, wife of Ray Easterling who committed suicide last year, said on Up with Chris that her husband felt “used,” and that if he could go back, he wouldn’t have played. But that dredges up the old cliché: hindsight is 20/20. What would it take for current and potential future NFL stars to give up the game?

My guess is more than the threat of CTE. We talk about the culture of violent machismo as a driving motivator behind their choice to play, but it’s even more basic than that. It’s the economy, stupid. The reason there are over a million boys in this country, of all different ages, playing this violent game is that there are millions of dollars on the table, in guaranteed contracts and endorsement deals, available to those who prove themselves capable of strapping on the pads and play America’s favorite sport at the highest level. This is the lottery, and who is more willing to play than those who are most economically disadvantaged?

It’s no accident that throughout the year the most celebrated players talk about their humble beginnings coming from poor and working-class families. It’s also no coincidence that so many of them are African-American. Sixty-seven percent  of NFL players are are African-American. Why? Because this is a hustle, and so long as African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor, they’ll also be disproportionately represented in the NFL.

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.

So what’s a little permanent brain damage?

We can wait for the cultural shift to take place, where football no longer figures so prominently because soccer and basketball have overtaken our imaginations, and then we no longer have to concern ourselves with this messy business of brain injuries. Or we could improve the economic conditions of the poor and working class, especially those of color, and no longer render them dependent on the idea of huge paydays from a major breadwinner putting his future health at risk, and see how that works out. Until then, go Ravens, I guess.


11 thoughts on “For Black Boys, the NFL—and Traumatic Brain Injury—Can Be Lottery Tickets (Participation)

  1. Of course there is going to be large motivation to try and make it to the NFL when checks for NFL players these days are as big as they are. Yes, these men are being paid millions of dollars to play football, but the part that this article neglects to mention is how many of these men truly love the game. The pay day of the NFL is the ultimate goal of course, but that is not the only driving force to participate in the league. I guarantee that if you would have asked a majority of the current NFL players when they were kids what they wanted to do when they got older, more often than not their answer would be to play in the NFL. That’s why there is such a big deal behind the NFL draft, all of these college kids are on the brink of making their lifetime dream come true.

    With more and more cases and instances of brain injuries/permanent damage to the brain that has been released over the past 5 years, wouldn’t you think that these men would get the memo and stop playing? They understand the risks, they choose to ignore them to play a game that they love and get paid an extremely high amount to do so. It is impossible to make the game completely safe, it is a collision sport, but I know for a fact that the NFL’s biggest priority is player safety. If you’ve watched any game this year you would know this as the league enforces penalties during the game, and fines after the game for any “unnecessary” roughness or contact on a defenseless player. So yes, go Ravens.

    • Andy – I don’t think the author is saying that white football players aren’t impacted; race can matter even when multiple communities are involved

  2. This article invoked a lot of frustration in my opinion. The author concluded that men only want to play football in the NFL for the money. Although there is obviously a huge amount of money that comes from playing football professionally, i would argue that money is not the sole inspiration for these men, especially men of color. As the article mentioned, there is a huge amount of risk that comes along with playing the game. The players are aware of this but they continue to play because they simply love the game. Why do you think that it is so hard for players to retire from the NFL and we have seen a higher average age of men playing in the NFL? Men don’t want to quit because they desperately need a huge paycheck but instead because football is an extremely huge part of their lives’. A part of their life that would be anything but easy to get up.

    The aspect of this article that i found the most frustrating was when the author brought up African American players. The author made is seem as if these players are simply sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for their next pay check so that they can rush home and feed their families. Although this may be true for some African Americans in the NFL, it was not fair for the author to over generalize this and make it seem as if this were the case for every African American player. These amazing football players should be mentioned and written about because of their incredible ability to play football. Not because of the color of the skin and the amount of money they make.

    • Barrett – I don’t think that is his argument. He is saying football is a dangerous sport that has long term physical consequences. Given the risks associated, and the potential harm, it is not surprising that people who inhabit the poorest neighborhoods are willing to risk life and limb to play the game. He is saying that the limited opportunities elsewhere, the allure of the American Dream, the chance to provide for family and community, compels participating in a very dangerous sport. he is saying that because of inequality, segregation, and institutional racism, this will disproportionately come from African American communities (there is of course more factors at work in terms of role models). He saying that it is sad that one has to risk bodies and longterm health in order to “live the American Dream”

      • My only argument to this would be what about the white players also risking their bodies to serious injuries? There is obviously more of an African American presence in the NFL, but I don’t think it is fair to conclude the African American players are more willing to risk their life and limb to play. This may be the case for some of the players, but not all of them and I am also sure that there are probably quite a few white players in the NFL who’s only hope of “living the American Dream” was through playing football.

  3. Who said, they are more willing to “risk anything.” To say race matters and to talk about how race and class operates together isn’t to say that the violence of football impacts white players. It is not a coincidence that as we look at the history of boxing, football, and other dangerous professions that they often attract people from working-class and the poorest communities. As we have talked about in class, race and class are in operation here

  4. You can already recognize the author’s bias in the first sentence when he describes American football as “watching large men give each other life-threatening concussions”. It’s important to note that he uses this sentence in an article where he tries (and fails miserably) to give an accurate and non-biased view of the sport. For example, I see no mention of the multi-billion dollar industry and how many jobs they’ve created. All he talks about in the first half of the article is how players get injured and sue. He fails to mention that this season, there were less than 20 injuries, and none of them were head injuries (proof:

    Later in the article, he focuses on black children from impoverished communities having a single goal to get into an NFL team. He states that “an NFL contract is the economic hope of many poor black youths and their families.” That statement, I believe, is outlandish. Yes, many youths try to get onto an NFL team, but to imply that such is their only hope is being ignorant.

    I could write on and on about how the author is incredibly biased and wrong, but this is just the gist of it.

  5. Class and race are what football and basketball are all about let’s be honest. The majority of football players are black. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are white but they are quarterbacks who don’t take the repeated blows to the head that other position players (mostly all black) take. Now to understand how race and class are in operation here, simply look at the difference between 1) Football and Basketball and 2) Golf and tennis. All are sports, but I challenge you to find a black guy not named Tiger Woods who is good at golf. Find an african american tennis player who isn’t venus or serena. Golf and tennis are mostly a rich man’s game – they literally cost a lot of money to play, and mostly rich white men play them. Thats the fact. So of course poor african americans are willing to risk their lives to play football. Poor white guys would too for that matter. Poor people have limited options – this is also a fact. Thats why its harder for them to live the “american dream.” If they are good at football, and its their only option, who’s to downgrade them for that? If anything its respectable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s