Bright lights; loud fans; raucous crowds.
To some, football is like a dream come true, an embodiment of the supposed “American Dream.” When two teams line up, helmets drawn and cleats laced, there is no notion of race, class, or privilege. To make a name for yourself, all you need to do is outperform your competition — and suddenly the spotlight of America will be shone on you. But beyond the glitz, glamour, and millions of people who are invested in “America’s Game,” the reality of trauma and pain threaten to undermine the sport America has built a culture upon.
This is the reality of football in our American society, a society rapidly gaining resemblance towards the blood-thirsting Roman admirers of Gladiators.
Romans blinded themselves to the violence and gore of gladiator battles by seeing the values of courage and justice; we overlook the severe damage of tackle football by preaching about the supposedly righteous values of teamwork, courage, and respect. And to gain a competitive advantage, young children are playing football earlier than ever. But according to Forbes and the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, children should not play football until they turn 14 to prevent the early development of brain injury.
Every year, we tune into the Super Bowl and the NCAA Football Championship, oblivious to the lifetime of trauma that is being caused right in front of our eyes. Yet, according to the New York Times, for every 5.3 years that athletes play tackle football, they double their likelihood of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). C.T.E., brought about by repeated trauma to the head, causes depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Consider the story of Aaron Hernandez, whose traumatic football career has come to light in the wake of multiple projects exploring the roots of his violent behavior. Hernandez left his Bristol high school for the University of Florida midway through his senior year to prepare for the upcoming football season, fully committing to the life of bruises, fractures, and concussions that is tackle football. When researchers analyzed Hernandez’s brain, according to the New York Times, he had a severe case of C.T.E., one “akin to that of players well into their 60s.” Hernandez saw football as the only escape from his troubled upbringing, yet, by making himself so vulnerable to injury early in his life, Hernandez was ruining his future.
Solving the paradoxical issue of football injuries is complex, but at the heart of the solution is destroying the guise of toughness masking the very traumatic injuries that take place in football. The Romans looked past violence and brutality due to the Gladiator’s supposed courage and justice. We cannot do the same.