When summer is coming to an end and fall is around the corner, football begins to take the spotlight of the American sporting world. To some degree, it even takes the national spotlight as the sport has become quite predominant in our culture. This past week, football even dominated the political spotlight as league-wide demonstrations in the NFL garnered much attention.
I have plenty I could write here about the protests, but will take a pass and instead write about another topic with significant impact on the sport. One whose impact can be much more severe on the lives it affects than any political action. And that is the subject of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, and other adverse and debilitating conditions caused by brain trauma.
I have loved the sport of football since an early age. Although I never played it in an organized fashion, I have always loved watching and following the sport and enjoyed playing enough pick-up games of varying intensity throughout my life. There is something innate about the sport that appeals to both the athletic pursuit and the warrior mentality. And it is always a major highlight for the week when both my Philadelphia Eagles and Penn State Nittany Lions win, especially when they do so in dramatic fashion on the very last play of the game as they both did this past weekend. (Come to think of it, both of my teams winning on the very last play of the game in the same week has probably never happened before, at least as far as I can remember.)
Those who choose to play the game of football, especially in an organized sense at higher levels, have long done it knowing they were taking on significant risks to their health, both long term and short term. It only takes a brief viewing of the game for one to realize how quickly and easily broken bones and torn ligaments and potentially even paralysis can occur. Worst of all, there have been quite a few deaths over the years and that continue to occur in present day that are directly related to injuries suffered on the football field.
Until recent times, the damage that can occur to the brain as a result of playing football was not well known or understood. Even today, there is seemingly so much still unknown as to the extent of damage and injury that can occur to the brain through the sport of football and how to diagnose it. What we are learning about more and more, however, is that some players who had CTE and other brain trauma suspected to have come from playing the game have suffered through harrowing conditions. These terrible circumstances affect not only the players but their families and others around them.
This subject was recently brought to mind again when it was reported that Aaron Hernandez suffered from a severe case of CTE. Hernandez was a star tight end for the New England Patriots at the beginning of the decade who ended up receiving a life sentence in prison for a murder he committed. While already serving his life term, Hernandez was tried for two other murders in an unrelated case but was acquitted. Soon after this acquittal, Hernandez took his own life in prison.
After the discovery of Hernandez’s CTE, his lawyer has sued the NFL on behalf of Hernandez’s family. What role CTE played in his murderous and other troubling behavior, we’ll probably never know for sure. Hernandez’s documented bad behavior started well before he even entered the NFL, but I would also assume he started playing football at an early age and who knows when the CTE first started taking effect.
It would also seem that CTE and other brain damage and injuries is not relegated to just the sport of football. Seemingly other sports such as boxing and MMA and hockey and even soccer (which the rest of the world would call football) would carry some risks. Football would appear to carry the greatest risk, but the possibilities cannot be ignored in these other arenas, either.
I am probably not giving up my football fandom anytime soon. Yet, at the same time, I have a growing conflict as to what to think about the risks of CTE and other brain-related debilitating conditions. Thankfully, I don’t think I have much concern of having contracted these conditions from my sporting lifetime and I don’t have any sons with whom I need to be concerned with playing football. But others have real concerns to deal with. And I don’t know how many of them are properly aware of the risks or take them seriously enough.
I am not calling for people to give up playing or being a fan of football or to stop their kids from playing the game. I certainly would not want to give up a sport I love or make my kids do the same. Every activity we take part of in life carries some level of risk. Some obviously greater than others, but where do we draw the line?
How does our Christian faith influence how we think about such an issue? I don’t really know. God wants us to be wise and to take care of our bodies and to look out for those we are responsible for, yet at the same time, He created us to be able to experience passion and enjoyment. And for those who love football, it can make for some tough choices.
I don’t have the answers, I only throw these things out there for the sake of thought and discussion. And especially for those of us who have more direct impact of football on our lives, may God give safety and wisdom in discerning what He would have us to do.