Even after months of relentless scandal, last week the NFL was dealt what may have been its most consequential blow yet. Lebron James, arguably the world’s greatest athlete, announced that he prohibits his two young sons from playing football. “Only basketball, baseball and soccer are allowed in my house,” James declared.
Sports media commentators, many of whom have a vested financial interest in preserving the NFL status quo, were predictably furious. Mike Golic from ESPN radio show Mike and Mike fumed, “When you have the stars come out, I can’t stand when they just blanket say that.” Golic, a former NFL lineman, expressed frustration that James would impose such onerous parental strictures. “I mean, it’s as safe now as it’s ever been to play,” he complained. In the same monologue, Golic went on to attack legendary former quarterback Brett Favre for revealing that he suffers from “scary” memory problems at age 45, and would therefore likely also bar his (theoretical) sons from playing.
Golic’s frustration is understandable, given his involvement with the NFL’s “Heads Up” public relations initiative, which purports to instill “safer” tackling techniques in youth players. However, such initiatives were apparently insufficient to sway Lebron, a celebrated wide receiver in his adolescence who has described football as a “first love.” When asked the following day to explain why he’d disallow his sons from participating in an activity he once enjoyed, Lebron said: “I needed a way out (of poverty). My kids don’t.”
Indeed, James rightly prioritizes the long-term health of his children over the short-term thrills that they might experience playing football. New medical findings indicate evidence of brain trauma even among individuals who played at only the high school level; one need not rise to NFL stardom, with its constant succession of blowout hits to the head, to be at risk for serious cognitive impairment as a result of participation in this inherently violent “sport.” (Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died in 2009, was shown by autopsy to have been afflicted with degenerative brain disease — at age 26.)
Indeed, according to experts in the field, there is strong reason to believe that sub-concussive hits — the type routinely incurred by players over the course of a standard game — can be seriously damaging to the brain. With even a chance that engagement in this activity might permanently harm a young boy’s mental faculties, why would Lebron, or any other responsible parent for that matter, countenance the risk?
Lebron’s announcement caused such anger because those with personal stake in the continued sky-high profitability of the NFL have strong incentives not to illuminate the fundamental problem at the heart of football: it will never be truly safe. It will never be reasonable to subject young boys to ferocious blows to the cranium, whatever adjustments to tackling methods are implemented, or whatever new “guidelines” coaches are imparted with, because the name of the game is to repeatedly smash into each other at high velocities. Violence is woven into the very nature of this ‘sport’ — unlike, say, basketball or baseball, during which violence might occur incidentally, but not as a matter of course.
Though the Ray Rice domestic violence incident and other wretched abuses committed by NFL players prompted a temporary glut of media consternation over the morality of NFL viewership, nothing much fundamentally changed. In fact, some data suggest that the controversies actually enhanced NFL profits by engendering such widespread attention, and therefore a spike in TV ratings. Commissioner Roger Goodell, not long ago the target of a steady stream of rebukes and calls for his ouster, looks as secure in his employment as ever.
What will truly dislodge the NFL’s hold on American culture are these incremental developments; from revelations of rampant sexual torture at a storied high school football program in Sayreville, New Jersey, to Brett Favre disclosing doubts about the sport to which he devoted his life, to hugely influential figures like Lebron James speaking truth about the real damages wrought on unsuspecting children.
This may sound hyperbolic, but I don’t intend it to be: just as no responsible parent would allow his children to huff chemicals, nor should they allow them to play football. Both these activities jeopardize the well-being of the body’s most vital organ, the one that should be protected at all costs, without exception or qualification — the brain.
It may be some time before definitive causative links can be established between a hit endured during youth football and some mental health issue a man experiences at age 55. But again — why take the risk? There are plenty of other ways for children to get exercise and have fun that don’t necessitate cranial beatings. I, for one, hope Lebron permits his sons to play tennis. I’m sure those two little guys could develop killer serves.