Football is a major part of life in America, and especially here in Hawaii. Our state lacks pro teams in any of the major leagues, so the University of Hawaii provides sports/entertainment uniting threads that help bind our islands together. Here on Maui, high school football carries the same near-mythic importance as that of just about all the other small towns on the Mainland.
That’s why it was especially jarring to see Frontline‘s latest documentary, titled “League of Denial.” For nearly two hours, the program laid waste to the National Football League’s long insistence that the sport’s crushing violence directly leads to serious, permanent, life-degrading brain injuries in its players. The program aired on PBS stations nationwide earlier this week, but you can watch it online for free by clicking here.
The idea that football–professional or otherwise–glorifies violence at the expense of the human beings who play it is nothing new. “Football combines two of the worst things in American life,” political columnist George F. Will observed many years ago. “It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
What is new is the way Frontline‘s “League of Denial” documentary was able to show conclusively that the NFL has for many years sat on damning medical data showing that act of playing football–regardless of the helmets and padding the players wear–injures the brain.
After he watched it, a friend immediately proclaimed to me that football was “dead.”
Oh, if only that were the case. Football makes too much money in this nation to die so easily. According to Forbes, the NFL’s revenue (which has never officially been made public) is hovering around $9 billion, with league officials dreaming of making $25 billion a year. College football is equally profitable (except, apparently, at UH): this Forbes chart shows tremendous profits at 25 schools with major football programs.
Football is as vital to our nation’s societal cohesion as the gladiator games were back in the Roman Empire.
“America is Rome,” Iggy Pop (yes, him) observed in this 1995 Classics Ireland article about the author Edward Gibbon. “Of course, why shouldn’t it be? All of Western life and institutions today are traceable to the Romans and their world. We are all Roman children for better or worse.”
Football’s violent hits, tackles and sacks mesh perfectly with our nation’s imperial power. Our nation builds giant aircraft carriers and powerful drone bombers that circumnavigate the globe in search of enemies to destroy. Watch any commercial for an NFL game and tell me the league doesn’t wallow in the “grid iron’s” violence.
In war or football, we may wince when we see players in a particularly nasty hit or watch a child’s body carried from rubble created by an American missile, but we don’t stop playing.
Photo of 2010 NFC Wildcard Game: Gonzo fan2007/Wikimedia Commons