Football, especially in its professional incarnation, has always had somewhat of a bad reputation among people that are not avid sports fans. To an outside observer, the cerebral, exacting, and technical aspects of the game are rendered invisible by the violence, bravado, and muscle mass that also permeate the gridiron. For true sports fans, this balance is appreciated fully and it is what makes the game of football such a joy to watch: its graceful athleticism and carefully constructed game plans blend perfectly with the crushing blows and bone-jarring impacts that NFL and college players (not to mention players at any age group, from Pop Warner to high school) subject themselves too. It is this refined sort of violence that makes football so alluring at the end of the day, but as a regular viewer of the action that takes place on both Saturdays and Sundays in the fall, I cannot help but feel a knot beginning to form in my stomach that is due to the sheer destruction the game can bring to those who play it.

I’m not just talking about the controversy over concussions, short lifespans, or missing memories that many current and former players have come face to face with as the years go on, but I will say that those realities are what initiated this post in the first place. I’ve become an avid reader (as should every football fan) of a season-long back and forth between writers for the famous/infamous Deadspin (they’re the guys that gave us the pictures of Lil Brett) and the folks at Slate Magazine, who explored the football player’s existential dilemma with aplomb two weeks back. I don’t want to just rehash what those enlightened fellas had to say, because the facts regarding head injuries, short lives and rolling marbles in the football player’s brain are documented and chilling, but are not what has changed the way I view the game I love over the last couple of seasons.

I have read the statistics and processed the consequences, but there is something much more visceral acting on my spectating conscience than cold hard facts and medical records. It comes from simply watching the game of football and realizing that in my approximately 20 years as a cognizant football fan (I would say my initial years watching the game were spent more worshiping players and cheering the action as opposed to actually understanding the actual intricacies of game play) the game has changed for the better in terms of entertainment value, but that has come with some heavy baggage that is beginning to create pains in my intellectual lower lumbar. Although Jim McMahon’s account of not being able to remember what the hell he was just doing is one of those documented cases of abuse that garners my support for his lawsuit against the league, the players know what they’re getting into, and stories like McMahon’s have simply let the general public know what they’re getting into as well.

But like I said, all of the already established risks aside, as legitimate advancements in everything from training regimens, supplements and weight lifting programs have occurred alongside less publicly accepted strides in making football players faster and stronger like steroid use and detection prevention, human growth hormone, and starting a young athlete’s road toward athletic fame and fortune at increasingly young ages, the game of football as a viewing experience has become an undeniably violent contest that entertains its masses at the price of its competitors. The obvious and tired analogy to the human spectating evolution lies in comparisons to the Roman Colosseum and gladiators dying en masse at the whim of the emperor and to the delight of the crowd, and the more I watch collegiate and professional football, the more of a connection I feel to those ancient spectators. Sure, nobody is being eaten alive by a tiger or run through with a longsword, but if you’ve watched enough football, you’ve seen enough horrifying injuries and near death/life-altering experiences to make you question whether or not in the year 2011, this sort of violence for the sake of entertainment is still an acceptable way to pass your idle time on the weekends.

A week and a half back the NFL and NCAA saw two gruesome injuries on their respective fields of play, which you can check out here and here if you happen to have the stomach for it. I usually can’t watch injuries like the ones Eric Foster of the Indianapolis Colts and LaMichael James of the Oregon Ducks sustained more than once, and that holds true with these two videos. There is just something about watching a person’s body parts move at angles that would challenge a geometry student employing a protractor that gives me butterflies in my stomach. I’m not the only one either, as Foster’s injury was so gut-wrenching that it reportedly had teammates and opposing players alike crying on the field. These two injuries are only the latest in a long litany of football casualties––from Joe Theisman’s broken leg (perhaps the single most devastating injury you will ever see) to Willis McGahee’s shredded knee ligaments––that make you realize just how brutal the sport can be. And while I know that other sports have their share of similarly hard-to-watch moments, football stands alone as a sport where something like this can happen on any play.

It stems from the very nature of the game, which I guess is my point at the end of the day. I love football, but I do not like to see my fellow man dismembered in order for my weekend TV watching to be entertaining. Along with the type of injuries I just mentioned, the sheer size and speed of players has made football the most violent form of entertainment in America outside of a horror film. And when you hear a helmet crack against another one or see someone not moving after leading with their head on a kickoff tackle, there really is no other form of guilt quite like it. You know at that moment you’re getting your sporting jollies from the pain of other people and perhaps at the cost of the lives of other people, and it can become unsettling. Like I said, this guilt has become particularly prickly for me over the last two seasons, and I feel myself at a crossroads in my life as both a fan and a dood with a decent head on his shoulders.

My brain can’t help but start asking certain questions. Should I continue to watch a game that I know does nothing but damage to those that play it? Should I enjoy rooting for my favorite team when the guys that suit up for them have the chance to be killed as I watch? Can I be a true fan when in my heart I’m not really comfortable with concussions, memory loss, short life spans, and post-career suicides?

The plain truth is that I just don’t know. For now I’m enduring some serious cognitive dissonance side effects and I guess I’ll just have to see if the drug of American football keeps working enough to make me forget about the other(s) pain it causes.

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