Grimness on the gridiron: a lack of concern in American football culture


Ciara Whimbush

The leisurely, inviting and excitement-inducing sport of American football stands as a testament to the unity this diverse country provides. However, the strengthening force of the sport cannot mask the potential dangers that lie beneath, nor deny the lack of accountability from fans who negate the severity of injuries.

Ciara Whimbush, Reporter

When someone envisions American football, certain images appear of roaring crowds, lively bands and two teams chomping at the bit to play the electrifying game. Through a shared sense of unity fans receive from cheering on their linebackers and quarterbacks, the sport harbors a history of acting as a bonding force in the United States. However, while football extends olive branches to onlookers on the field, what occurs on and around the 50-yard line tells a different tale. With the omnipresence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the lack of empathy afforded to injured players and the lack of severity afforded to football players by admirers of the game come into question. For the amount of weight the sport carries in American culture, the struggles that the players face at the hands of the game deserve a greater amount of understanding. 

With numerous writings that lament the wholesome ways the aggressive sport unifies this diverse country, football carries a family-friendly reputation in every American household. However, when 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin succumbed to cardiac arrest on the gridiron during the first quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals  January 2, living rooms across America witnessed the uncomfortable dark side of the sport. The distressing nature of the situation resulted in the NFL scratching the game off the roster altogether, and re-shuffling the schedule as the league moves into the postseason. Despite the tears and shock that plagued players and coaches alike during the initial event, speculation of how the rest of the season would turn out continued to meddle shortly thereafter. When it comes to a sport with wholesome undertones, it becomes troubling for fans to face the dire reality that football bears when it comes to both long and short-term injuries. 

A principal blow to the head football players face; another threat appears in the form of CTE, a medical condition characterized by the neurological decay of the brain due to frequent hits to the head. The condition manifests in four distinct stages, with each progression resulting in bleak side effects in the individual. Symptoms manifest in numerous ways, ranging from changes in mood, issues with memory, difficulty paying attention and other behavioral and cognitive issues. 

Among the list of professions and sports that increase one’s likelihood of acquiring CTE, American football players stand highly at risk. According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 99% of the brains donated to the experiment from family members of former NFL players showed signs of an indisposition. While indications of the condition can present themselves in life, a diagnosis of CTE can only occur upon further examination of the brain once an individual passes away

 “The exact risk probability of CTE for a young football player is not fully known. One risk factor is the level of play for the athlete.  The vast majority of high school athletes will not go on to play their sport in college or professionally.  I believe if head injuries are managed appropriately in high school (and in college/professionally), the chances of the athlete developing CTE or other neurological disorders will decrease.  For those talented enough to play their sport in college or professionally, it can be a risk worth taking.  They can get all or some of their college education paid for, by playing their sport.  They can earn significant amounts of money by playing their sport professionally.  As with all decisions, it is up to the individual athlete and their families to determine if the risk is worth the reward.  As a licensed healthcare professional, I am responsible for educating the athletes and their families about the risks and managing their injuries safely.  My job is to make sure it is safe for them to return to play,” NC’s head athletic trainer and sports medicine teacher Angie Guggino said. 

Notable cases of the ailment in late football stars such as Junior Seau and Aaron Hernandez made headlines on news outlets and streaming platforms and sparked public discourse from fans across the country. The sinister reputation and tragic end that chronic traumatic encephalopathy garners for young football players do not stand as too strong of a barrier for fans of the game to take seriously. While the condition possesses the ability to destroy the lives of the young men on and off the football field, it proves difficult for fans to personalize the people scoring touchdowns and advancing their team further into the season. 

A major contributor to the NFL enterprise lies with the fans; through ticket sales, purchasing merchandise and watching games through streaming services, the backbone of the game rests with the demographic of people most detached from it. Through this commensalism relationship that fans harbor with players, it becomes easy for viewers to become desensitized to the violence they witness on screen.  

“It (football) gets a reaction out of people. Much like watching gory films or hearing a particularly dark joke, the visceral shock and excitement that something so violent can provide are addictive. In a more scientific lens, it puts you in a fight or flight state without being in actual danger, and adrenaline is quite the drug,” magnet sophomore Rory Pulley said. 

Fans of football may not see the point in addressing the dangerous nature of the game they found a fondness for. After all, these young men read the fine print and knew what they signed up for long before stepping onto the field. In a career where at least three years of experience stands as the norm, placing the blame on fans who bolster the organization—and the players’ paychecks—seems unfair. These young men of the league chose to chance the probability of life-altering injury each Sunday from September to January; all NFL aficionados who bear witness to a tragedy should not receive blame for events that transpire. At its core, football still exists as a fun, free-willing and uplifting activity that ignites a sense of warmth in the viewers’ hearts. Injuries stand as a sum of the sport, not the whole. Focusing on a negative aspect of the game only derives pleasure from it—which serves no reasonable purpose.

Despite the acknowledgment of the eventual fate football players may face on the gridiron, it stands as no excuse to disregard the potential traumas that would happen to the young men on any team. The life expectancy of NFL players—51 to 58 years old—coupled with the drastic likelihood of degradation to the brain, the dangers of football must receive compassion, not apprehension. 

“I believe it may be hard for some fans to put injuries into perspective. This is because some fans may be so absorbed in the game that they just want it to continue and don’t understand how badly someone may be hurt. Although, with the recent Damar Hamlin situation, fans may be more understanding with injuries and things like that because his injury was so severe,” magnet sophomore Morgan Day said.

Despite the darker undertones the sport may garner, football still carries the ability to create a bond between strangers or to encourage people to stand up on their feet and cheer. Football must receive respect in order to maintain its wholesome reputation and to remind audiences of the people behind the players.