Last year, President Obama made headlines by voicing concern about the concussion rates in the NFL and noting he might not let his son play football if he was the father of one. The statement echoed the sentiments of many throughout the United States, as parents find themselves considering their child’s safety in the decision to let their children play the most popular sport in the nation. Like most, Obama isn’t ready to write-off or villainize the NFL, but his words expressed the growing concern surrounding the sport, especially at younger ages.
In a new profile published by the New Yorker, the President elaborated on those concerns when he was asked by David Remnick whether he has mixed feelings about watching NFL games in light of the recent news about players suffering from early onset dementia and other long-term effects of brain injuries in the sport.
“I would not let my son play pro football,” Obama said. “But, I mean, you wrote a lot about boxing, right? We’re sort of in the same realm.”
Obama is far from the first to compare football’s concussion issues with boxing. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the long-term neaurodegenerative condition associated with repeated brain injuries now being found in several former professional football players, was long known as boxer’s dementia since it was initially associated exclusively with fighters. But, another comparison made by Obama is surprisingly enlightening to the current situation we are facing in football.
“At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor. These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
While I disagree that the situation surrounding concussions mirrors the current social view of smoking, the comparison is especially apt when you consider the position smokers were in just a few decades ago as evidence began to pile-up against the habit.
Players currently in the NFL are easily compared to addicts who became addicted when they were unaware of the risks. The players weren’t aware of the risks they were taking at the time, but now they are dependent on the sport. While smokers have a chemical addiction, the players depend on the NFL for their livelihood. For most, quitting seems impossible and potentially destructive to their lives. They may know it is unsafe now, but they have built their lives around it.
This analogy continues when you consider public opinions about the issue. While anti-smoking evidence was becoming more and more well-known, many smokers ignored the warnings because they didn’t believe the evidence was conclusive. Similarly, many players continue are unable to accept the real risk of concussions because of their own personal situation. It is hard to accept even the most scientific findings when you’re own life experience flies in the face of those findings (for now). It is hard to believe repeated brain injuries are a severe risk when everyone involved around the players seems entirely healthy. Unfortunately the repercussions don’t manifest themselves until it is too late.
Thankfully, the comparison also offers a solution for the future. While it is impossible to eradicate brain injuries in the NFL today, educating our children can drastically redraw how we view football in the future. The men playing the sport right now are as informed of the situation as they can be, and it is up to them to decide to continue on their path, but we can help our children understand the risks involved before they ever begin going in that direction. That doesn’t mean taking football off the table entirely, but the decision to participate can be more informed, and parents can be more prepared to protect their child from the more dangerous aspects. We can make the game safer and prevent bad practices such as sending players back out into competition immediately following a brain injury.
The solution isn’t entirely reliant on our children however. As President Obama said in January 2013, there are steps we can take now to make the game safer for current and future players.
“I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”