The health risks of American football have been getting a lot of attention in the press lately, no doubt in anticipation of the Super Bowl. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran articles on the frequency of head injuries in professional football. The articles highlighted former Patriots linebacker, Ted Johnson, who received several concussions during his career. Johnson’s head injuries resulted in severe depression and drug addiction.
Like many other professional and amateur football players, Johnson felt trapped by expectations that he should play through the pain. American football inspires a culture of toughness. Encouraged by fans, coaches and other players, many continue playing even after sustaining major injuries. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that N.F.L. players faced a 37% higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Yet the kind of press that portrays the dangers of football is not commensurate with the overwhelmingly positive depiction of star athletes. The Super Bowl regularly draws audiences of between 75 and 95 million television viewers. Professional athletes are idolized.
Even successful coaches receive vast amounts of attention (and wealth). It is telling that at least 23 college football coaches are paid salaries in excess of $1 million. In several cases these coaches’ salaries far outweigh the university presidents’ annual income, let alone the professors’ and administrators’ pay. Clearly the United States has a fascination with what can at times be a very violent sport.
Are there inherit problems with this country’s massive consumption of professional football? This is an important question for Mormons. We have several members on N.F.L. teams who sometimes function as unofficial spokesmen for the church, including Ty Detmer (and his little brother Koy), Chad Lewis, and, of course, Steve Young. The LDS church has tacitly endorsed football. For example, Elder Wirthlin, who never made it into the professional leagues, was nevertheless awarded for being a “lifelong supporter” of college football.
There may be arguments both for and against the idealization of football stars (be they LDS or not). On the one hand, football is a dangerous sport. By idealizing the athletes of aggressive sports like football, don’t we become party to the inevitable injuries players sustain? On the other hand, audiences of football tend to also play football; and participation in any sport - even dangerous ones - seems preferable to inactivity. Obesity, after all, will kill a lot more people than concussions from flag football.