EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Jacobin.
LeBron James, in addition to once being a superstar high-school basketball player, was almost equally impressive on the football field, an all-state wide receiver playing for St. Vincent–St. Mary’s in Akron. He has often spoken often about his love of the game, but LeBron’s own two sons—both basketball prodigies—don’t play football. When asked why, LeBron said, “I needed a way out. My kids don’t need a way out. They’re all right. I needed a way out when I was a kid. I tried to do whatever it took to get out. That’s my excuse.”
Similar lines are often heard from NFL players in recent years: words to the effect of, “I play so my kid doesn’t have to play.” These days, I am currently doing a book with Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett called Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, and his thoughts on this subject certainly match the title. He says without equivocation that if he had a son—Bennett has three daughters—that he wouldn’t want them in the NFL.
“Trying to become a pro football player creates its own version of PTSD,” he said to me, “It’s like no other sport because whether it’s the CTE, or an addiction to the violence.… I just know too many people who leave the game and get so depressed or so confused because they don’t know who they are when it’s all done. It’ll make you cry to see some of these former players behind closed doors, and I don’t know any other sport that does that.”
Science is not football’s friend. The more we learn, the more we know that the risk of developing CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease, is significant. More players are retiring early. More speak openly about their fears of not being able to remember their loved ones or wondering whether in the near future if they will be too weak or addled to pickup their children. There is a famous decades-old quote from a boxer named Buster Mathis who said, “Don’t box, play football. Because nobody ‘plays’ boxing.” Now we know that no one “plays” football either.
Researchers at Boston University say that they are close to developing the ability to test for CTE in living players, instead of waiting for the autopsy. That could change the trickle of athletes retiring young out of existential fears of future brain damage into a flood. Even players who avoid CTE know, as NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said to me, “This is the only union job with a 100 percent injury rate.”
So does that mean it’s not “moral” to watch a ceaselessly brutal sport that is 70 percent black but has no black ownership? It’s a worthwhile question. But to leave it at the above also paints an incomplete picture of what professional football is. It removes the question of labor. Pro football players are not just victims of this system, any more than any of us who have to work for a living are “victims.” They are also union workers, the only sports union that’s part of the AFL-CIO, who fight collectively for better safety standards, fair pay, and do so on the highest possible stage. In a country whose media don’t cover labor issues, sports unions are in many respects our best tool in arguing with people about the importance of solidarity—not to mention that these player associations have supported initiatives against racism, sexism, and homophobia.