I have a love-hate relationship with football.
On one hand, it’s a game I grew up adoring. Sorta.
I still remember, to this day, the time that elementary-aged Victor was so miserable at a Carolina Panthers game that his incessant begging and whining forced his mom to take him home at halftime.
Fast forward a few years and somehow, that kid who couldn’t withstand another half of Panthers football became the biggest Baltimore Ravens fan in North Carolina. (And, from what I’ve found, one of the only Baltimore Ravens fans in N.C.)
The Ravens have caused me great sadness and even greater joy.
I bawled my eyes out when the Ravens lost a heartbreaking AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots in 2011. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.
And I cried plenty of joyous tears when the Ravens outlasted the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII a year later. I’m not ashamed to admit that, either.
I’ve “wasted” countless hours, had countless heart palpitations and spent a countless amount of money because of my love for the Ravens.
I’ve met some of the coolest people thanks to them.
I’ve had some of the most memorable bonding moments with my family — all of them now-converted Ravens fans — thanks to them.
I’ve grown to love sports — and, thus, am here writing this today — thanks to them.
However, as another football season rolls around, with the NCHSAA football season kicking off this week and the NCAA and NFL starting up soon, I’m once again reminded of why the sport I love is also a sport I loathe.
Recently, I’ve gotten around to watching two recent football-related movies/documentaries for the first time:
• “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, about Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist/neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and its link to football.
• “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” on Netflix, a three-episode deep-dive into the life of the former Patriots star who was convicted of murder in 2017 and was later found to have one of the most severe cases of CTE for a 27-year-old ever.
And after the credits began to roll on each of them, I came to the same conclusion that I do anytime I read/hear/watch anything that even briefly mentions CTE: I hate football.
More accurately, I guess, would be that I hate the NFL, primarily due to its continuous cover-up of the CTE crisis and football’s clear part in it, along with the way it treats most of its former players.
But concussions happen at all levels of the game. So do hard hits, constant head trauma and undiagnosed brain injuries. It’s just the nature of the sport.
There’s a powerful scene in “Concussion” where Omalu is explaining to neuroscientist Dr. Steven T. DeKosky why he believes football killed Hall of Famer Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steeler great who was the first person diagnosed with CTE after his death.
“(He used) the head as a weapon on every single play of every single game, of every single practice, from the time he was a little boy to a college man, culminating in an 18-year professional career,” Omalu said. “By my calculations, Mike Webster sustained more than 70,000 blows to his head.”
When you hear things like that, it’s nearly impossible to deny any sort of link between football and CTE.
Other empirical data supports the link, too.
A 2017 study co-authored by Ann McKee, the director of Boston University’s CTE Center, found that 111 of the 112 brains of former NFL players studied had some form of CTE, suggesting the extreme likelihood that football and CTE are connected.
Since the “Concussion” movie was released, the NFL has acknowledged the link between football and CTE, yet has refused to admit any sort of real culpability on its part.
The league has also begun compensating former players involved in concussion lawsuits against the NFL, but according to a BBC article from June, only 600 of the more than 2,000 former players that have come forward with claims of dementia have received any form of compensation.
Across the country, from the lowest to the highest levels, rule and equipment changes are being made in an effort to make the game safer for its players.
But in the end, is there actually an effective way to make such a violent game safe?
I acknowledge all that football does for young men — and women — across the country, from creating a sense of community, belonging, comraderie to providing college scholarship opportunities and once-in-a-lifetime careers for the best of the bunch.
I also acknowledge how fun it is to watch, how exciting it is to go to games with friends and how thrilling it can be to play. There’s a reason why it’s so ingrained in American culture.
Yet, even as I watch games across Chatham this fall or cheer on the Ravens from my couch, enjoying every second of America’s most popular sport, in the back of my head, I’ll be asking myself:
Am I part of the problem?
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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