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The Price of the Game
Is it in black people’s interest to support football?
THE PRICE OF THE GAME
Is it in black people’s interest to support football?
Michael H. Creswell
In today’s highly partisan society, fewer and fewer things bind Americans together. No longer are we united by great causes such as those that have filled our nation’s history. The republic is now so politically fractured that we can’t even agree on basic facts, much less shared values or commitments.
But there is one thing around which many Americans rally: football. The popularity of football long ago eclipsed that of its former rivals, such as baseball. Today, countless Americans of all races, ethnicities, and walks of life enthusiastically give their allegiance to their favorite football team. We marvel at the speed, strength, and agility of the NFL’s highly talented athletes. Many of us wish that we were on the field, kicking the winning field goal, throwing the go-ahead touchdown, or administering the monster hit that crumples the other team’s star player.
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Our mood also rises and falls with the fortunes of our favorite team. When they do well, our mood soars like an eagle. When they lose, our mood sinks like a stone tossed in a lake. This love of football prompts us to dig into our wallets and spend our precious cash acquiring our favorite team’s apparel, donning these special garments on many occasions, but most assuredly on game day, that most sacred of all days. And we readily part with hundreds of dollars for tickets, along with the pricy food, drink, and parking that accompany the in-person experience.
But while love of football transcends racial lines, many black people take a special interest in the game. Although the NFL once banned black players for a dozen years (1933 to 1945), today about 70 percent of the players in the league are black, and many of them are among the game’s most talented and celebrated performers. Their success on the field fills much of the black community with a pride normally reserved for family members who have stood out in some way. The players are widely seen as the adopted sons who have “made it.”
Unsurprisingly, many black youth dream of playing in the NFL. Fame, fortune, and adulation await those lucky few who turn pro. Star football players are major celebrities, gracing the covers of magazines and revered by millions. They are also handsomely compensated for their services. In the 2021 season, the minimum salary for an NFL player was $660,000. At the extreme upper end, Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes earns $45 million a year, not including endorsements. It looks like a great life.
But there is another reality which we fail to fully acknowledge: the vast human and material wreckage that football produces. The game is unsafe to play at any level and warps society in ways that can’t be measured by game stats or on balance sheets. And because most college and pro football players are black, they bear the costs of the game more than any other group. Black people should consider whether it might be wise to direct their time and money toward less dangerous activities. Though other mainstream sports can cause serious injuries, none of them, save for fighting (the martial arts, boxing, and kickboxing), cut such a wide and sustained path of human harm and misery.
The game is inherently hazardous because the human body is simply not designed to absorb the punishment meted out by large and powerful men who crash into each other repeatedly at high speed. Make no mistake, these men are physically imposing. The average height of an NFL player is 6’2” and the average weight is 246 pounds. The lowest average weight is that of a wide receiver, which is 200 pounds. Fullbacks clock in at an average of 244 pounds, while defensive ends tip the scales at 279 lbs. The heaviest of all are offensive linemen, who on average weigh 314 pounds. By contrast, the average height and weight of American men aged 20 to 39 is 5’9” and 197 pounds.
The players’ imposing size magnifies the hits they deliver and receive. One study estimates that the collisions in a single game have a similar force to that of 62 car crashes. These hits can cause severe repercussions. More than 100 concussions are recorded each season in the NFL. Boston University researchers found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease, in 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players. In 53 other brains from college players, 48 had CTE. These researchers also found that CTE risk more than doubles after just three years of playing football. And according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of the brains of 202 deceased people who had played football at various levels, from high school to the NFL, 87 percent were diagnosed with CTE. After denying any such connection for years, the NFL acknowledged the link between football and CTE only in 2016.
And although the league agreed to a $1 billion concussion settlement, the dementia tests it authorized to determine who could take part in the settlement were being race-normed. In other words, it sanctioned race-based adjustments in dementia testing which assumed that black men start with a lower cognitive baseline. As a result, several black players were deemed ineligible for the concussion settlement payouts. In response, two black former NFL players successfully sued the league to end this practice.
Apart from this belated admission on CTE, professional football teams have long been aware how dangerous the sport is. They employ a small army of doctors, dentists, and other medical personnel to mend the injuries suffered in games. Over 30 medical personnel are on the sidelines for each game. These medical personnel are kept busy. According to one analysis: “The average NFL player has about a 4.1 percent chance each game of suffering an injury that will prevent him from playing in the following game.” An injury that does “cause a player to miss at least 1 game has a mean average length of 3.1 games missed. All told, a typical NFL player can expect to be healthy and available for about 14.2 games out of 16 [now 17] per season.”
The physical damage caused by football continues to plague players even after they quit the game. Because of the pounding that players absorb over the years, many families are forced into the role of caregiver for men no longer able to function unaided. For example, the 1972 Miami Dolphins reached the pinnacle of football success by going undefeated and winning the Super Bowl. Today, however, the survivors are a collection of men with broken bodies and ravaged minds. At least seven members of that Dolphins team sustained brain injuries. Defensive lineman Manny Fernandez has had eight back surgeries as well as other operations, while center Jim Langer said that after six surgeries, his “legs are bad and my knees are shot.” Of the 47 men on that Miami team, only sixteen were black. Had the racial demographics of the 1972 Dolphins been equivalent to that of current teams, the number of black casualties would undoubtedly be higher.
While the NFL has imposed rule changes to make the game safer, that’s like trying to make Russian roulette safer. From 2015 to 2021, the number of concussions suffered in preseason and regular season games dropped from 275 to 187. But given the pressure to win, it is likely that many concussions go unreported. Doing away with kickoffs would reduce injuries, but the rest of the game would remain unsafe. Fumbles are occasion for mayhem. And new technology has made the game only more hazardous, as have synthetic surfaces, which can be unforgiving, particularly for players who are tackled.
One rule change concerns concussions. In 2011, the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee developed the “NFL Game Day Concussion Diagnosis and Management Protocol,” which was supposed to “to ensure players are receiving care that reflects the most up-to-date medical consensus on the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of concussions.” The Protocol discusses the use of an independent doctor. For each game, the league assigns an “Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant (UNC), who “shall be a physician who is impartial and independent from any Club, … and has documented competence and experience in the treatment of acute head injuries.”
But the actual role the UNC plays is arbitrary. According to the Protocol, “For the avoidance of doubt, the responsibility for the diagnosis of concussion and the decision to return a player to a game remain exclusively within the professional judgment of the Head Team Physician or the Club physician designated as responsible for the diagnosis and management of concussion.”
Thus, the independent doctor is merely an option. The team doctor, who is by definition beholden to his employer, decides if this independent doctor is consulted or if a player enters the concussion protocol. Moreover, one can rightly question how independent UNCs truly are. As the Protocol states,” UNCs are appointed by the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee in consultation with the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) Mackey-White Committee and approved by the NFL Chief Medical Officer and the NFLPA Medical Director…” In other words, UNCs hold their position by virtue of being selected by the NFL. The NFLPA and the league each have the right to fire an UNC without agreement from the other party. That is not true independence.
Recent events have demonstrated the hollowness of the NFL’s concussion protocols. On September 25, 2022, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a 24-year-old of Samoan descent, was badly injured during a game against the Buffalo Bills. Pushed to the ground by an opposing player, Tagovailoa’s head hit the turf. He got up, grabbed his head, trotted a few steps, and then fell down. Accompanied by Dolphin staff members, he walked to the locker room. However, Tagovailoa later returned to start the third quarter and led the Dolphins to a 21-19 victory. The Dolphins and Tagovailoa himself later claimed he suffered a back injury. However, the Dolphins failed to examine his back; they simply took Tagovailoa at his word.
Then on September 29—a mere four days later— Tagovailoa took the field against the Cincinnati Bengals. Once again, he was thrown down and hit his head against the turf. Tagovailoa stayed down for 10 minutes before being stretchered off the field. He was soon released from a local hospital sporting a neck brace and flew home with the team. The president of the NFLPA, J.C. Tretter, said they were “outraged” by how Tagovailoa was treated. The NFLPA also fired the UNC who helped clear Tagovailoa for the game against the Bills.
But after an investigation, the NFL and NFLPA said in a joint statement that “The parties concluded that while the step-by-step process outlined in the Concussion Protocol was followed, the outcome, in this case, was not what was intended when the Protocol was drafted.” Yet the protocols were not followed. As the joint statement concedes, “the team physician and UNC did not conduct an examination of Mr. Tagovailoa’s back during the concussion examination, but instead relied on the earlier examination conducted by other members of the medical staff.”
Attempting to deny the obvious, Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, assured reporters that “Everyone involved sees a patient and not a player. No one involved cares about the position of a player or the score of a game.” He added that “The concussion protocol is not broken.” However, Tagovailoa returned to practice a mere fifteen days after he entered the concussion protocol. Then in Week 16, Tagovailoa reported concussion-like symptoms. Once again he was sent into protocol, causing him to miss the Dolphins’ final three games of the season.
Playing football also produces forms of collateral damage, as other people besides players have been harmed by the game. Several women have claimed they were physically harmed by players. Yet, the NFL has a history of turning a blind eye to allegations of sexual abuse. Antonio Brown, who has been subject to four lawsuits since 2018 for sexual assault as well as an allegation of rape, was nonetheless signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 to a one-year contract worth $3.1 million.
Since 2021, twenty-five women have accused star quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and sexual harassment. But after being traded from the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns in March 2022, Watson signed a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract. This contract exceeds the previous record for fully guaranteed money at signing by $80 million.
After the NFL announced the fine and suspension it was levying against Watson for his conduct—$5 million and eleven games—a reporter asked Browns’ general manager Andrew Berry if the team had known about the graphic information that emerged though court filings and press reporting when it signed the quarterback to his record-setting contract. Berry replied, “We were thorough; we did make an informed decision.”
Like other pro sports, the NFL also fills the heads of black youngsters with dreams that are highly unrealistic. The odds of becoming an NFL player are astronomical. Around 1.1 million males play high school football, and 6.5 percent of them (or 71,000) will play for the NCAA in college. Of these, a mere 1.6 percent will get drafted into the NFL. Only 350 players are invited to the NFL combine, and the draft selects between 200 and 300 players each year (259 were drafted in 2021). This translates into about eight players signed for each of the 32 teams. Even then, some of the draftees are let go before the season begins. And those relative few who make it to the big time can expect a career of, on average, 3.3 years. Just 150 players or 8.8 percent will play a fourth year in the league. Getting to the NFL and staying there is a herculean task.
Football also harms many black players’ educational future. According to one report, at the 65 universities in the biggest NCAA sports conferences, “Black men make up 2.4 percent of undergraduate students but 55 percent of the football players.” Many college football players graduate without receiving a proper education. Up to a third of Division I football players never graduate. In the NFL, 50 percent of players fail to earn a college degree, despite many of them having attended college for four to five years. Of those who obtain a degree, many do not receive an education worthy of the name. Whether they graduate or not, few college players make it to the NFL, and few of them are equipped to successfully navigate life after football.
The game also diverts great human and material resources from other, less destructive uses. Few college football programs are money makers. The NCAA reports that of the 65 autonomy schools in Division I—i.e., those allowed to establish their own rules regarding student scholarships, recruitment, and staffing— only 25 had a positive net generated revenue in 2019. That is a huge opportunity cost.
Football also exploits taxpayers, despite the great wealth of the NFL. In 2021, the NFL generated revenue of $11 billion. Television viewership for the NFL is up. That same year television networks paid $110 billion for the rights to show the NFL for the next decade. The team owners are also very wealthy—the top 19 richest are multibillionaires—and the average worth of an NFL team is $4.14 billion. Yet Indianapolis Colts’ owner Jim Irsay, who has a net worth of $3.5 billion, insists that the league’s biggest current problem is that it does not earn him enough money.
Like other citizens, black people help subsidize the building of multi-million-dollar stadiums for the benefit of well-connected billionaires and multimillionaires. In 2017, Nevada provided $750 million in public funding for the $1.97 billion arena that is now home to the Las Vegas Raiders. In 2020, the owner of the Raiders, Mark Davis, had a net worth of $700 million. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York has proposed spending $850 million for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, estimated to cost $1.4 billion. This even though the owners of the Bills, Terry and Kim Pegula, have a combined wealth of $5.9 billion.
The game also manifests great racial inequality, as it has declined to appoint black leadership on the sidelines. There are currently only 14 black head coaches at NCAA FBS programs, representing just 10.8 percent of the head coaches at the 130 member institutions. Even the ones who are fortunate enough to become head coaches face headwinds. One study indicates that “black coaches are more heavily penalized than white coaches in terms of both penalties per game as well as penalty yardage.”
The NFL’s record is even worse. In 1921, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard took charge of the Akron Pros, becoming the first black coach in NFL history. He nonetheless had to don his uniform outside the stadium because he was unwelcome in the locker room. It took decades before the NFL hired its second black head coach. That came in 1989, when Art Shell became only the second black NFL head coach ever and the first in modern NFL history, leading the Oakland Raiders.
Under pressure, the NFL created the Rooney Rule to deal with the dearth of black coaches. Introduced in 2003, the rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and football operations opportunities in senior management positions.
But the numbers don’t lie: the Rooney Rule hasn’t worked. Since the league’s inception in 1920, there have been over 500 head coaches, and only 26 of them were black. And when blacks are hired as coaches, they are shown the door more quickly than whites. The Washington Post reports that “Since 1990, Black coaches have been twice as likely as others to be fired after leading a team to a regular season record of .500 or better.”
The league’s own reporting lays bare this dismal record. According to the NFL’s 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Report, from 2012 to 2021 there were 62 head coaching hires in the league. Fifty-one of those jobs—82 percent—went to white men. Currently, of the 32 teams in the NFL, just four have black head coaches: Todd Robert Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Michael McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins, Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans, and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. By way of contrast, 70 percent of the players are black. Brian Flores, currently the senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, sued the NFL and three teams—the Broncos, Giants, and Dolphins—claiming they discriminated against him in his head coach interviews with Denver and New York, and in his firing by Miami.
One example of the ineffectiveness of the Rooney Rule concerns the Dallas Cowboys. In 2003, team owner Jerry Jones sought to hire a new coach, But while he interviewed Bill Parcells for two days, he interviewed Dennis Green for only 20 minutes—over the phone. Jones wound up hiring Parcell, whom he wanted all along. So while Jones followed the letter of the Rooney Rule, he violated its spirit.
Another example occurred on November 7, 2022, when Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay fired head coach Frank Reich. He then named Jeff Saturday, a white male, as the team’s interim head coach. His qualifications included playing 13 seasons for the Colts, coaching at a prep school for three years, and serving as an ESPN sports analyst since 2013. The Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which helped draft the Rooney Rule, said in a statement that the Colts highlighted a “gap” in the Rooney Rule: “If the spirit of the rule is to expand opportunities, we believe that it must be consistently applied, even in the hiring of interim positions.”
Racial exclusivity also characterizes the upper echelons of the sport. In the league’s 102-year history, no black person has ever owned an NFL franchise; though a group of black investors made an unsuccessful attempt to do so in the 1970s. The team, called the Kings, would have been located in Memphis. And like the other U.S. major pro sports leagues, the NFL has never appointed a black chief executive. Of 37 general manager positions filled from 2012 to 2021, 31 of them—or about 84 percent—went to white men. This racial exclusivity once extended to officiating. No black person had ever served as an NFL field official until Burl Toler broke that barrier in 1965. But even today, only about 36 of the 122 field officials are black.
As noted above, the NFL had a dozen-year ban on black players. But even after the ban was lifted in 1946, it cast a long shadow. The Giants didn’t have a black player on the roster until 1948, the Packers not until 1950, and the Bears not until 1952. The last NFL team to integrate was the then Washington Redskins. The team’s racist owner, George Preston Marshall, did so in 1962, and then only after massive protests and a threat from the U.S. Department of Interior to revoke the team’s lease.
Despite black support of football, the game has long served as a key site in the nation’s culture wars, especially when it comes to race. Think for instance of the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson and the racial divisions it exposed and widened, or the activism of Jim Brown. Some might argue that professional football has become increasingly politicized in the past decade or so, amid the Black Lives Matter movement (and the backlash to it), and Colin Kaepernick’s protests (and subsequent banishment from the league).
As more and more white middle- and upper-class families forbid their sons from playing football, fearful of the grievous toll it could take on them, the sport could become increasingly blacker. Football will likely remain a powerful magnet for financially poorer black students who dream of making it big on the gridiron and transforming their lives and those of their families. Who can blame them? And while large numbers of black youth play organized basketball and to a lesser extent baseball, their seasons normally don’t coincide with football. In the fall, football is close to being the only game in town. It remains the most popular high school sport bar none.
With the end of the football season upon us, black people, along with other Americans, should ponder some hard questions. Is football worth endangering the health of thousands of the nation’s young men for a few hours of entertainment? Is it worth distorting our educational system? Is it worth subsidizing billionaires? Should we focus so much of our attention on such a violent activity? Is this a price to be paid indefinitely?
Michael H. Creswell is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University, the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe, and an executive editor at History: Reviews of New Books. A specialist on the Cold War, Creswell is currently writing a book that examines the increasing difficulties Americans have in communicating in socially and politically productive ways. He has published previously in the Journal of Free Black Thought here, here, and here.