Gavin Polone: Confessions of an NFL Football Hypocrite

Illustration by Clay Rodery

TV's most popular sport kills its players — everyone knows that now (including the networks that sell $3.5  billion in ads a year) — so how can an intelligent fan rationalize a deadly game? The film and television producer and THR contributor examines his own unshakeable love of the game.

When I was a boy, a period that I feel ended when I was in my late 30s or, maybe, early 40s, I did many things not in keeping with the values I hold to now, as a man. I no longer drive an asshole-ish sports car, I think about whom I may be offending when I say something publicly, I don't eat animals, I rerack my weights and wipe off the bench at the gym, I let the water run only when necessary while shaving, and I don't watch pornography … almost ever. I am unconflicted about whom I have become except for one thing: I still love and watch NFL football.

If you have beheld even one football game, you know that it is a brutal sport. And, most likely, you are aware that there is clear statistical proof of the grave results attached to having had a football career. While the average life span of Americans is 76.5 years, researchers at Harvard determined that the average NFL player will live only to his mid- to late-50s; the average NBA player has a life expectancy of 81 years. A recent study published in JAMA showed that of 111 former NFL players who donated their brains for research, 110, or 99 percent, showed signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This disease is associated with high incidence of behavioral problems, cognitive issues and dementia. Obviously, those numbers make the more mundane but also common health issues suffered by former players seem quaint. Joe Montana, at the age of 61, has a knee he can't straighten, a neck on which he's had three fusions and nerve damage in his left eye.

Of course, many sports present risks. Boxing has similar CTE rates to football but with even higher percentages of those who will suffer severe brain issues like Parkinson's disease and immediate death. In my youth, I watched a lot of televised boxing and was enamored of it. In college, I joined the boxing team for intercollegiate matches. During my second match, I was TKO'd and suffered a mild concussion. I never boxed again, but I continued to follow the sport and attended many fights in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. However, in my early 30s, my interest in boxing waned; or, rather, I should say that it turned to revulsion. No one thing changed my mind, though I did attend a match at The Forum in L.A. where a boxer died. I stopped watching boxing because I came to see myself as someone who eschewed violence in all its forms, so I could no longer find enjoyment watching a sport that was only about injuring another person.

Though letting go of boxing came easily to me, doing so with football has not. Approaching the start of the regular NFL season on Sept. 7, I began asking friends and people I met who were football fans if they thought about how bad the game was for those who played it and whether that made them question their fanship of this ethically challenged product. Uniformly, everyone said they didn't think about it, nor did they want to. All were aware of the dangers. Some then went into an explanation of why "football is the greatest sport ever," avoiding the point of the question. Others said it wasn't on their mind because you don't see the true effects of playing the game, as those manifest decades later. Troy Aikman looks OK now sitting in front of the camera giving commentary, and the ramifications of his back injuries and seven or eight concussions will probably be conspicuous only when he isn't. Since ad revenue for NFL television broadcasts was up 3 percent to $3.5 billion last year, with viewership averaging 16.5 million, networks have an incentive to not dishearten their audience by dwelling on the long-term effects of the game.

As I pressed further on the morality issue, the responses were consistent: "It's their choice to play." "They know the risks." When I brought up that, as with boxing, many players came from circumstances where they would be able to earn a great living and provide for their families only through football, the consensus was that there still was a choice, even if the two outcomes had very disparate financial realities.

Finally, I asked if any of them would allow their children to play tackle football at any level. Again, uniformity prevailed. All but one said "no way," with the other telling me that her son was currently playing middle-school ball and that it terrified her. She also said that she might not let him play in high school. This wasn't a surprise, as many former and current NFL players agree with Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, who said that if he had a son today, "I would not let him play football." ESPN college football announcer and former NFL player Ed Cunningham recently quit, citing his moral quandary over player head injuries.

I get why few admirers of football want to consider its consequences. None of us thinks much about the dangers of being a fireman, either; but we all want there to be firemen. Still, having one fewer entertainment option is very different from dying in a raging inferno. And once you do know that something destructive is part of a given activity, it becomes unethical to not contemplate your decision to patronize that activity, just as it would be if you knew a business used slave labor in Bangladesh to make its product.

At the same time, I do believe that people should be able to make their own choices. Alcohol consumption is involved in a high percentage of the world's tragedies, and I don't partake, but I think the rational use of liquor and recreational drugs should be legal. I'm not saying there shouldn't be limits on the choices we make in our society when it comes to risk-taking for economic benefit. It's clear to me that selling one's organs and gladiatorial combat to the death are over the line. We, collectively, have to weigh the relative risks with what the risk-takers are getting. And in doing so, we have to acknowledge that we all come from different circumstances and appreciate different things. Just because I would not want to hazard giving up years of my life in exchange for fame and fortune, it's reasonable that someone from a different background with a different perspective might think it makes sense to gamble for the opportunity to live the kind of life very few ever get to experience.

Given the extreme peril involved with boxing, I think it is over the line of what should be allowed. But I can say football, with its higher rewards for a greater number of athletes — and slightly lesser level of danger — is not. Close but not over. And if it isn't over my moral line, I guess I should not feel bad about patronizing a truly unique, beautiful and strategically complex sport. Sure, that might be a slight convenience in order to rationalize my suspect ethical lapse, but if so, I can live with myself making football my only vice … that and occasional internet porn.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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