Against American football

I have a love-hate relationship with American football. The “love” part started in my childhood. I have tons of fond memories watching University of Michigan football games with my father, and that same familial connection of football between me and my kids continues to the present. Simply put, I love watching football – even the Lions. 

The “hate” part started when I began to teach a Sociology of Sport class and read critical and thoughtful scholarship related to American football. Today, at this point in my life, I strongly feel that football should be banned as a sport in the U.S., and I am trying to wean myself from watching football. It has been difficult. So yes, I live in terrible tension with football. With this tension in mind, let me give you my take on why I am against Calvin adding a football program to our athletic teams.

The main argument in support of adding football to Calvin’s athletic programs is financial; adding football will increase enrollment and thus be a financial gain to the institution. An additional financial argument can be made relating to alumni – the supposition being that alumni will be more interested in Calvin via football and then donate to the university more robustly down the road, a notion that has absolutely no empirical support.

But does this argument of increasing enrollment add up? In my opinion, you are cherry-picking data if you are predicting that enrollment will increase. The research is far from clear on this issue. For example, some scholarship shows that enrollment may initially increase, but it will also decline after a few years to rates well below what is touted by the proponents of adding football to an institution. This research shows that what you have is a short-term bump then a decline, rather than a long-term gain. There is no guarantee that even the initial costs of implementing a football program will be made up, and just because a donor is willing to pony-up the initial costs needed to start a football program does not justify adding football.

Further, there is ample data showing that retention rates drop at schools who add football. Why? Because student athletes who play football have lower retention rates than their peers. By the way, for well over a decade there has been a dramatic decrease in youth football participation across the nation, which means that the recruitment pool of potential student athlete football players is getting smaller. The idea that adding football adds revenue via student enrollment is not the rock-solid argument touted by proponents. But even if this were a guaranteed approach to increasing revenue at Calvin, I am still opposed to such a move.

Adding football at Calvin in order to increase revenues reeks of exploitation. Let me make a parallel argument. Numerous scholars have argued that the Power Five conferences (soon to be Power Two) exploit student athletes. In many schools millions of dollars in profits are made through football and basketball, but student athletes get none of the profits. (Name, Image, and Likeness [NIL] money does not come from the institutions). Calvin’s goal of increasing revenue through adding a football program can be seen as just another form of athlete exploitation: we need more revenue and will use football players to get it –– exploitation.

We already have the teams – let’s just get creative in order to build community.

Proponents of adding football have also argued that school spirit would be generated by adding football. But don’t we already have many sports teams that achieve this? Let’s lean into supporting these teams and expanding the fan-base and school spirit through ideas such as taking students via buses to Hope College in order to support the women’s volleyball team. I believe this great idea contributed to a Division III national record being set for women’s volleyball attendance just a couple of weeks ago. We could organize tailgating cookouts prior to soccer games. We already have the teams – let’s just get creative in order to build community.

It seems to me that Calvin is ignoring the ethical and moral sacrifices requisite in adding football.

It seems to me that Calvin is ignoring the ethical and moral sacrifices requisite in adding football. What are these sacrifices? First, we are harming the physical and cognitive well-being of student athletes who play football. The sport is obscenely violent. The data is clear on this issue. Here’s a stat that no football fan wants to hear: anyone who makes it to the NFL has, on average, taken 20 years off their life expectancy. Does Calvin want to be tied to a sport that does this to its best players?

I hear defenders of the violence associated with football argue that women’s soccer has just as high rates of concussions as football and therefore football is not really that dangerous. In fact, such folks should use women’s hockey in their comparison as rates of concussions are much higher in women’s hockey than in women’s soccer. This has always struck me as a stupid argument. Female athletes have higher rates of concussions in sports not because the sports are more violent but because female anatomies make them more susceptible to concussions. But more to the point, why don’t we use these statistics to argue that women’s soccer and ice hockey need to consider how they can reduce concussions rather than use this data point to justify the violence in football? 

The comparison of women’s soccer concussion rates to football has also been used to make a facile defense against concerns over Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE describes brain degeneration caused by repeated head traumas and is strongly associated with football. The condition is horrible, degenerative and includes symptoms of short-term memory loss, mood shifts, anxiety, depression, agitation, violent outbursts and suicidal ideations. 

Defenders of football will often use the women’s concussion comparison in an effort to show that CTE is not really that big of a deal, but autopsies of NFL players’ brains have shown pervasive CTE in players who were never diagnosed with having a concussion. How does this happen? While concussions do contribute to CTE, research has conclusively shown that the micro-concussive blows that players experience in football are major contributors to CTE. 

These micro-concussive blows occur every time the ball is snapped in football. Picture a defensive lineman slamming into an offensive tackle when the ball is snapped. You’ve just pictured a micro-concussive occurrence. Some may argue that CTE only occurs in football players with long careers (NFL players), and by virtue of these athletes being bigger, stronger and faster, they thus have more devastating micro-concussive occurrences. Not true; at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, researchers have found evidence of CTE while doing an autopsy of a high school football players’ brain. Head traumas early in life contribute to CTE.

The facts are clear that playing football has long-term negative impacts on players.

The facts are clear that playing football has long-term negative impacts on players. But the NFL, in order to appear concerned with player safety, has touted the development of safer helmets and improvements to in-game injury assessments. These efforts are a complete publicity stunt orchestrated to comfort freaked-out parents who are concerned about the dangers of potential head trauma to their kids who play football. The entire entertainment industry is jeopardized if parents decide that it is unsafe for their kids to play football. The NFL can’t have this.

Want to assuage my concerns about CTE? Develop a helmet that measures micro-concussive blows during practices and games. If this were done, then the CTE curtain that the NFL is so keen to keep closed would be opened, and I suspect the football entertainment industry would collapse. The NFL is fully aware of the horrible damage done to its players, but it does not care. Profit motives have pushed aside moral and ethical concerns. The NFL will do anything to keep this knowledge away from the fan-base (their profit base). In my mind, adding football at Calvin is motivated by the same thing – profit. However, as the NFL is completely morally and ethically compromised, I don’t think the same of those who support adding football to Calvin. I believe that proponents of adding football to Calvin are unable or unwilling to see through the NFL’s “football is getting safer” narrative.

As a quick aside, more and more non-Power Five conference programs participate in non-contact football practices out of CTE concerns. An odd take on the issue from my perspective – the crazy violent sport can happen for entertainment on Saturdays, but it would be inappropriate to allow this of our student athletes during the week. Yet another attempt to put a band-aid on a gushing artery. Relatedly, my eyes roll when I hear of youth football leagues not allowing contact until a certain age. This approach assumes football is actually safe at a certain age; I am not buying this. 

Another moral and ethical compromise concerns gender equity. Adding a football program adds male student athletes, not female student athletes. Calvin understands that it will need to add more women’s sports programs to at least attempt to stay in line with Title IX. Unfortunately, this move makes it seem like women’s athletics is an afterthought to what we are really interested in doing – adding football. When one of my departmental peers asked a Calvin female triathlete if there were men on the team, her response was “no.” She stated that Calvin was only adding women’s sport teams in order to get ready for adding football. I do not see this decision as affirming in any way to female student athletes at Calvin.

A final moral and ethical compromise is also related to gender. It is hard to get around the observation that U.S. football is grounded in male aggression and violence. Football serves to support what some might call toxic masculinity. In Calvin’s 2011 Football Feasibility Task Force Report, numerous colleges that started football programs were questioned on a number of topics. These school’s observations of football student athletes were not encouraging. Eighty-three percent of schools reported disciplinary issues for football players who were taller or much taller than the rest of the student body. Seventy-five percent reported disciplinary issues to be higher or much higher compared to other athletes. Fifty percent reported football players had a negative reputation compared to other students, as well as other athletic teams. If similar dynamics were to occur at Calvin, then adding football would impact the social vibe at Calvin and not in a good way.

I have not heard a single convincing argument that ties football to Calvin’s mission.

One final thought. I have not heard a single convincing argument that ties football to Calvin’s mission. In 1987 when Calvin pondered adding football, the same critique was made – football adds nothing in support of Calvin’s mission. I would take it a step further today and argue that football is antithetical to the mission of Calvin University.