Watching Football Is a First World Guilty Pleasure

We like to see the plays but we (should) shudder at the human cost.

Posted Jan 29, 2017

Like many, I thrill to the explosive power and athleticism of football. Here I'm talking about North American football as in NFL and CFL, but I do realize that the rest of the world calls soccer football. That is a whole other discussion! Both versions of football are fantastic and amazing spectacles of athleticism, but it's the North American version that exclusively couples that athleticism with routine collisions of extreme violence.

In December of 2016, Greg Bishop wrote an article for Sports Illustrated magazine called "Get Right Day". The focus was all about what NFL players go through on the day after game day. As the title suggests they try to "get right" after the heavy demands of their job.

Bishop quotes Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson responding to his therapist question of "does that hurt?" with "A little...normal pain." Because pain is a normal by product of the abnormal things football players subject themselves to on a regular basis. Thus, the presence of pain, as Bishop says, becomes "at once normal and extreme". And it's because of this normalization of pain and potentially debilitating chronic injury that I'm calling football a true "guilty pleasure". We like to watch but we deep down know maybe we shouldn't.

I don't just mean the big, big hits that knock a player right out of the game--with concussion, with a knee, hand, wrist, shoulder, rib, name your body part injury. I mean even the routine plays of blockers at the line of scrimmage. Of quarterbacks heaved to the ground. Of running backs stopped an inch shy of the all important first down. All that banging takes a toll on human bodies--including the brains inside them.

In 2015 Nick Clarke and colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan published a study in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism that looked specifically at the accumulation of game day and game play trauma. They took the unique approach of trying to gauge how playing a professional football game and accumulating collisions would affect fatigue and the ability for the human motor system to function.

Clarke and colleagues had 15 University of Saskatchewan football players "play" a simulated game in the laboratory. Before your imagination runs too wild imaging the destruction of state of the art neurophysiology equipment, keep in mind it was a simulation. So, the timing of sprint and contact events, for example, were set up like a game and a whistle was used to initiate "plays" at different stations. Measures of neuromuscular fatigue, force generation, jumping ability, and control of body posture were taken before, immediately after, and 24 and 48 hours later.

As clearly shows in their results, exposing folks to the physiological stresses and collisions found in a typical football game severely impairs their function. The players had reduced force production ability, and impaired counter movement jump and postural control. This study is really important because it was one of the first to  address the concept of accumulation of sub-threshold trauma in collision sport. It's not just about the major injurious collisions that lead to obvious injuries.

Football is essentially a game where amazingly gifted athletes try to run a ball through and around other players who are intent on stopping them by knocking them down. In my book Becoming Batman I wrote about the stresses and strains of the Dark Knight. I quoted Tiki Barber, former New York Giants running back, who said to Sports Illustrated in 2007 "Lie down on the floor 30 times and then get up. It's hard. Now imagine getting knocked down 30 times and getting up. Every day."

Many of us will tune into the Super Bowl and watch some amazing athleticism. And we're going to see some horrific collisions. All of what we do see will be followed by things we won't watch. Those players, both the victors and the defeated, working their way through "Get Right Day" on Monday.

When you watch the Super Bowl, enjoy it for what it is but also respect what these players go through. We get to thrill to the sublime spectacle of supremely trained humans in action. Considering also the real toll this action has on those human bodies and brains may make you feel a bit of guilt there, too.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)