Football and Brain Damage, or How American Masculinity Ravages Men’s Bodies
Earlier this year, many retired football players and their families filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. The complaint states that the NFL hid evidence of the dangers of the game, dangers like brain damage from repeat concussions and sub-concussive trauma. New research indicates that the repetitive beatings that football players experience over the course of their career causes irreparable damage to their brains, leading to cognitive, emotional, and functional problems similar to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Several players committed suicide after repeat concussions left them with depression and mood swings, and many others continue to suffer memory loss, cognitive impairment, and balance problems.
American football inevitably leads to injury; it is part and parcel of the game. There is no way that 22 men, weighing somewhere between 200 and 350lbs can charge at each other at full speed, collide and pile on top of one another, without someone sustaining injuries along the way. Couple the inevitability of injury with the gendered expectation that men endure pain in silence (“no pain, no gain”), and you have the perfect storm of conditions. You end up with men suffering in silence until their symptoms become uncontrollable; you end up with players who voluntarily continue to play after sustaining an injury; you produce “role models” who perpetuate this unhealthy lifestyle to boys who desperately want to fit in.
But why do men comply? Why do they continue to take the beatings? We might explain this by looking at the financial gains of professional football players. But so many men play the game from early on, through middle and high school, and into college, knowing that their chances of making it a career are very slim. So the reasons for continuing to endure the trauma are psychological and cultural.
We’ve long known that masculinity has many requirements for men, among them the demand for aggressive and competitive behavior. Boys learn early on that they should be adventurous, willing to lead a rough-and-tumble life, and nowhere is this guideline so clear as in the context of violent team sports (Dufur and Linford, 2010). The fact that the football field is an all-male space connects it to patriarchy—men prove their superiority as a group because it is their bodies, not women’s, which are capable of all that football requires. But patriarchy isn’t just about men dominating women, but also about men dominating other men. The homosocial bonding between team members, coupled with the intermale dominance (Sabo, 1994) where one team of men conquers another, and men compete with one another to be the strongest/fastest/best, makes football (and other male-dominated sports) a zone of patriarchal practice.
Men police one another’s gender performance on the field (Vaccaro, 2011; White, Young, and McTeer, 1995): men who don’t run fast enough are said to “run like a girl” or those whose passes don’t fly far enough “throw like a girl”; those who sit out after being tackled are “pussies” who “can’t take it”. Players must demonstrate their manliness by rejecting any semblance of feminine behavior, even those behaviors that work as self-preservation. As Don Sabo explains, the players all adhere to the “pain principle,” a philosophy that “prioritize[s] pain over pleasure” (White et al, 1995). Pain in sport is normalized—players expect it, and learn to cope in various ways. Some hide it from themselves and others, some downplay it; even those who must acknowledge it and seek treatment usually return to the sport that harmed them (White et al, 1995). Ironically, men must break their bodies in order to prove that they are unbreakable (Messner, 1990; White et al, 1995).
Something has to give. Up to this point, the only give has been in players’ bodies—the bones that break, skin that bruises, brains that bounce around inside skulls. But I think that these bodies can give no more. I think we need to make some changes. We need to make ourselves aware of the demands we make on our boys and men, and the demands they enforce on each other. If we are going to ask them to demonstrate physical prowess through aggressive and competitive sports, then we cannot also demand that they suffer in silence. There must be room for men to acknowledge their pain, and seek treatment and therapy. We should probably also consider age restrictions on these dangerous sports (football, hockey, and wrestling, for example, are all guided by the “pain principle” and lead to negative health outcomes); should we teach our 8 and 10 year olds to play a game that may, by the time they reach college, leave them with brain damage comparable to that in elderly dementia patients? Finally, we need to find a new national pastime. Maybe one that doesn’t promote gladiator-like brutality and abuse, not to mention drug abuse and homophobia.
Dufur, Mikaela J. and Matthew K. Linford. 2010. Title IX: Consequences for Gender Relations in Sport. Sociology Compass 4(9): 732-748.
Messner, Michael. 1990. When Bodies are Weapons: Masculinity and Violence in Sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 25(3): 203-218.
Sabo, Don. 1994. Pigskin, Patriarchy, and Pain. In Sex, Violence and Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity. Edited by Michael A. Messner and Donald F. Sabo. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
Vaccaro, Christian Alexander. 2011. Male Bodies in Manhood Acts: The Role of Body-Talk and Embodied Practice in Signifying Culturally Dominant Notions of Manhood. Sociology Compass 5(1): 65-76.
White, Philip G., Kevin Young and William G. McTeer. 1995. Sport, Masculinity, and the Injured Body. In Men’s Health and Illness: Gender, Power, and the Body. Edited by Donald Sabo and David Frederick Gordon. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. pp 158-182.
Real men don’t wear pads or helmets. The pad less game rugby union that originated in the UK and is played in most of the ex-commonwealth countries, has undergone a some changes to the rules to prevent deaths on the playing field from broken necks and concussion. Rugby league, that evolved out of rugby union, is a much less contact orientated game. There are less damaging alternatives or even more damaging.
Readers might also enjoy the recent Roundtable elsewhere on The Society Pages, “Concussions and Consequences” http://thesocietypages.org/roundtables/concussions/
thanks for sharing the roundatable! Great points made by all. A note on the “choices” players make…the men who make it pro are so far into the game for so long, that their “choice” to continue the brutality is abrely even their own. Probably they’ve spent so much time being encouraged by authority figures–parents, peers, coaches etc.–before they even get into high school that the choice is already made for them. And the rewards, even early on, are great. I think this is why we see such high rates of eating disorder among male wrestlers (I’m talking hs wrestling, not WWF style). When you need to make weight, and everyone congratulates you for doing it, for working out as hard as you can without eating, and the perseverence it takes to lose the weight, it no longer seems like a disorder. It just is the right thing to do. And when yu keep to an unhealthy weight as your parents and friends encourage it, then again, ou end up in dangerous territory. So my new question is how do we get the adults in these children’s lives to stop their complicity, to see the damage long term that their actions may be causing? And also, how do we remove the dangerous elements from masculinity at a cultural level?
I completely agree that something needs to give when it comes to America’s favorite sport, and I think that the change has already begun. Many high schools now require their athletes to be impact tested before the start of the season. This is a test that can be used to compare brain function before and after a head injury for early identification of concussions. Also, while I have no specific evidence to support this, it has been my experience that most coaches nowadays take injuries more seriously than they did in my parents’ day. Never once have I or anyone that I have talked to on the subject been pressured to continue playing after an injury, no matter how trivial. My father, however experienced coaches that had a “rub some dirt on it” attitude. I am hopeful that as more awareness is raised, people will be more cautious when it comes to sport injuries, and perhaps we will move away from the more dangerous sports as a nation.
I’ve never been a sports participant so I cannot speak to current coaching trends, but I imagine there is variation by locale. Where high school teams form the crux of a town identity, I’d imagine that coaching is more intense; or in places where students aim towards football scholarships and professional careers, again I think it would be more intense. I hope that the national attention being raised on this topic will increase awareness about the dangers and cause coaches, and parents, to think more carefully about their children’s participation and safety.
My mom played softball in high school and has a story about coaching. (I was surprised because I didn’t think of softball as aa particularly dangerous sport, and especially since it was a women’s team, this surprised me.) She was a pitcher and during a game, shattered the bones in her hand. The coach taped her hand into a claw like shaped so she could grasp the ball, and kept her pitching until the end of the game. Unbelievable. This may be one arena where our litigious society prevents these tpes of abuses–fear of a lawsuit is a big deal, especially in public school districts.
I agree that something needs to change, but I believe it needs to be a cultural change. The patriarchal practices and the views on what masculinity is needs to be modified in order to change the stereotypes that is associated with gender to prevent the unhealthy lifestyles football players face. Boys are socialized from a young age to be aggressive and competitive in order to “be a man”, from their family and peers, and to not recognize pain and to hide it, because pain is associated with weakness and is not “manly”. Instead, boys should be taught that pain can be expressed without losing their definition of masculinity. I agree that something has to change, because hiding pain isn’t healthy, because then they will not be able to seek treatment.
Thanks for citing my work Amanda!