This article was originally written in 2008, and edited somewhat in 2010. It originally appeared on my old website.

I’ll be honest. I have only played football once during gym class in 11th grade. It was touch football, not even the real thing. But even though I was not very good at it, I enjoyed it. I even scored a touchdown once. My main weakness was I did not quite understand how the game was played and I must admit that I am still ignorant of some of the rules.

I don’t want this article to be misconstrued. Football is a decent game. Of course, touch football is preferred because of lesser risk of injury and because it is more accepting of disparities between body size. The merits of touch football include learning teamwork and a fair amount of exercise. If exercise was all that mattered in gym class the best way to spend the time would be running around the track and doing sit-ups, pushups, and pull-ups. Football seems like a pretty good tradeoff between learning exercise and teamwork, better than baseball, for instance, which involves very little exercise.

The institution of football is what I wish to criticize. The institution of football includes football teams, athletic scholarships and professional football. I would like to argue that the institution of football is harmful to both the players involved and society at large.

Football is dangerous to society for several reasons. The first and foremost reason is that it is a waste of time. Sitting in front of a TV watching football is a lame, worthless, and mentally lazy activity for those involved. It can also lead to destructive behavior when coupled with binge drinking. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found a 41% increase in driving fatalities in the hours after the superbowl[link] Surges in violent crimes on super bowl Sunday have led one news source to call it “national violence day”. Research also shows that football is physically harmful to those who play it. The “dumb jock” stereotype has an explanation  — the violent impacts of football can kill brain cells over time. After boxing, football is the sport which causes the most concussions, which have been shown to kill large numbers of brain cells.  In a study of high school players, 19% reported a concussion resulting in loss of consciousness, and 78% reported injuries requiring suspension of play. In a study of college players, 34% had experienced a concussion and 20% had experienced two or more concussions. Football can also be very stressful mentally. We all know of the extreme hatred and antagonism between teams but we rarely consider the inter-team hatred and rivalry. Players undergo extreme stress trying to meet the expectations of society and other team members. The blame of a loss is usually placed on the weakest players, leading to inter-team animosity. Instead getting positive regard, weaker players are often ridiculed and alienated from their teammates. It is no wonder that football players often have weaker performance in the classroom. Stress leads to inability to concentrate, irritability and depression.

At this point my detractors might say that football is actually an entertaining, mentally stimulating sport. But this “entertainment” argument is actually an argument against football. Entertainment, by definition, is something that captivates the mind. Movies which “merely entertain”, the worst of which are called “exploitation films”, are designed to appeal to our “baser instincts” and are not considered mentally stimulating in the positive sense. or beneficial sense. They stimulate the lower reptilian brain but not higher levels of thought, (ie. the prefrontal cortex).

In his book Billions and Billions, Carl Sagan explained the appeal of violent sports to the reptilian brain, including football. Males have evolved a hunter instinct, which requires teamwork and aggression. Therefore a mixture of violence and aggression is captivating — entertaining — to the male mind. And as far as I can tell,  this is the primary reason it is entertaining. If we ignore this factor of aggression (manifest in competition, violence, etc), the game is extremely dull. There is no change of scenery and plays are basically repeats of the same material. Essentially it’s a bunch of guys in homo-erotic clothing running around and groping at each other.

The next thing my detractors might say is that “football is beneficial because it gives us people to look up to”, ie. “role models”. But as before, this is an argument against football.  It is true football players have been very determined and have worked hard to become professionals. However, overall this is a circular argument. It assumes football is a good activity, therefore its practitioners should be respected. Isn’t it better to draw inspiration from the hard work and determination necessary to become a professional scientist, politician, engineer or any other career that actually benefits society?  I am arguing that while football is a good sport to be played in gym class, it is not good enough to be played for its own sake or as a career. It is certaintly not good enough to warrant paying people very large amounts of money. The reason is simply that football doesn’t accomplish anything, other than providing entertainment to the reptilian instincts noted before. Can one argue that “strategies” are developed?  Pardon my nerdiness, but perhaps we can compare football to chess. Chess has superstars and professionals, but as far as I know, only a few have actually made a living playing (and teaching) chess. To some extent professional chess players actually do create things of lasting value. From the masters we learn new insights into the game which make us better players and make the game more enjoyable when we play it in our own lives. It is hard to pin down something analogous in football. The popular notion of “football strategy” has always seemed farcical to me. Almost all of the strategy is in assembling the team, not in the play, so it isn’t really applicable to everyday players. To some extent you can get better by watching, but like all activities you learn by actually doing it.. Additionally, it doesn’t seem there are any new strategies being developed in football, unlike chess, where new nuances are constantly coming to the fore amongst the top players. So we are left with a situation where at the end of every football game nothing of lasting benefit has been accomplished. A football has been moved back and forth across a field and a large number of people had their reptilian brains titillated. Where could there possibly be value in this? The question remains unanswered.

Obviously a child will have an easier time understanding the appeal of football as a career compared to career in abstract mathematics. But does this mean we should allow football players to be role models for children? Such a role model gives a lot of false expectations because it is extremely difficult to become a professional football player. A child is very unlikely to succeed and in most cases genetics he can’t control will rule him out. On the other hand, there is a strong demand for professional scientists and engineers so it is virtually inevitable that a child that works hard enough in those fields will succeed.  Unfortunately, because of America’s obsession with sports, parents with good intentions have caused children much pain and disappointment. Another point that we often here in the news is that many football players lead morally degenerate lives. They splurge millions on expensive homes they don’t need and actively flaunt in the the spotlight. We should teach our children to be humble and that inner worth, not public fame, is what is important in life. Sports stars embody neither of these traits and often embody the opposite. Ironically, they are prone to retire early and have serious joint problems as well. Sports news is peppered with lurid articles and scandals involving illicit sex, alcohol, steroids, and senseless acts such as beating up teammates or robbing local donut shops.

I would like see a society where we applaud those who commit their lives to worthwhile endeavors. Where colleges are respected because of the accomplishments of their students, not because of their football trophies. Where students are given scholarships based on academic achievement, not on their ability to move a ball across a field. A society where we revere great scientists, writers and statesmen rather then football players. Where people actually do activities for entertainment, rather than the non-activity of watching football on TV. Where we utilize competition, not to move a football across a field, but to develop new technologies and solve societal problems. Only then will we be able to tackle the big problems humanity is facing.

©2008-2010 Dan Elton