Is there such as thing as brain-friendly football? Or even brain-neutral football?
According to those who gathered for the first annual Neuro-Huddle, the answer is “not yet,” and maybe “not ever.” I was honored to join a stellar group of neurologists, former players and coaches, filmmakers, fans, and family members of players impacted by repetitive head injuries in Honolulu last week to discuss the latest research, newest technologies, and dominant culture surrounding football— and their impact on players’ health and well being. It had both the intimacy of a family gathering of people whose lives have been changed by football-related head injuries, and a sobering scientific proceeding of the latest neurological science of CTE and concussions.
The more we find out about head injuries caused by football, the worse the story gets, and the greater the fear becomes that we might be seeing just the front edge of a coming tsunami of health issues, lawsuits, and threats to the game as its played today. It makes intuitive sense that repetitive concussions for professional athletes would do long-term harm, but research showing so-called sub-concussive impacts (of which some players take in the hundreds or thousands every season) could also have similar detrimental outcomes is frightening. And, moreover, new research is showing that youth players are sustaining long-term brain injuries even if they don’t play into adulthood. Once you scratch the surface of this research, and once you see the damage it does to individuals and families, it is hard to fathom how large this issue will become in the future. The NFL cannot deflect, delay, or ignore this issue, nor can parents with kids who want to play football.
I’ve studied and written extensively on the new political formation and power dynamics that will be generated by neuroscience and neurotechnology. I can think of no larger, more high profile neuropolitical issue in the coming years than sports head injuries, and in particular in American football. How we as a society deal with this key issue will be informative for how we might deal with other neuropolitical challenges in the future. Brain issues are both civilization-scale and very, very personal.
I played football as a kid, and I have two sons. I have become an avid reader of research on youth head injuries and now, and as a hypochondriac, watch out for my own cognitive decline. My role at the Neuro-Huddle was to represent alternative futures, but also that of current and future generations of fans. I began my talk by demonstrating my fan bona fides by showing the ecstatic reactions to the greatest ending in sports history by my fellow Auburn Tigers fans. The reactions became a highlight reel of unadulterated joy— a joy that may be lost or squandered if we don’t correct some of the wrongs that are happening in the sport.
Looking at a wide swath of possibility space, I next presented four alternative pathways that the sport of football might take—represented by four original artifacts from these futures.  [posted below, and in these slides]. These ranged from a totally virtual form of football played on a moveable track, to a hyper-vigilant impact management system, to a cyborgian vision wherein players don’t buy better helmets, but grow padding and repair chemicals inside their own heads.
These provocations are an invitation to think more deeply and honestly about what it means to play, watch, and otherwise support this game. This is a very personal question and journey for me. It comes down to this:
- If I won’t let my kids play football, why am I seemingly ok with watching someone else’s kid take such life-altering risks for my entertainment?
- What does it mean to be an ethical fan? What does it look like?
These are the questions and dilemmas that I am trying to face directly. I believe in the coming years more and more sports fans will be confronting and wrestling with these dilemmas as well.
I love football, I love sharing experiences with other fans, I love talking about the games for months and years (I will relive the 2013 Iron Bowl Kick Six forever). Football is “just a game,” but it is a game that binds generations of people together through memories, shared emotions, and stories. The dilemmas we face as fans about head injuries, player health, and a host of other social, economic, and political issues cannot be dismissed. If we can’t draw some line, even to ourselves, about where our limits are and how we can become ethical fans then we will lose all those stories, all those connections, all those highs and lows that exalt us or that we willingly suffer through.
It is an increasingly plausible scenario that we might lose the game itself. If we don’t take some kind of stand, or force some systemic positive action, not only will we lose the game, we’ll deserve to lose it.
I will be exploring the meaning and practice of being an ethical fan over the coming months, with the goal of developing an “Ethical Fan Pledge.” I’ll be doing so with friends at the John Wilbur Legacy Foundation and others in the coming months. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in joining us in the conversation.
Enjoy the Super Bowl this weekend, then let’s get to work to save the game, and the players, we love.
 I had the pleasure of working with four fantastic designers and thinkers on these artifacts. Big thanks to Lloyd Walker (concept creation, development and sketching), verynice.co’s Josiah Pak (Super Bowl lxix) and Virginia Honig (Brain Bank System), and David Horridge (Solidifi).