Autumn has its own soundtrack. There is the rustle from leaves being swept across the pavement, and the crunch from dead leaves as I swish through them. There are the squirrels climbing around the trees gathering nuts. They sass my dogs as we walk along the trail.
Canada geese honk loudly as they fly in their V formations to warmer climes. There is the piercing blast and reverberations from shotguns and rifles. Occasionally I hear some crow caws notifying their kin of a newly harvested field. Or starlings summoning their clan to begin their spectacular, trance-inducing murmurations.
The air is dryer and crisper, so the sounds from machines are louder and more differentiated. The thumping motorcycle engines reverberate through my home. The sounds from clattering farm equipment slowly wind through the streets. The high pitched chatter and laughter of children at the end of the school day echoes throughout the town.
But my favorite sounds are the sounds of football games. The ratatat percussion section of the marching band creates a rhythm and pace. The marching band horns blare inspirational songs. Spectators shout, cheer, or groan after each play. The announcer’s scratchy voice over the loudspeaker explains each play and its key participants. At halftime, the marching band prances throughout the field with coordinated instruments that belt out loud, familiar tunes. There is always a low hum from the crowd. The symphony of sounds from a football game is unmistakable.
I am an avid football fan. Not just because I love the game, but because football games were our family time. Every Sunday, I would go to church and volunteer at the animal adoption day, while my daughter went to the barn to ride, and my husband would relax and prepare our favorite appetizers. Then we would gather together and watch football.
Yet, I am very conflicted over football.
Especially college football. The monopolistic grip of the NCAA keeps young kids in an almost slavish status. Large football schools make a lot of money off football, both in donations and ticket sales. But players, who give their body and their youth to this sport, are given merely a scholarship. Some college coaches have multi-million dollar salaries, yet their players cannot afford their meals. If students are injured (as many are), they lose their scholarship and leave with nothing but a broken body. If they fail to graduate during their eligibility period (which is challenging because playing football is a full-time job), they leave without a degree.
Athletes are starting to fight back. After an athlete discovered that his picture was used to promote a game, he sued the NCAA for compensation under anti-trust laws. The NCAA disagreed, arguing the canard that student athletes should be unpaid amateurs. The NCAA lost and the Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that athletes can be compensated. A few states are passing laws that allow athletes to make money on sponsorships and advertising from local businesses. Most of these players grew up in poverty and will not get to play in the NFL; this will be the only money they may earn from years of effort and sacrifice.
At a minimum, the NCAA should ensure that these student-athletes are given a free education despite injury or the inability to complete their degree during the eligibility period. And at an absolute minimum, they should ensure these children are fed.
I have concerns with the violence of football. I love watching the game because of its complexity. There are 22 different players (11 players on each team) for each play and a myriad of coaches, and each player is a crucial link in the team choreography. I love the complexity of the different defenses, stunts, receiver routes, just to name a few. I enjoy watching the creative offenses and spectacular athletes. But I shudder at the violence. If it were up to me, I would prefer flag football.
I know that many people like the violent nature of this sport. ESPN used to have a show that featured brutal tackles and hard hits, called getting “jacked up.” I remember announcers referring to a player who received a concussive hit as “getting his bell rung.” The player returned to the field a few plays later.
And violence was encouraged. The New Orleans Saints defensive coach was suspended for two years for offering a “bounty reward” to any player that injured a player on the opposing team. This coach was videotaped exhorting his players to hit them on the head. Head hits are believed to contribute to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Sadly, the coach was reinstated after his suspension and coaches today.
Football is not the only violent sport by any means. Hockey, boxing, rugby, and wrestling are more violent. But football is easily the most popular sport in the United States. In 2022, 87% of the top 100 watched shows (including sports and entertainment) were football games, yes that’s 87%. Football is not only the most popular sport, it is the most popular form of entertainment in the United States.
Today both players and coaches are concerned about the impact of the violence on player health, especially brain health. Former players like Troy Aikman, Harry Carson, and even Brett Farve would not have played the sport had they known about the potential health consequences. There are many injuries, but the most concerning are head injuries and paralysis. The NFL has finally acknowledged that concussion injuries are the main cause of CTE, which is a fatal brain disease that results in the development of a fatal, early form of dementia.
Recognizing the seriousness of these injuries, the NFL has taken some steps to improve player safety. Each year they ban certain formations (e.g., wedge in kickoff returns), tackles (e.g., leading with the helmet) and blocks (e.g., crackback blocks) that are associated with the most injuries. They are developing special helmets to reduce injuries. There are 30 medical personnel on the sidelines of each game to evaluate an injury, render aid to the player, and determine if the player is fit to continue playing.
At the beginning of each season, each NFL team implements and rehearses an emergency medical action plan to follow in the event of severe trauma. Before each kickoff, all medical personnel from each team and the NFL meet on the field to introduce themselves and review health and safety procedures. They review the location of emergency equipment such as the defibrillator and designate which physician will serve as the leader in case of a cardiac arrest. There are also medical tents on each sideline where players are treated immediately after any injury. If an independent doctor rules that there was a concussion, the player is sidelined and does not return until weeks later after concussion protocols are met.
Football fans witnessed this progress at the January 2nd Monday night football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals. A Buffalo player, Jamar Hamlin, had a freak injury that resulted in complete cardiac arrest. The medical personnel immediately followed their procedures and saved his life.
This was a very rare accident, called commotio cordis, where the heartbeat gets interrupted and stops. Surprisingly, this is much more common for youth playing lacrosse, hockey and sometimes softball and baseball than football. It is estimated that at least 15 to 20 die from this condition each year in the US. But Hamlin didn’t die because the medical personnel at the game were prepared.
Nevertheless, as long as football is a tackling game, there will be injuries. And many of them will be serious. Players joke that NFL stands for Not For Long.
It is also believed that NFL injuries are not the greatest source of brain trauma. Concussions occur in Pop Warner, travel leagues, and school games, where the medical treatment is not as sophisticated and where ambitious coaches may not follow proper protocols. And repeated concussions are believed to cause CTE. Iif we are going to make football safe for the elite few who make it to the NFL, we need to make it safe for vulnerable children. Parents and schools need to be watching closely.
I hope that we can clean up this game. Because football is a uniquely American sport. And fall brings us all of the images and sounds and smells and energy associated with football. This game is part of our culture and I would miss it terribly if it were gone.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.