Chris Crowder: Football isn’t just all fun and games

Sunday, September 18, 2016 - 11:19am

Last year, as a poor college kid desperate for extra cash, I stupidly decided to start playing DraftKings — a daily fantasy sports site where you are able to win money by spending as little as three bucks to win much, much more than your buy-in. I played for weeks, not winning, and finally told my girlfriend to hold me accountable — that if I ever mentioned playing DraftKings again, she should say no or slap my wrist.

Don’t get me wrong — I love football. My fondest memories of childhood are watching games every Sunday on the couch with my father. In fact, I still played fantasy football in multiple leagues. I didn't play for the money, though, but just for the thrill of beating my friends when my players — who are risking their lives every time they step on the gridiron — play better than the athletes (who are also risking their lives) on my opponent's team.

That’s why I’m not playing this year. In my point of view, if you really think about it, those who play fantasy football are getting angry at players if they perform terribly, making money and jeering friends when a life-threatening sport is involved. We’re capitalizing — earning money and bragging rights — off players essentially risking their lives.

The sport of football is not being taken as seriously as it should be. There are far more laughs and cheers when we should be wincing as men are engaging in one of the most dangerous sports. The reality of the sport should not be glossed over. Instead of throwing fits over poor performance, we should be more upset about the jarring concussion statistics that have become all too associated with the sport.

Concussions in the NFL and the impact they have on players during and after their careers are too haunting for me to participate in fantasy football for now. I simply cannot be invested in how someone performs for my virtual benefit when something could happen on Sunday that could change their life. Yes, I know they’re making millions of dollars. Yes, I’m aware that most players aren’t hurt in life-threatening ways in a typical game, but who knows what the health of today’s Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton will be like decades down the road? And yes, concussion protocols are stricter in the NFL (leading to better player safety) and hits to the head are now being called as major penalties, but a study released in April by the American Academy of Neurology said that more than 40 percent of retired NFL players showed signs of traumatic brain injury.

Even some current players are choosing to leave the game early because of the reality that head injuries are very common. After one year in the NFL, star rookie Chris Borland decided to retire, citing a concern that he could sustain head injuries if he played any longer. One of the NFL’s all-time greatest linebackers, Junior Seau, committed suicide almost four years ago and it was found that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease in the brain that results from large or repeated hits to the head.

So much of the focus is on that one big hit that knocked someone out cold, when arguably the same attention should be given to the lineman who might smash helmets every single play. Even non-head injuries take a toll on players. The Lions’ beloved wide receiver Calvin Johnson retired this offseason when everyone thought he had many more spectacular seasons ahead of him. As much as I will miss him, I respect his decision and cannot criticize him for prioritizing self-care. His actions, much like Borland’s, are commendable. We must put a player’s health over our affinity for them.

I realize I am faced with a conundrum because I’m still a fan of the sport and I still contribute to the sport by watching my Lions every Sunday as if it’s an extension of my religious activity after going to church. I’m not saying that we should stop watching football or stop playing fantasy football, but that we should examine and recognize that football is dangerous, first and foremost. The players know the risks and keep playing. The fans can know the risks the stars on the field are making and keep watching.

Football should be thought of as more than entertainment. Football has serious health implications. All I see on Saturdays and Sundays during, before and after games are questions such as whether Harbaugh ate a booger at the end of the UCF game (I think he was just biting a hangnail) or if Lions fans will be able to stop saying “At least there’s next year!” this season.

There must be more of open discussion on how the game is dangerous and what is being done to make it safer. We boo on targeting calls, but how often do we stop and think, “Geez, is the player that got hit going to be OK?” Will we value their health instead of their performance and presence needed to win a game?

So while I cheer when my favorite teams get to the end zone, I pray at the same time that they’ll be safe out there. Stay strong, but take care of yourselves, my brothers.

Chris Crowder can be reached at ccrowd@umich.edu.