Good Sports

Everyone expected a short homily—and we got it. My childhood priest knew the Mass needed to finish on time since everyone was about to rush to the next liturgical rite: game day in Green Bay, Wis. Growing up 20 miles south of Titletown, U.S.A., the nickname for the city of 104,000 whose famous football team boasts 13 National Football League titles, I lived for football Sundays.

Before Mass, my family prepared the necessities: team apparel, seat cushions, a charcoal grill, packs of bratwurst and coolers full of beer and soda. When Mass ended we zoomed home, dressed up, loaded up and headed for the shrine, Lambeau Field, to meet 60,000 of our friends for the noon kickoff.


Now 31 and living far from home, I still feel a rush of excitement as the N.F.L. regular season begins on Sept. 5. But things are different now. The innocence is gone. Recent headlines have reminded me of the shadow side of professional sports.

Since 2006 more than 50 N.F.L. players have been suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. This might be small news, however, compared to another developing story: 4,000 retired players have filed a class action lawsuit against the N.F.L., claiming that the league knew for decades about the long-term health consequences of hits to the head but concealed this information from its players. One recent study suggests that players in the N.F.L. between 1959 and 1988 were more likely than the general population to develop Alzheimer’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and players with greater exposure to high-speed collisions on the field were three times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease.

In the world of baseball, the Biogenesis scandal—named after a Florida clinic that provided performance-enhancing drugs to some of the game’s biggest players—has resulted in the longest slate of suspensions in the game’s history. Alex Rodriguez is currently appealing a 211-game ban; Ryan Braun accepted a 65-game ban. Twelve others, including three all-stars, were given 50-game bans. Our national pastime’s steroid era is not yet behind us.

Maybe at one time sports fans could simply enjoy the helmet-smashing hits and record-breaking home runs and look the other way when our favorite team benefited. Those days are over. This raises important questions: Is it enough for me to be a passive consumer, simply looking for entertainment, with little concern for the internal business of these sports? Or must I now become a more conscientious and responsible consumer? Sports are big business, of course—the N.F.L. brings in more than $9 billion annually, and baseball is close behind ($7 billion)—and fans drive this machine by spending big bucks on game tickets and team apparel and by sending television ratings and advertising revenues through the roof.

Do fans have the power to help shape professional sports? Remember the swift resolution of the labor dispute between the N.F.L. and its locked-out officials in September 2012. In a nationally televised “Monday Night Football” game, replacement referees affected the outcome with a botched call on the final play. Fans decided they had had enough. That night the league office reportedly received 70,000 voice mail messages demanding an end to the lockout. Within 48 hours, league officials and the referees reached a tentative agreement, and the regular referees were back on the field.

This mass action makes me wonder what else might be possible if sports fans become genuinely concerned about player safety and are willing to do something about it or are able to channel their outrage constructively over the continued use of P.E.D.’s.

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, has required all its athletes to have “biological passports,” documentation of a combination of urine and blood testing, by 2014. What if fans demanded similar testing in every major sport, or demanded that the N.F.L. release more information about the long-term effects of concussions?

I savor the epic stories that sport offers, especially those that highlight humanity at its best (look up the stories of Jason McElwain, Sara Tucholsky and Jack Hoffman). I love watching world-class athletes play at their highest level. I marvel at what the human body is capable of. I revel in the drama of big games. But sports need to be safe and fair for all involved. It is time to call the commissioner.

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