The human brain is hard-wired to manage conflicting thoughts and emotions. We know drinking alcohol can cause liver damage and burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment, but many of us still drink alcohol and still buy gas-guzzling vehicles.
Most people have generally accepted that playing football, in addition to teaching life lessons about teamwork and dedication, can lead to long-term brain damage, like any activity that involves a lot of collisions with other human beings or crashes with the ground.
And yet football remains the most popular support in America, a behemoth that we spend billions of dollars on each year. We inhale the competition on television and our stadiums heave with noise and life, especially at this time of year, when rival teams play each other and neurologists’ concerns about the players’ well-being drift out of mind.
We know that by watching these games we are supporting a system that may carry dire consequences. Research has shown, and even the N.F.L. has acknowledged, a connection between concussions, repeated hits to the head and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease known as C.T.E., whose symptoms include dementia and brain damage.
So what were some responses of people heading to Michigan Stadium for a midseason game between Michigan and Notre Dame when they were asked why they were there and where their thinking was on football, knowing it could cause players lasting health issues?
“We need to do it as safely as possible.”
“When you sign up to play, you know what you’re getting into, right?”
“That’s a really hard aspect for me. I work in public health, so I see effects of this every day in my work, and I go back and forth.”
Football is not going anywhere. That is easy to see during the week of Thanksgiving, when the game is everywhere and college football’s most storied rivalries dominate the airwaves. How is that possible, given what everyone knows? The human brain is capable of amazing things.
‘I’m very very invested at this point.’
Nikhil Tellakula, University of Michigan alumnus.
“I definitely support the players, like if you have a concussion, don’t play — because we’ve seen proof of downstream that being a big deal.”
‘Somebody has to represent the faculty.’
Charlie Doering, University of Michigan professor.
“I’m thinking that this is the last generation that’s going to see the game played this way. Perhaps maybe it’s time to take the helmets off, because you see games like rugby or something where they don’t have all the padding on and somehow they don’t seem to hurt each other as much.”
“I’m a physician, so it’s real.”
Charles Boyd, University of Michigan alumnus, with his daughter, Maya.
“Football is so much a part of America. But I think we need to do it as safely as possible. I think there are ways you can do that, so that’s what I support. So that means that if the kid is injured in any way, they need to be pulled. Their health is definitely more important than the game.”
“No one is forcing you to play.”
Ryan Dewan, Notre Dame fan
“When you sign up to play, you know what you’re getting into, right? It’s like when you get on a roller coaster and there’s a disclaimer. Your phone could fall out of your pocket or you could throw up, but you still get on the ride because you want the thrill of going on the ride. So if you want to play the game: It’s your body, but it’s your choice.”
“I am all in. I love it.”
Edie Lucas, University of Michigan fan, with her daughter, Keegan Maher.
“I have a son who’s 14 years old, and he’s playing high school football. Football is just part of who we are. I know it’s something that my son really wants to play. We can do what we have to do to make sure he’s conditioned to play. And you know, go from there.”
“I’ve been going to games for 30 years.”
Jeff Dempsey, lifelong Notre Dame fan.
“I do think that college and pros need to step up their awareness on that and make it more safe because it’s a deadly sport. It really is.”
“It truly brings our whole family together.”
Molly Hilboldt Lewallyn, with her grandfather Jim Hilboldt, University of Michigan Law School, class of 1956.
“I think they deserve and should get the very best equipment. And if they have any kind of injury that puts their brain in doubt, they should be pulled into an ambulance. Even if they lose the game.”
“As we continue to understand the risks, it’s insane what they’ve done. I respect them.”
Deane Zimmerman, right, University of Michigan alumnus, with Abi Preston, lifelong Michigan fan.
“Obviously, I love the sport and it’s a lot of fun. But as an engineer, too, you want to make sure they’re the safest you can make them.”
“I fell in love with the culture, the energy, the school.”
Kenna Gebissa, former University of Michigan student.
“There should be more regulations, perhaps, about how the game is conducted. But players go into it knowing their own risks.”
“I want to support the teams.”
Kaitlin Grosgebauer, Michigan fan.
“There are many advancements in helmet technology, in the different coaching strategies and different rule changes. Ultimately I think that the good that they’re doing outweighs the potential negatives.”
“You come together as one group.”
Brad Schrock, left, Notre Dame fan, with his friend Greg Stahly.
“We used to look at it as: Oh, yeah, just watching this for entertainment. But these people might sacrifice their mind or body.”
“There’s a certain camaraderie and energy here that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Tessa Perez, University of Michigan alumnus, with her father, David.
“As long as we’re taking the necessary precautions of making sure that as players receive concussions or other injuries that they’re getting the proper care and they’re getting the proper follow-up and not being pushed to go back on the field until they’re ready — mentally, physically, emotionally, all of that — then we can stand by and support this sport, as long as that is happening.”