Can we keep our humanity but still be fans of the NFL, big hits?

Credit: Lionel Hahn

Credit: Lionel Hahn

The pending retirement of Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor has awakened a nagging sense of guilt that lurks within me.

This is no fault of Chancellor's, mind you. His career was a sublime manifestation of the essence of football: hitting the other guy with the most brute force that a human being can muster.

He did it within the rules, and he did it better than almost any of his peers. For that, he earned the utmost respect within the game and complete admiration from those who watched him. And deserved all of it.

But after listening to two days of reminiscing about Chancellor's ferocity and watching his greatest hits (emphasis on "hits") compilation, well, the uneasiness that comes with being a football fan nowadays resurfaced.

Oof, there's Chancellor taking out Vernon Davis! Whoa, there he is de-cleating Demaryius Thomas! Ouch, there he is destroying Montario Hardesty! Man, there he is upending Santana Moss!

Those combustive hits are a large part of what draws us to football. The problem is, we know too much these days. Too much about the debilitating effects of all the vicious hitting, too much (though still not enough) about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), too much about the dark lives of anguish and often tragedy that far too many former players are living (and, in the case of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and others, dying). It's almost impossible to walk away from an NFL career without some level of neurodegeneration, it seems increasingly clear.

The real question, at least for me, is how, as a fan or chronicler, to reconcile that disturbing knowledge with the primordial pleasure that such hits arouse within us. And let's be honest — the violence is a large part of football's appeal, and it has been glorified since the days of Dick Butkus, and even before.

Yet such violence comes at a huge cost, and therein lies the dilemma. And it's not just the spectacular licks that do damage; the latest research has revealed that CTE probably comes from repetitive, sub-concussive hits. Every game, every play, can be viewed as both a visceral extravaganza and a ticket to future complications.

Spoiler alert: I don't have a magical answer that resolves all my mixed emotions. I continue to love the sport and indulge in it enthusiastically, violence and all, while simultaneously feeling the aforementioned guilt in the recesses of my mind over the ill-effects on its participants.

John Hugar wrote in Vice this past January, "The single greatest threat to the NFL has always come down to how much of our humanity are we willing to ignore in order to tune in."

I think you can maintain your humanity and still be a fan, but it takes some mental gymnastics.

I lean toward the judgment of Chuck Klosterman, who wrote the Ethics column in The New York Times. When a reader asked if it was unethical to support the NFL while knowing it was detrimental to the health of its participants, Klosterman responded that it was ethically acceptable.

"Football is a brutal activity," Klosterman wrote. "But this is a known, accepted reality. Professional athletes accept this risk in exchange for the chance at large financial reward and the right to pursue a rarefied livelihood they love and desire. ... People retain the right to pursue potentially dangerous activities, as long as it's their informed choice and they are not endangering ancillary others who have chosen otherwise."

It's been well-documented that the NFL, to its shame, once did all it could to hide that reality. But nowadays, every player knows what he is getting into, and the risks he is taking. Chancellor himself is a poignant example of those risks: He is done with football because of a serious neck injury.

To some, the fact that the players are participating of their own free will should not absolve football. Steve Almond wrote a book based on the premise that the destructive forces of the game are indefensible, called "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto." In a 2014 essay in the Boston Globe entitled, "Why you should stop watching football," Almond explained why he has stopped watching the sport he used to love: "The central reason remains the most basic: because consuming as a form of entertainment a game that causes human beings to suffer brain damage is wrong. It would be convenient to ignore this fact or rationalize it away. It would also be immoral."

Again, none of this falls on Chancellor, other than the fact his consummate skill in the most fundamental element of football — tackling — tended to bring the issue to the forefront. His hitting ability, in fact, is what Seahawks fans will remember most vividly. And, I suspect, most fondly. Even those grappling with the same questions I have will readily concede that Chancellor was an all-time Seahawk who belongs in their Ring of Honor.

In his ethics column, Klosterman concluded, "Football is the most popular game in the United States and generates the most revenue, so we feel obligated to worry about what it means to love it. Well, here's what it means: We love something that's dangerous. And I can live with it."

I can, too. But I still can't quite shake the guilt.

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