NFL, Violence, and American Culture

By: Dan Dankert

It’s pretty rare that I write an article anymore, but after seeing what has been going on in the NFL over the first three weeks of the season, I have some strong thoughts on the state of the NFL, and feel like this would be a good avenue to express them. The problem with football isn’t how the players right now are playing it. The problem with football is that it is football.

The rules surrounding roughing the passer are a symptom of a much bigger issue of the NFL; the game, at its very nature, is violent.

The NFL has been doing everything that it can to protect quarterbacks this season, which has led to some very difficult calls for referees to make, and for teams to stomach. Former All-Pro outside linebacker and pass rush extraordinaire Clay Matthews has been called for roughing the passer three times through the first three weeks of the season. To put this in prospective, he has been called for that penalty only four times in 10 years before the start of this season. The penalty in week two cost the Packers a win (instead they tied), and many experts believed the penalty in week three took the Packers’ chances of winning away, and certainly it hurt the team’s chances of winning considerably (they ended up losing the game).

One simple fact needs to be made clear. Clay Matthews isn’t doing anything differently than what he has done in years past, it’s just that the way the league is treating the game has changed. Clay Matthews did not do anything dirty in those hits, and a year or two ago they would have never been called a penalty. Another point: as someone who has played football, I feel as if those hits were not worthy of a penalty, and they certainly weren’t vicious in any way.

Here is a video from that talks briefly about the hit and features some initial reactions from players and analysts:

Football presents dangerous situations. When a 250-pound defensive player (Clay Matthews), is sprinting towards a player standing still (which is any quarterback standing in the pocket), and tackles them (what happened in all of the penalties called against him), the blow is powerful and dangerous. Even if a player lets up or doesn’t really lay into a quarterback, the blow is still quite strong. The problem with football is that it is played in a way that allows these sorts of hits.

The NFL is at a crossroads. Instead of changing the way the game is played, they are increasing penalties for playing the game. This clearly isn’t working. The penalties from the first three weeks of play have made major impacts in the outcomes of games in ways they shouldn’t. I was watching some analysis from this weekend and I believe one of the analysts, Michael Strahan, on Fox said something to this effect, “That sack by Clay Matthews was a football play, and there was no way he could have done anything differently.”

As much as I love the game of football, it is clear to me that the game is slowly dying. The game cannot continue down this path. Football, as it is designed, is too violent, and the violence of the plays leads to CTE.  Today, we know that football leads to CTE and that CTE is severely damaging the quality of life of so many players. For every player that makes $18 Million a year, there is another player making the minimum salary, which is $450,000 for a handful of years, before retiring and then suffering from major health issues in the latter half of their life.

There are so many players who are starting to see the impacts of CTE impact their lives or former teammate’s lives and they are trying to get resources to help fight it. Right now, the Hall of Fame players are attempting to secure life insurance for life from the NFL.  A lot of these players played a very dangerous game for over a decade, and many will face a quality of life in their later years that would leave any American appalled. Their goal is to eventually secure health insurance for life for all players, something the NFL will never go along with, and that probably isn’t even feasible. That being said, looking at CTE is still important. According to the Mayo Clinic ( here is a list of possible symptoms from CTE:

  • Difficulty Thinking (Cognitive Impairment)
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Depression or apathy
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty planning and carrying out tasks
  • Emotional instability
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior

Some other suspected, but not proven, symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Speech and Language difficulties
  • Motor Impairment
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Vision and focusing problems
  • Trouble with sense of smell

Ultimately, the NFL has realized something. The business it has created isn’t sustainable. The more we learn about CTE, and the more widespread understanding of it becomes, the more players will realize they have it. The league is trying to combat this by trying to legislate violence out of a game that, at its very core, is violent. The problem with football isn’t how the players right now are playing it. The problem with football is that it is football. Football is a game where, every single play, 11 men slam into 11 other men in an attempt to slowly move a football down the field, fighting for every inch of ground they can, by using force as a means to do so. As long as the game continues to be that, it will always have issues.

The NFL needs to seriously change the game of football but that is never going to happen. Why? Because people love it, and honestly, to most Americans, football doesn’t even seem violent. Not compared to everything else we see in culture. Have you ever really stopped and thought of how much violence we are subjected to on a routine basis?

Here is an example, I went to, the most popular site for individuals to watch people play video games, and the 10 most popular games were the following:

  1. Fortnite
  2. League of Legends
  3. FIFA 19
  4. DOTA 2
  5. Counter Strike: Global Offensive
  6. World of Warcraft
  7. Playerunknown’s Battle Grounds
  8. Grand Theft Auto 5
  9. Hearthstone
  10. Overwatch

Nine out of ten of those games include some sort of killing. 90%!! How many of the TV shows that you watch include some sort of killing? What about other sports that include violence like MMA, or even pro wrestling?

I’m not saying that we need to get rid of every portrayal of violence in our culture. I definitely won’t stop playing many of the video games that I love that include violence. But I think it’s important to reflect on the violence that is embedded in our culture. When does that violence stop being entertaining, and when does it become dangerous? I would argue that in the context of football, we crossed that point long ago without even realizing it.

It won’t be until a football player we all love, probably a quarterback, commits suicide or homicide, that the impacts of football really hit us in the face. It won’t be until then when we start to see the effects of CTE manifest itself on the faces of players we loved to watch growing up. But by the point that happens it will have been too late, as it probably already is. The longer we wait, the number of players impacted by CTE will continue to grow by hundreds, maybe thousands per year.

I don’t want to see football go. It played a large role in my life growing up. I still love watching the Packers and the Hawkeyes play, but we do need to reflect on what the game is doing to the people who play it.

Is football really worth the lives it will consume to CTE? I don’t believe it is.






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