The weather gods in New York can’t decide whether it should be winter or spring but my 11-year-old son is already dreaming of the playing fields of Prospect Park, near our home in Brooklyn, where he’ll soon begin outdoor sports practice. When he does, we will be confronted with a startling racial divide — hordes of mostly white kids like him playing soccer, and a much smaller group of others, mostly African-American, playing American football.
By football, I mean tackle football — not touch football, its kinder, gentler cousin. Touch involves minimal contact. Tackle is the kind played with helmets and pads. It is also the type that has become the topic of major controversy in the US after years of increasing evidence that the head trauma, which is part and parcel of it, can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has resulted in the tragic — and often horrific — deaths of many professional football players. Several of those affected became so disturbed following repeated head injuries that they killed themselves. The NFL, which took years to recognise the problem, set up a $765m fund in 2013 to compensate the growing number of players with CTE and their families (in the 2015 movie Concussion, Will Smith plays a doctor trying to highlight the issue of brain damage in the sport).
This was a hot topic a few weeks back during the Super Bowl, an event when families across the US gather with friends in front of the TV to eat home-made chilli, drink beer and watch a group of gladiatorial athletes, with an average size of 6ft 3in and 240lb, hurl themselves at each other.
While African-American men make up only 6 per cent of the US population, they represent nearly 70 per cent of NFL players. Meanwhile, 75 per cent of the head coaches are white, as are the owners of 30 out of 32 teams. The same dynamics hold in college football and basketball, in which historian Taylor Branch once detected “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation”. In short, a group of predominantly African-American students fuel a multibillion-dollar industry without getting a dime of that money themselves, aside from scholarships (higher in football than in safer sports).
All of this is something I couldn’t help but think about as I watched this year’s Super Bowl. American football is, in its way, beautiful. Enormous men don’t just bash into each other; they also leap and spin and run with the grace of dancers. And yet, as I watched, I was reminded of the tiny helmets I’d seen on the children in the park. According to the NFL’s own actuaries, some 28 per cent of professional players will suffer brain trauma, including but not limited to CTE. It’s true that the powers that be within the sport have pushed various rule changes to make the game safer, particularly at the youth level. Yet these children are still playing a sport that could, quite literally, lead them to an early grave.
People have many different theories about why this is. Talking about any of them guarantees you’ll upset someone. Some research shows that when it comes to sport, money may be a factor in diversity issues. Academic studies have shown that soccer players, as opposed to American football or basketball players, tend to come from communities that have higher income, education and employment, perhaps, in part, because the sport is still run in the US on a mainly “pay to play” basis, rather than something done for free in schools.
There are others, such as New York Times-best-selling author and Nation writer Mychal Denzel Smith, who believe that black families may see the possibility of upward mobility via sport as worth the risk of injury, particularly in a world in which their economic odds are so poor (youth unemployment among young African-American men is still in double digits). But of course the risk isn’t worth it. The numbers of people who make it to the pros are minuscule. And the backlash around head trauma means that the game itself may not exist — at least in the form it does now — within a few years.
American football is still far and away the most popular youth sport in the country, played at a high-school level by more boys — of all races — than any other. But numbers have fallen over the past few years as many parents pull their children out. It’s interesting that of all those playing now aged six or older, the participation rate for African-Americans is double that for whites, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). The reverse is true in safer sports, such as soccer or baseball.
Sport should be a unifier. Yet in the US, as with so many things, it illuminates our socio-economic divides. A recent report published by SFIA and the Aspen Institute shows that athletic participation for kids aged six to 12 is down 8 per cent in the past decade, thanks to rising costs and declining public funding. Children from low-income households are half as likely to play one day’s worth of any team sport than those from households earning at least $100,000. Childhood obesity is an even bigger health concern than concussions. That’s yet another class and race issue we can see when we step outside our front doors.
Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist and an FT associate editor. @RanaForoohar.
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