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The War on the War on Football

“There are a lot of geniuses out there that are diminishing football right now,” ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden told the crowd earlier this year at the annual convention for USA Football, the sport’s governing body for amateur leagues. “There are a lot of geniuses that are trying to damage the game, and ruin the game. Do you feel it? There are a lot of geniuses that want to eliminate all sports, including recess.

“Not on my watch, and clap your hands if you’re with me on that,” Gruden added in his signature snarl, eliciting loud applause.

The focus of the convention was how to make football safer at the youth level in light of the mounting research that the sport causes irrevocable, long-term brain damage, and a fear that boys would abandon it in droves. But Gruden took the opportunity to criticize the doctors and research scientists responsible for assembling that very evidence, defending football not on scientific grounds, but as a cultural battle against those who’d wish to ban America’s most beloved cultural institution.

Much like our current political climate, the debate over whether football is safe has become more about identity politics than the issue itself. The debate wages in the comments sections of Breitbart and Pro Football Talk; on Twitter and r/NFL, Reddit’s popular NFL forum; and in the towns obsessed with their high school, college and professional teams.

On one side is the growing number of medical professionals, concerned parents, activists and former athletes pointing to research linking football to debilitating brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, ALS and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a rare neurodegenerative disorder found in basically every player who’s donated his brain to science. Many of them are calling to either fundamentally change how the game is played or to outright ban it.

On the other side of the debate are the ardent football fans, all of whom view the sport as an essential part of American life. They either reject the scientific claims out of hand, or caution that the research is nascent but inconclusive, or say the sport’s edifying and community-building aspects far outweigh its risks. Some just choose cognitive dissonance, separating the troubling medical findings from their lifelong enjoyment of the game.

But common among all their defenses is that the sport is under attack by left-wing intellectuals who, once again, think they know better than everyone else.

Breitbart has repeatedly dismissed studies linking football to CTE as “junk science,” even after the NFL itself acknowledged last year that such a link exists. They likewise celebrate NFL owners who deny a causal relationship between football and long-term brain injury, and uphold dubious reports that seem to refute the idea. And they denigrate the media outlets that perpetuate the football-CTE “myth” — specifically their sworn enemy The New York Times, which by spring 2015 had published four times as many stories about CTE than there were documented cases of the disease.

“Ironically, anti-football crusaders speak in the name of science as they present falsehood as fact and conjecture as conclusion. Junk science often persuades through social pressure rather than laboratory proof. Real science shows better health outcomes for football players and a dramatically safer sport than the one our forebears played. Such pleasant truths may not be as fashionable as Chicken Little-style claims condemning Pop Warner players to an addle-brained existence, but at least actual scholarly research back them up.”

The NFL and Breitbart make for strange bedfellows considering the site’s anti-establishment bent and that the NFL is the most powerful and cynical of the major professional sports leagues. But in the NFL, the far right has found an ally against an intellectual class they perceive as a threat to liberty. In the culture wars, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and conflating professional football with the sport of politics is an effective debate tactic.

Comments about the dangers of football, especially at the youth level, are equally divisive on Pro Football Talk, a football news website known for its rabid conservative readership. In a PFT story about a landmark study released last week that showed signs of CTE in the brains of 110 out of 111 former NFL players, one commenter suggested a de facto tax on players’ salaries that would go to funding CTE research: “It might seem like more taxation, but for future generations of NFL players it is necessary.”

The comment has 85 downvotes to 25 upvotes.

“There is no sane reason for any parent to have a kid play football for any reason whatsoever,” reads the top comment on a PFT story about NFL lineman Joe Thomas, who readily admits to having memory problems at just 32 years old. “You should be thrown in jail if you knowingly have kids play football as a youth in this decade.” The comment has 24 downvotes to 9 upvotes.

Barstool Sports writers Dan “Big Cat” Katz and PFT Commenter (real identity unknown) have turned the culture war around football into comedic fodder on their popular podcast “Pardon My Take.” With the start of the NFL season just weeks away, they’ve introduced a new segment to the show called “The War on the War on Football,” where they retaliate against the seemingly endless wave of stories about the dangers of the sport.

“The NFL is like a husband or wife that drinks too much and you say, ‘I’m gonna leave.’ And then you’re like, ‘You know what, you’re a lot of fun to fuck. We’re sticking around. The sex is really good,’” PFT Commenter recently said of people trying to pry themselves from following the league in light of concussion research.

Others, such as concussion awareness advocate Kimberly Archie, strike a far more serious tone:

The debate is parallel to the ongoing argument about the legitimacy of climate change. Seemingly no amount of scientific consensus can convince a certain subset of voters that the planet is warming at a worrying rate and that humans activity is the cause. The resistance to climate science often has little to do with science at all, and is more about bristling against the perceived elitism of people who support climate change. Concussions in football can be seen in much the same light.

Case in point: The USA Football convention Gruden spoke at ended with the organization creating a new, supposedly safer form of youth football called “modified tackle” that uses a smaller field and fewer players, and bans kickoffs and three-point stances. But Pop Warner, the most popular youth league in the country, has resisted adopting the new set of rules — largely because the debate over football has become so hostile.

Says Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director: “We’d get a rebellion if we tried this because so many people don’t want to be told what to do.”