"UT Cheerleaders San Diego" by Johntext is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

It is not uncommon to see cheerleaders at every professional sports game. They usually comprise young, mostly white women who have a profession outside their cheerleading careers. A game pamphlet typically has information about the team’s cheerleaders – not only their names and pictures, but also their occupation and age are made public.

"Super Bowl XLVIII" by Anthony Quintano is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Nearly 112 million people in the United States watched the Super Bowl last year. Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was, per NPR, the most watched show in the history of television.  Clearly, professional sports are highly esteemed in America. In the run-up to what is sure to be another highly anticipated Super Bowl, it is a good occasion to consider the moral value, if any, of athletic competition. To do so, I want to draw your attention to a curious occurrence that happened several years ago in a much less popular sport, badminton.

"football" by ljv via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

When conjuring up the perfect image of masculinity in your mind, most people imagine the typical high school jock. He plays football, basketball, ice hockey, or a similar hypermasculine activity. Rarely does a runner, swimmer, or this sort of “second tier” of masculinity in sports arise. By assigning masculinized predispositions to certain sports, could the conversation surrounding masculinity become skewed from a young age? If so, this would certainly create a problematic discourse around certain sports and limit a conversation for LGBTQ+ communities to have a voice within this realm.

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"Colin Kaepernick | San Francisco 49ers" by Football Schedule via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

During a preseason game between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers on August 26th, people finally noticed what 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been doing all season: sitting during the national anthem and presentation of the flag. In a press conference with the media, he proclaimed, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

"A Barra também será a casa dos atletas, com os 31 prédios da Vila Olímpico" by Gabriel Heusi is licensed under CC BY 3.0 br (via Wikimedia Commons)

Early in his classic Being Peace, Thich Naht Hanh says the following:

Meditation is to be aware of what is going on-in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.

Women's Soccer by Joel Soloman via flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a medical term for a condition young athletes know all too well: concussions by head trauma. C.T.E. made headlines again earlier this month, when retired soccer star Brandi Chastain signed off the main organ in the central nervous system, the brain, to scientific research after her death. It is her hope that her brain will add substantial findings to an already small pool of women’s brains.

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Olympic Rings by The Department of Media, Culture and Sport, CC 2.0 (via flickr)

With the increased prominence of LGBTQ issues and the implications of former Olympic superstar Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner transitioning from male to female this year, it comes as no surprise that the International Olympic Committee has turned a fresh eye to its regulations and practices. An announcement was made January 24th indicating that new guidelines had been released, and would be in effect for this year’s Olympics in Rio.

"Protest against Washington football team name" by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Halloween has just passed, and it is clear that public discourse on culturally sensitive and appropriate costumes continues to increase. These discussions about cultural appropriation are particularly prominent amongst America’s educated youth, who are on their way to becoming the next generation of leaders and advocates against racial discrimination. This heightened awareness is now slowly but surely making its way towards the world of sports.

 IMG_9773_1_lomo_bw by chedder CC BY-SA 2.0

The NFL has definitely taken some hard knocks lately.  One of these issues that the League has struggled with over the last decade is controversy over the brain damage that can be caused by repeated concussions. Studies tend to show that repeated concussions (and sometimes repeated sub-concussive blows to the head) can potentially result in many unpleasant side effects later on down the road, like cognitive/functional impairment, irritability, confusion, nausea, headaches, memory loss, unusual or violent behavior and dizzy spells. Additionally, they increase the chances of neuro-degenerative disease (e.g. Alzheimer’s, CTE, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) later in life, along with numerous case studies of former professional athletes and recent research showing a possible correlation between concussions and higher rates of depression and suicide. Recently, a federal judge finally signed off on a settlement between the NFL and a number of retired players in a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in 2011, and over 4,500 former players are involved, including stars like Tony Dorsett and Jim McMahon.
The settlement could cost the NFL up to one billion dollars over the next 65 years or so. It mandates that players suffering early-onset of any of these diseases linked to concussions be given compensation, and that testing and subsequent medical care (where applicable) be covered by the NFL. It doesn’t cover potential functional damage, miscellaneous symptoms (memory loss, headaches, uncharacteristic behavior), increased risk of suicide and depression, or anything but that handful of diseases. The payouts for affected athletes are on a sliding scale based on the age of the player (a 40 year old with Alzheimer’s will receive more then an 80 year old), and this coverage will be available to any retired NFL player, not just those who sued the league.
The major issue at hand is how much the NFL actually knew about the dangers of head injuries. As you can see from this helpful timeline, for years the NFL denied and undermined links between concussions and degenerative brain damage later in life. Whether they did this honestly, or in an effort to cover themselves is uncertain. The players litigating contend that the NFL had reason to believe that there could be a connection, and that this denial was done out of self-preservation and without any concern for the well-being of the players. For their part, the NFL counters that this wasn’t the case, and they really didn’t know. Since then, the NFL states that they have made more of an effort to inform players of the dangers, and are trying to change the culture of “just toughing out” what is now known to be a serious, potentially life-altering injury.

Is the NFL to blame for the diminished quality of life for retired players? Since the athletes voluntarily chose to play, sometimes try to hide concussions and other injuries, and get paid a significant amount of money, do they really have valid grounds on which to sue? If one, both, or neither party were aware of the long-term impacts of concussions, would that change the responsibility of the players or the league for the current situation? Is the settlement enough, or does it not go nearly as far as it should?