Rome, 65 BC: As a crimson sun reaches its zenith above the mighty Tigris river, 50,000 Roman citizens flood into the elliptical coliseum at the heart of the city, their checks flushed in anticipation of the bloodshed moments away. Civility and temperance abandoned outside the coliseum gates, the mob jostles for space amid the stadium’s crowded benches, their eyes trained on the circular bed of sand at the center of the structure. Cheers erupt around the arena as a dozen gladiators emerge from a gate at the arena’s base and begin their time-tested dance of death. Seconds later, a spear pierces through armor and lodges itself in human flesh, releasing a fountain of blood. Some members of the audience groan. They have lost money as result of the gladiator’s early demise. Their disappointment, however, is short-lived, as in the time it takes for the corpse to be dragged out of the arena, another armored body has appeared on the blood-spattered sand to take its place. As the gladiators continue their bloody struggle, a host of crows, vultures and other predatory birds begin to circle above the coliseum, their hungry cries mingling with the cheers of spectators and the screams of dying men.
Oakland, Calif., present-day: On a hot September Sunday, 55,000 wild-eyed fans take their seats inside the colossal structure at the city’s center dubbed the Oakland Coliseum, home to the historic Oakland Raiders franchise. Drunk off of cheap beer and the possibility of a home team victory, the fans cheer wildly as the players take the field. Moments into the game, a savage hit from an Oakland defender causes an opposing player to crumple in agony. The hit elicits roars of approval from the Oakland faithful, their bloodlust heightened at the sight of the motionless player on the field. Beer continues to flow, and amidst the general celebration, not a single fan notices the fallen player being carted off the field.
Like it or not, professional football players have become the gladiators of contemporary America. Garbed in steel helmets and strengthened plastic padding instead of chainmail or plated armor, these elite athletes (many of whom weigh just north of 300 pounds) are given free rein to strike, hit, or tackle their opponents with a brutality that would rival even the most savage gladiator clashes of old. Give Houston Texans defensive superstar J.J. Watt a trident and a net, and I think he’d have as good a chance as any to make it out of the coliseum alive. But what truly makes professional football resemble the Roman gladiator games of ancient times is its near-universal appeal across the American public, despite the substantial bodily harm the sport inflicts upon its players. In a country dominated by spectator sports, no athletic contest attracts larger crowds or results in more life-altering injuries than American football.
The statistics are staggering. Since the year 2000, NFL players have suffered over 4,500 knee injuries, not including the dreaded ACL or MCL tears. Meanwhile, ACL injuries, spinal damage, and concussions alone have sidelined NFL players for a total of 6,300 weeks since the 2000-2001 season. Far from being reduced through heightened player safety regulations implemented by league officials, the severity and frequency of the injuries sustained by professional football players has spiked dramatically over the past five years. By week two of the 2015 season, 15 percent of all NFL football players (234 players to be exact) had already been hurt, with 12 of these players sidelined by concussions and a further 40 nursing injured knees. Moreover, a whopping 25 players suffered season-ending ACL tears in preseason play alone. Yet despite these substantial and often gruesome injuries, an astounding 200 million Americans around the country devote their Sunday afternoons to watching these titans of the modern world do battle.
When a professional football player gets hurt, we, the fans, might groan audibly or raise our arms skyward in a gesture of helplessness, but our distress is almost always rooted in selfishness. While we might show dismay at the sight of a player writhing in agony or lying motionless on the field of play, our real concern is typically about whether the player’s injury will negatively impact our favorite team’s performance in the coming weeks, rather than about the player’s well-being in itself. In recent years, concern for injured players has extended to the realm of fantasy football, where fans lament losing players to strained ligaments and fractured collarbones solely because of the players’ contributions to their fantasy rosters. And even this selfish concern is short-lived. The instant an injured player is helped off the field, another massive body appears to take his place, and fans and players alike become absorbed in the action once again. The same holds true for fantasy owners, who with the click of a button can replace their now-useless roster piece with a healthy substitute.
Our lack of true concern regarding the health and safety of professional athletes in this country, particularly football players, is genuinely frightening. Years of watching football players sustain catastrophic injuries and be instantly replaced by other players have made us come to see these athlete’s bodies as expendable; trivial hunks of muscle that can be easily replaced. And in a league comprised primarily of bodies of color, that view is decidedly problematic. Just under 70 percent of NFL players are black, and in our labeling of these bodies as disposable, we as sports fans disparage their value. Moreover, in our selfish obsession with fantasy football and supporting our favorite teams, we turn a blind eye to the thousands of pro football players that leave the NFL with extensive physical scarring and permanent brain trauma.
Let me be clear: I am not calling for a change in the rules of football in order to increase player safety (football will remain a violent sport no matter how many safety precautions the NFL enforces). Rather, I am advocating for a change in how we perceive injuries in football, and indeed, in all professional sports, when they take place. The next time a player crumples on the sidelines following a tremendous hit from the opposing team, consider the sizeable toll that such a hit will take on his body, both in that moment and years into the future. Perhaps if we disentangle our current view of professional football players with visions of the mighty gladiators of old, we will come to view the bodies of these athletes as more than just a means to an end.