opinion | Noah Van Niel

A former player says goodbye to football

The game ruins the brains of those who love it the most. And we, as fans, bear some responsibility for this.


I have a confession: I can’t watch football anymore. Because instead of joy and excitement, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion execution.

This is hard to say, because I love football. Since I was a kid, Sunday afternoons were spent watching it. Homework could wait. I read more sports magazines than books. I carried a ball around under my arm everywhere I went. I loved playing it. It has given me some of my happiest memories, hardest-won lessons, and strongest friendships. And football was good to me. I played through college, scored touchdowns, and won championships. The thrill was real. The joy was real.

But recently it has become clear that the controlled violence I found so much fun, has some pretty ugly, uncontrolled consequences. Consequences that make me worried I’m losing my mind every time I can’t remember where I put my keys.


As it’s played right now, football ruins the brains of those who love it most, turning many of them into unrecognizable shadows — shadows who are destructive to themselves and those they love. And we, as fans, bear some responsibility for this.

Junior Seau was one of my favorite players. And now he haunts me. Soon after his retirement, he was so mentally scarred that he shot himself in the chest. Sane enough not to shoot himself in the head, in order to preserve his brain for science, but broken enough to turn a shotgun on himself anyway. I think about all the times I urged him on to the next big hit, and I feel guilty. His blood is on my hands.

His is not the only story like this, and the more stories we get, the more scientific evidence emerges that football can cause serious neurological disease. Knowing this, I can’t watch it. I will not be complicit in the destruction of the lives of players and their families any longer.

I can’t watch it because I have a four-month-old son. And unless the game changes, I don’t want to introduce him to it. I’m hesitant to relive my glory days with him because I fear he’ll love it like I loved it; I’m afraid he’ll potentially sacrifice his future for the short-lived glory of the present.


I can’t watch it because of the hypocrisy of the NFL, which is unwilling to lead the way in admitting that the sport is damaging players of all ages but all too willing to cash in at their expense. This is no secret: The movie “Concussion,’’ which will be released this week, tells how the NFL first reacted to the discovery that football damages players’ brains (spoiler alert: not well). They should be working with medical researchers to change the game enough to minimize the repeated blows to the head that make for damaged brains later in life. But if they did, it would make for a game that, while still fun to play, is slower and less violent, thus less appealing on television, and less profitable. That is, unless the current way the sport is played proves even less lucrative because people refuse to watch it.

But I’m not optimistic that my personal boycott and call for reform will catch on. As evidence about the long-term brain damage being done to players on the field has become increasingly convincing, viewership for the NFL has only gone up. People don’t seem to care that by casting their eyes on it all season long, they are saying that the mortal violence that football espouses — in its current form — is acceptable.


It’s not acceptable. It’s inhumane. It’s a modern-day Roman Coliseum, a gladiatorial spectacle that ends with heads on a platter — in a lab being sliced open to see what went wrong. And, with every bloodthirsty cheer, we speed these fine young men on to that fate. But not me. Not anymore. I’m done.

The Rev. Noah Van Niel is an Episcopal priest and former fullback for the Harvard Crimson varsity football team, class of 2008.