On Christmas morning football fans found a lump of coal in their stocking—Will Smith's new movie “Concussion.” The film has been called football’s “Inconvenient Truth” because it mainstreams the scientific evidence of the terrible price the game exacts on the health of its players. I’ve written "An Open Letter to Will Smith" and the millions of football fans who may be suffering from the after-effects of “Concussion” to help them feel better about their love of the game.
Dear Will Smith,
After your deep dive into football’s dark side for your new movie “Concussion”—playing the doctor who discovered CTE, football-related brain trauma—you’re probably wrestling with your conscience about being a football fan. In interviews you’ve said, “As a lover of football, I was conflicted.”
In the wake of “Concussion,” millions of football fans will be wondering how they can take such pleasure, derive such meaning, and invest so much of themselves in a game that exacts such a high price? In short, how can they love the game with a clear conscience?
Will, I’m writing to you and the millions of others suffering the after-effects of “Concussion” to help you feel better about being football fans. I’m not a psychologist, anthropologist or social scientist. Playing football in high school doesn’t give me any special expertise. But writing a sci-fi saga about football has given me a unique perspective that may help fans like yourself feel better about their love of the game.
To write my sci-fi story I needed to understand football’s place in our culture—why we love football? The “symbolic war” idea, for example, asserts that since most men no longer serve in the military, football serves as a substitute (with war terminology like blitz, aerial attack, trenches) and evokes the warrior ideal in men. An anthropologist might say that football embodies man’s most primal life-sustaining and death-defying activities—chasing prey during a hunt and being chased by predators.
Sociologists point out that as the importance of men’s physical strength is erased by technology, men have had to confront an existential dilemma about their role in society. Football depends on physical prowess and restores men to the center of the action while beautiful women cheer from the sideline. Is it a coincidence that the more empowered women are in our culture, the more popular football has become?
Yet none of these reasons fully explain why football, despite recent scandals, continues to grow in popularity. Last year’s Super Bowl attracted over 120 million viewers, by far America’s greatest communal event. As a character in “Concussion” says, "The NFL owns a day of the week, one the church used to own.” Football has become America’s “secular religion.”
Every Sunday of football season (not to mention all those other nights during the week) millions of devoted fans (short for “fanatics”) participate in a powerful, quasi-religious rite by witnessing priests-players enact a dramatic battle between good & evil, courage & cowardice, strength & weakness, in a demonstration of the warrior ideals men value. One of the most important warrior ideals is sacrifice. The priests-players act out this spiritual and mythical drama at personal risk. Risk is football’s "secret sauce." Risk is what’s made football our “secular religion” because risk celebrates our humanity.
Just as “Concussion” shines a light on the dark side of football, the media has been filled with digital dread about technology’s dark side: from a deluge of articles about robots taking our jobs, to warnings from the likes of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates that artificial intelligence may be the greatest threat facing humanity.
To stretch a football metaphor, the 1st half of the great game of civilization was a contest between Man and Nature. We created technologies—fire, language, tools, agriculture, and so on—that enabled us to vanquish and domestic Nature. If the first half of civilization’s epic game was “Man vs. Nature,” the 2nd half is “Man vs. Machine.”
Will, we’ve stepped through the looking-glass of our screens and live more and more in a virtual world. As we slide down the technological rabbit hole into a wonderland of software and apps—living increasingly inside technology’s “glass cage”—we have an almost psycho-spiritual need for the communal spectacle of humans battling against one another in a violent, yet beautiful game. The rites enacted by football’s priests-players anchor us to a life that's disappearing. In our increasingly virtual world, football reminds us who we are and celebrates our humanity.
They say travel broadens our horizons. Will, the same can be said of time-travel, even if only in one’s imagination. I extrapolated a possible future from today’s current trends: football eventually being outlawed due to its violence, and robotics becoming the preeminent technology of the world economy. In my novel, a present-day NFL team is time-napped into the year 2115 and forced to play in a world championship called the Ultra Bowl, where nations field robot teams to compete for tech supremacy, market share and global power.
Before these 21st century football players take the field against state-of-the-art robots, facing certain defeat and likely death, they’re addressed by one of the architects of this 22nd century robotopia. “You’ve shown me what makes humans great—their heart, their capacity to love, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for those they love, to risk their lives and die for what they love. No machine, no robot, no matter how sophisticated or how intelligent, can risk. No machine, no robot can achieve such glory.”
Will, football celebrates our humanity in a way no other sport does. Football players are our heroes not only because of their athletic skill, but also because they (like all warriors) risk themselves on the playing field. In our virtual, machine-enabled world, every time a football player steps onto the field, he’s demonstrating what only a mortal human can—courage! No Risk, No Glory! And that’s something no machine can do.
I. J. Weinstock
PS. I applaud your courage in taking on America’s most popular sport. Going up against the NFL is the least of it. Millions of football fans don’t want to know how their favorite sausage is made. You’ve risked your celebrity to provide “Concussion’s” inconvenient truth. Thank you for mainstreaming this necessary “warning label”: Playing Football May Be Hazardous to Your Health!
You’ve said “people have to know.” I agree. Knowing the truth makes me feel better about being a fan. Now that people are informed, they can decide for themselves if they want to play. There are many dangerous yet fulfilling jobs and vocations—from the military and police, to car racing and rock climbing. As long as people have the facts and understand the risks, parents and athletes are free to make their own choices.