Air Pollution and Football

Air pollution and football have something in common. Their adverse health effects are disproportionately victimizing minorities. African Americans are the most exposed to the hazards posed by toxic industrial emissions and the violent hits endemic to gridiron glory.

Lacking political clout, communities of color have long had their neighborhoods involuntarily beset by toxic dumps, pollution-spewing factories and congested highways.

A recent University of Minnesota study has documented this discriminatory nationwide locational pattern. Researchers found that nonwhites were subjected to 38 percent higher concentrations of outdoor polluting nitrogen dioxide, resulting in an estimated 7000 additional deaths annually from heart disease. It is a zoning disparity that badly needs correction.

Meantime, the evidence mounts that brain damage results from the cumulative hits to the head that are routinely part of the game of football. The victims tend to be African Americans as they are increasingly filling the ranks of professional and collegiate football. At the last tally, African Americans constituted 70 percent of the National Football League (NFL) and counting. (Latest tabulation had blacks comprising 57 percent of NCAA Division One college players.) This doesn't bode well for these minority athletes' future mental health.

Signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) were found in 87 out of 91 deceased NFL players whose brains were examined post mortem, suggesting just how pervasive the disease is. CTE is a condition linked to concussive hits and leads to cognitive impairment, depression, suicidal tendencies and, quite often, early death.

Parenthetically, the Concussion Legacy Foundation obtained data from sensor-monitoring helmets that project football players in the United States to be the recipients cumulatively of 1.5 billion blows to the head in a year. Lest you think it is only the pros who are taking this punishment, monitoring of a high school player revealed an astonishing 2235 hits to the head in a single season.

How farfetched is it for professional football to become predominantly the bailiwick of low income strata minorities seeking to escape the projects? Could they eventually be the only ones willing to embrace the Faustian bargain of some big football pay days in exchange for the likelihood of devastating cognitive disability?

The multitudes of football fans who religiously follow the sport are a long way from abandoning their glorification of physical mayhem on the playing field. They are not ready to let go of an illusion that obscures thinly disguised legalized assault and battery dooming many players to incapacitating life-long injuries.

Nonetheless, the game is slowly edging away from its lethality. There is the resignation of star San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland who may inspire some players to follow his example. Borland walked away from a lucrative contact after his rookie year because of concern of the game's potential damage to his long term health.

Then you have the state of California enacting laws that limit tackling during high school football practice and ban it altogether during off seasons. Is this a precursor of things to come?

Could a professional football league that eliminated tackling in favor of simply blocking and two hand touch ever take hold? Would it provide enough action to satisfy the vicarious violent streak that resides in so many of those who are aficionados of the game?