The average NFL player makes less than the average basketball, baseball, or hockey player, but the brain damage comes free.
The average NFL player makes less than the average basketball, baseball, or hockey player, but the brain damage comes free. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Seattleites like to think of this city as progressive. We have a bunch of gaywads in office, mandatory compost, high minimum wage, a ban on both plastic bags and plastic straws, and that one Socialist city council member who makes Bernie look like a capitalist pig. We hike, we bike, we ride boards down hills, we smoke legal weed (but never cigarettes), eat farm-to-table, and forage for morels in the spring and chanterelles in the fall. A lot of us are vegan. Some of us used to be vegan but now eat meat if—and only if—we raise and slaughter it with our bare hands. Jill Stein is more popular here than Donald Trump. We are America’s most insufferably liberal city, and we’re so very proud of that. But how do we explain our taxes and football?

Let’s start with taxes. In a state that can claim several of the wealthiest people in modern human history as residents, we have no income or capital gains tax. Instead of raising money for schools or roads or bike lanes or healthcare or whatever else, we do it through property and sales taxes. This is regressive, ineffective, bad for the poor, and just downright Republican. Of course, the reason for this terrible system is literally written in the state Constitution, which bans income taxes (and rent control) for some reason. (Just a wild guess here, but perhaps those laws were written by people with a vested interest in keeping taxes down?)

There’s nothing we can do about an income tax, at least until the blue wave floods the GOP out of the state legislature come November. And even then, there’s very little chance the Dems would be able to amend the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority. Plus, there are powerful interests (ahem, Jeff Bezos) who will surely fight against an income tax. It ain’t happening, at least not any time soon, so I’m going to put that away for the remainder of this essay and concentrate on Seattle’s other scourge: the Seahawks.

Seattle loves its football. It surprised me, upon first moving here, that the Seahawks had such a diverse, atypical fanbase. When I got here in 2014, it seemed like everyone was into the Hawks. It wasn’t just dudes with beer hats and their wives who watched the games; it was also punks, goths, gays, nerds, everyone. I would not have been surprised to see anarchists in Seahawks balaclavas at anti-capitalist rallies downtown. Even the queer bars here showed football games—and not just the important ones! The regular ones too! Of course, this was the year Seahawks won the Super Bowl and so Seahawks love was at its peak. When the Seahawks don’t stand a chance, you see much less neon blue and green on the streets. Considering how eye-burning that color scheme is, I can’t help but hope this season sucks.

Of course, I know I’m in the minority about this (and many other things in Seattle), but, hear me out: Football is an unconscionable sport and one that has no place in a city as progressive as this.

Let’s start with brain damage. There’s a specific type of brain trauma connected with football called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. By now, you’ve probably heard of it, mainly because people with CTE keep killing themselves or, less often, other people. In 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that in a study of the brains of 111 deceased NFL players, 99 percent had CTE, and other studies show that as many as a third of players will get it.

CTE is not pleasant. Symptoms of the disease can resemble Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia and can include anxiety, depression, confusion, and more. And you don’t have to have played football professionally to get it: An autopsy of former Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide in January, showed that, at 21, he had the brain of a 65-year-old. Why? Because of the game.

“It was a shock to get those results and find out he had it and to realize that the sport he loved may have contributed to that diagnosis,” his mom told Sports Illustrated. But years playing had irreparably damaged Hilinski’s brain. And he wasn't alone: The family of Dave Duerson, who played pro for a decade, sued the NFL after Duerson killed himself in 2011. He’d started to have trouble with spelling, blurred vision, short-term memory, and even speaking before he shot himself in the chest. His suicide note requested that his brain be autopsied for CTE.

CTE isn’t a new thing, but the attention on it is. After negative press and thousands of former players and their families sued the NFL, the league has finally started to pay attention. Now, there are rules against bashing your head into other players. At the Seahawks pre-season opener last Thursday, for instance, Indianapolis Colts cornerback Shamarko Thomas was ejected from the game after violating new rules stipulating that tackles cannot be initiated by the helmet, which is meant to prevent concussions and subsequent CTE. There are also new rules about kickoffs: Until this year, defensive players could get a running start from well behind the line of scrimmage; now, they have to line up no further than 1 yard off the line of scrimmage before the kick off, which will prevent them from crashing into the receiver at quite the same speed.

This is the first year for these developments, and maybe (hopefully) they’ll help prevent some catastrophic brain injury going forth. But still, by supporting the Seahawks, Seattle is supporting the same league that attempted to bury the dangers of CTE for years after they knew about it. In 2016, a Congressional inquiry found that NFL health officials improperly tried to influence a government study on CTE. The league actually pressured the National Institutes of Health to take $16 million in funding from a well-known Boston University researcher and redirect it the league's own committee on brain injuries, as ESPN reports.

For a city that professes to care about social justice, the optics of football are… not great. Pro football players, 65 percent of whom are black, are like gladiators in Roman days. The public cheers, drunk on booze and collective energy, as bodies are ruined for their pleasure below. Of course, in many ways, players benefit from this arrangement: The average pro football player makes around $2 million a year. This is less than the average NBA basketball player ($6.2 million as of 2016-’17), major league baseball player ($4.4 million), or NHL hockey player ($2.9 million), but it’s a hell of a lot more than the average black household in the U.S., which makes less than $40,000. Sports are a way out of poverty for a few of the hardest working, most talented players. But for most, it's a pipe dream: In all, less than 1 percent of high school seniors, or eight in 10,000, will end up playing NFL football. The odds of making it as a pro football player are significantly less than your odds of getting a job at, say, Google.

Of course, there are more successful black football players than there are, say, famous black computer engineers. As my colleague Charles Mudede wrote last year, “There are no black Jobs or Gates or Bezos, but there are a lot of Kapernicks and Jameses. As a consequence, a position in the NBA or NFL has the appearance of being more realistic than a position at Amazon. And the poorer you are, the more practical the impractical looks.” This, in part, is a pipeline problem; instead of being encouraged to go into tech or medicine or law or teaching or other fields, young black men are encouraged to play football instead, even though the chances of success are, in fact, slim to none, and the consequences could include permanent brain damage.

There are also the cheerleaders to consider. Seahawks cheerleaders, according to KUOW, earn the state minimum wage—$11.60. That’s less than they’d make flipping burgers at McDonald’s. And, unlike burger-flippers, their personal lives and bodies are tightly controlled by their employer. The Sea Gals, as they are known, must maintain their weight, skin, muscle tone, and other aspects of their appearance according to team standards. They are banned from dating or “fraternizing” with Seahawks players or any team other employees and can be fired for minor offenses like being 15 minutes late to practice just three times.

The Sea Gals might not be making any money, but other people sure are. Take Paul Allen. The Microsoft co-founder and Seahawks owner is the 44th richest person in the world. And yet, the team he owns plays in a $430 million stadium that was largely funded by taxpayers. Allen put up $130 million; Washington taxpayers put the other $300 million. It’s hard to see how this is a good deal for taxpayers. It’s not like we own a part of the team or even get cheap tickets. What’s more, the Seahawks have among the priciest tickets in the league; Currently, the least expensive tickets available for the September 9th home game against the Cowboys are $335 direct from the team and $200 from re-seller site StubHub. And that’s for a single seat at the game.

Even some beneficiaries of this system have come out against it. In 2016, former Seahawk Richard Sherman told ESPN: “I’d stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums and probably get us out of debt and maybe make the billionaires who actually benefit from the stadiums pay for them. That kind of seems like a system that would work for me.” Me too. And yet, it’s not the system we have. Instead, we allow billionaires like Paul Allen to profit handsomely while our roads, schools, and transit systems flounder. According to Bloomberg, Allen has made more money from the Seahawks than he did from Microsoft.

I realize my anti-football position is not a popular opinion in Seattle (or anywhere else), but I’m not entirely alone. Writer and former football fanatic Steve Almond wrote about his decision to give up football in the 2014 book Against Football. “I watched football, often rabidly, for 40 years,” Almond told me in an email. “Initially, it was a way of connecting to my dad and brother and finding my way into the world of men. As a kid, I played it a lot. Over the past decade, though, I started to kind of come to consciousness about the game. That is: I started to recognize that it was more than just this beautiful, brutal form of entertainment. It was also a huge business and a central narrative in America. That is: it was a moral undertaking, and as a fan, I was a sponsor of the game. (Do the math: no fans, no cult of football.)”

Like me, Almond takes issue with the gladiatorial aspects of the game. It’s essentially “medieval,” he says. “The basic deal we support as fans is an educational lottery system where we hand certain kids—usually poor kids of color—huge scholarships, not based on the content of their character or their academic ambitions, but on the fact that they play a game we really like to watch. It's pretty sickening when you think about it for more than a minute. And it's the reason we think of a football team when we hear the words ‘Alabama’ or ‘Michigan’ or ‘Notre Dame’ rather than thinking of a classroom or a lab or a library.”

College football, as Almond notes, is hardly better than pro. At least pro players are paid; college players, on the other hand, may be given a scholarship in exchange for their labor, but one bad season and that can evaporate. At the same time, football coaches are among the highest paid staff at big schools. At UW, for instance, assistant coach Jimmy Lake has a three-year contract for $1.1 million… each year. And that pales in comparison to head coach Chris Peterson, who makes over $4 million from his public university salary alone. Before you take to the comments and tell me how much money football brings in: Don't. I’m aware that football has a greater economic impact than, say, the literature department or the math bowl team. The question is, at what cost?

There’s plenty more that’s wrong with football, from the NFL’s crackdown on players’ right to peacefully protest to the romanticism of brutality and violence that is inherent in the sport. But despite all of the downsides, I know that Seattle will never, ever give it up. This city takes too much pride in the Hawks and in being the loudest, rowdiest fans in the bunch. Still, if Seattleites really care about being progressive—about doing the right thing, not just the fun thing—we’ll first institute an income tax, then we’ll bid a fond adieu to the NFL and the Seahawks. And then, after that, we’ll do what we really do best: Congratulate ourselves for making the moral decision and then start to shame everyone else.