While concerns about brain injuries in sport are not new, the current “concussion crisis” is unique in that it is a broader cultural crisis. (photo via Popular Science)

There is a concussion crisis in sport. In some ways, concern about brain injuries in sport is nothing new. Over a century ago, medical journals started campaigning against the dangers of sport, and there were specific attempts to ban U.S. college football in the early 1900s and abolish tackle football in the 1950s. But the current crisis is different in four key respects:

  1. It is a multisport injury crisis, spanning combat sports, various forms of football, hockey, and lacrosse to name but a few.
  2. The crisis is global in nature, with debates in North America paralleled in most other English-speaking nations and, increasingly, mainland Europe.
  3. The crisis extends beyond one type of injury—concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI)—and is now inseparable from concerns about second impact syndrome and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It even includes concerns about the influence of barely perceivable “sub-concussive” impacts.
  4. The crisis is distinct in terms of its penetration into the popular cultural imagination, notably through the book and documentary League of Denial and popular movie Concussion.

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Fan with a sign that reads, "we hated Kaepernick before it was cool (fot football reasons, not because we're racists)"
Many fans who object to protests by NFL players during the US National Anthem insist their opposition has nothing to do with race (photo from Idaho Statesman)

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick continued a tradition in US sports by staging a protest against racial injustice during the playing of the US national anthem. Following his initial protest, Kaepernick said:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick’s comments were in reference to a series of deaths of unarmed Black American men, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Reactions to Kaepernick’s protest were split. Within the NFL and beyond, many Black athletes, performers, fans, and even some coaches and officials joined in the protest against state violence in Black communities. At the same time, many others vociferously objected while claiming to not be racist. The image above illustrates the color-blind racism of the objectors; an anti-black statement of on-going hatred (“We hated Kaepernick before…”) is modified by a racially neutral phrase (“For football reasons”). The denial of racism when protesting an anti-racist protest obscures the ongoing operation of racism as a multifaceted construct that disproportionality targets Black Americans. Moreover, it prevents understanding of the US’s failure to provide equal protections for all citizens when state violence and poverty disproportionately affects Black communities.

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Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

As the furor over NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem rekindles, the full power of the players themselves has not yet come into play. Presidential politics and U.S. culture wars combined to make the issue a dominant subplot of the 2017 NFL season. In late May, the league’s team owners reopened the debate by deciding to create a policy requiring players on the field during the playing of the national anthem to stand, under penalty of fines and on-field penalties, though players can also stay in the locker room.

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Cleveland Browns fans showing their disappointment with the team’s performance at the “Perfect Season” Parade. (Photo by John Kuntz,

In North American professional sports culture, parades are typically organized by cities and organizations after a major team accomplishment, such as winning a league championship. On Saturday, January 6, 2018, however, thousands of Cleveland Browns fans, in response to their team’s failure to register a win during the National Football League’s (NFL) 2017 regular season, congregated near FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio to “celebrate” the Browns’ “perfect season” record of 0-16. The fans braved frigid January temperatures, creating satirical floats, signs, and costumes to publicly mock team owner Jimmy Haslam—CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, a company embroiled in an FBI investigation concerning rebate fraud—and the team’s consistent lack of success in the NFL. Parade organizer Chris McNeill described the event as a protest expressed through “macabre-humor”: “I think we have every right,” McNeill said, “after this organization has given us nothing now for how many years.” The parade, thankfully, benefitted the local community in ways other than creative celebration, as event promoters raised over $17,000 and collected perishable food donations, all of which were subsequently donated to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

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Factors such as race and social class can impact a person’s likelihood of playing football at an elite level. (Photo by Cary Smith)

In mass media and popular culture, sport is often presented as a level playing field where the most skilled and committed athletes rise to the top. The racial composition of American football is often presented as evidence of the supposed meritocracy of sport. While 13.2 percent of the U.S. population is black, 47.1 percent of NCAA Division I football players and 68.7 percent of National Football League (NFL) players are black. Thus, if black men are more commonly from poor and working-class backgrounds compared to white men, yet are overrepresented in football, one might conclude that factors such as race and social class play little to no role in player development and selection.

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Beth Mowins became only the second woman to serve as a play-by-play announcer for a regular season National Football League game. (Photo from ESPN)

Beth Mowins became only the second woman to serve as a play-by-play announcer for a regular season National Football League (NFL) game when she called the Monday Night Football (MNF) broadcast of the Chargers-Broncos game on Sept. 11, 2017. Mowins has called games for ESPN since 1994, and her repertoire spans college football, college basketball, and, for 23 years, the softball world series. As Chris Finn noted on, “[Mowins] confirmed again to little surprise that she’s a steady and often superb broadcasting pro, no pronoun qualifier necessary.” However, that Finn even needed the pronoun reference indicates why Mowins is significant for the proverbial hill she climbed to reach the MNF booth despite having the credentials to merit the opportunity years before.

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Following a season of protest and activism, Colin Kaepernick has been frequently passed over by teams in need of a quarterback.
Following a season of protest and activism, Colin Kaepernick has been frequently passed over by teams looking to sign a quarterback. (Photo by Gerry Melendez/ESPN)

With NFL training camps well underway, teams looking to sign a quarterback have passed over Colin Kaepernick time and time again. It appears he may be serving his ultimate punishment following a year of protest and activism. Amid those who defend NFL decision-makers as simply making choices for “football reasons,” there has also been a chorus of critics who see (black) players as responsible for his remaining on the sidelines.

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Advertisement for NFL Women’s Apparel. Photo from

As NFL fans gear up for Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, some fans are apt to feel more included in the broadcast than others. Advertisers, as critics have long noted, tend to assume that American football fans are straight men. Many long-awaited and expensive Super Bowl ads tend to be, well, pretty sexist. While the most egregious examples of sexism in Super Bowl broadcasts and advertisements seem to be decreasing as the NFL tries to acknowledge the presence of women fans (at minimum as a new marketing demographic), many women continue to feel left out of the Super Bowl spectacle.

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