On a Sunday morning in September, Cyndy Feasel came home from church and burst into tears.
It was Sept. 10, week one of the 2017 NFL season. Throughout the sanctuary of her church, people were wearing football jerseys.
The experience was so jarring for her because football killed the man she called her husband for 29 years. It’s something that still haunts her, and seeing the reminders of the sport on the backs of her fellow Christians was especially upsetting that Sunday morning.
“I think about it every day,” she says. “And I think about how different our lives would have been if Grant and I had known what we know now.”
What she knows now is that even though Grant Feasel—who spent 10 years playing in the NFL—officially died of cirrhosis of the liver linked to alcohol consumption, an autopsy later revealed something else very wrong with Grant’s health. He had stage three Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a condition also known as CTE.
After Cyndy learned of the condition, which causes parts of the brain to slowly die, she began researching some of the symptoms, and suddenly, Grant’s plunge into addiction following his retirement at age 32 started to make sense.
Though it’s still being understood, doctors have identified a series of very serious conditions linked to the disease: depression, cognitive impairment, suicidal thoughts and behavior, aggression, short-term memory loss, difficulty walking, dementia and, yes, substance abuse.
“Every single symptom on that list coincided with different events that had happened in our life that were actually recorded in my journals,” she says.
In 2012, two decades after his final snap as a center for the Seattle Seahawks, Grant Feasel was dead. “He died not knowing what he had,” she says.
Though he didn’t know that CTE was slowly killing his brain, he knew the pain he’d inflicted on his body had led him down the path of addiction. Some of his last words to Cyndy were, “If I’d only known what I loved the most would have ended up killing me and taking away everything I loved, I would have never done it.”
This fall, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System released the findings of a shocking study. They examined the brains of 111 former NFL players and found that 110 of them had CTE.
Chris Nowinski has dedicated his life to making sure researchers are equipped to better understand the disease and its links to activities like football. The organization he co-founded and is currently the CEO of, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, helps ensure that the school’s brain bank continues to have new evidence to study.
“We are reaching out to families, and we are reaching out to athletes to pledge their brains to create a culture of brain donation in the U.S.,” he explains. “We’re almost to 440 brains donated. We’re averaging nearly 100 a year now.”
The research is so important to him because Nowinski still suffers from the effects of brain trauma he received after years of playing football and wrestling professionally.
To him, the link between football and CTE is clear: “CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease, that all evidence points to, is caused by trauma—and usually repetitive brain trauma—that appears to be acquired while you are an athlete, and then slowly rots your brain the rest of your life.”
And right now, it’s a disease that there is simply no cure for: “We know that moments come when your head just won’t get better.”
Days after the report was released, the NFL released an official statement acknowledging the findings, but also suggesting that they may not be representative of all of the league’s players: “The report doesn’t confirm that the condition is common in all football players; it reflects high occurrence in samples at the Boston brain bank that studies CTE,” they wrote. “Many donors or their families contributed (to the brain bank) because of the players’ repeated concussions and troubling symptoms before they died.”
The league’s attitude toward CTE—and its approach to dealing with the families of victims—has long frustrated Feasel.
“We have a timeline now of a lot of people who are dead from CTE, and the NFL’s really not saying anything about it,” she says. “Our story is just one of the stories. It’s not like they are running to console us and saying, ‘What can we do for you?’ They’re ignoring it.”
In recent years, the league has implemented new rules and policies meant to protect players, largely at the request of the NFL Players Association, which represents the best interests of the players. Nowinski serves on a Players Association research committee and says, “NFL players are safer than they have ever been on the field,” but also admits that “safe is a relative term.”
The real problem, he says, is with football culture in general. After all, each NFL roster has just 53 positions. However, at the high school level, football is far and away the most popular sport according to a recent report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which found that more than 1,085,000 students played during the 2015-2016 season.
“Changes that have happened on the NFL field cannot be matched at any other level of football,” he says. “So all the other levels of football are still extremely dangerous—and relative to the NFL.”
Essentially, the dangers of college, high school and little league football are still serious and widespread. That same Boston University study found CTE in 21 percent of high school football players’ brains and in 91 percent of college players.
It’s that kind of data that Feasel finds deeply troubling. After she began to speak out about the dangers of football following Grant’s death, she lost her job at a Christian school where she taught for 17 years in the football-crazed state of Texas. “People don’t want to hear about football killing anyone, because they want to continue to have entertainment,” she says. “They’re willing to continue to put their children on a football field, and you know what the evidence is.”
During football season, she gets a weekly reminder of the dangers Christians are allowing their children to be exposed to: “I can’t get through a Friday without seeing a hundred posts of Friday night lights, and all I can see is death.”
As popular as high school football is, the sport’s cultural prevalence is ultimately fueled by the cultural behemoth that is the NFL. According to Nielsen, five of the top 10 most watched telecasts of 2016 were NFL broadcasts. The Super Bowl post-game show alone received more viewers than The Oscars and Game 7 of the NBA Finals combined.
“If the Gospel applies to all of life—and it does—then it requires critical spectating of all of sports, and the biggest of them right now is the NFL,” says John White, an assistant professor of practical theology and the director of the sports chaplaincy/ministry program at Baylor University.
For White, the problems don’t just stem from the risk of brain damage, it’s the distorted message about things like masculinity that the NFL sends to fans and young players.
“My problem, though, is how the matrices of football can come together to construct an extremely narrow view of masculinity,” he explains. “Caricatures of maleness abound in the NFL with images, rhetoric and rituals, making football a space in which bullying, dominance, belligerence and violence become the fruit of authentic manhood. The Gospel counters such stories and helps us unlearn these hyperboles by truly seeing who and whose we are.”
These are increasingly problematic ideas, even outside of just a Christian worldview.
Chuck Klosterman is a writer and sports journalist who thinks the dangers of the game and the ethical problems it presents for both fans and parents could lead to its decline.
“I played high school football and looking back on it, I probably learned more from playing football than I did in almost any of my classes,” he says. “It was a really good thing for me, and yet when I think about the messages that were part of that, they seem like things you’re not even supposed to say in culture anymore. There was a huge emphasis on playing in pain and toughness. When I learned to hit and tackle people the goal was to take them out of the game, to hit them as hard as you could. And it just seems like now we’re not supposed to have those ideas.”
Klosterman points to the example of dodgeball being eliminated from schools: “To me, that is almost like a precursor to the issues we’re having with football,” he says. “People would see dodgeball, they would see kids throwing balls at each other’s heads and be like, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we having kids do this?’ And I think that question—‘Why are we doing this?’—spills into this world of football.”
He says the bigger ideas that sports like football represent run counter to modern social values: “We’re much more conscious, basically, of things like bullying and intimidation and making sure we don’t prioritize masculine values or feminine values,” he says. “And yet that’s kind of part of sports, that happens in sports all the time. I don’t know if this continues how sports will exist in culture.”
But even with displaced ideas about masculinity, “toughness” and competition, football has a core issue that all Christians who support the game must reckon with: It is, at its very core, a game of violence.
“The Bible affirms that human bodies are good and that they belong to the Lord (1 Corinthians 6: 12-20),” White says. “If the moral meaning given to our bodies starts and ends with God, then perhaps we need to call a timeout on these trespasses against bodily dignity, and we need to consider carefully whether we rationalize a form of entertainment that devalues human bodies.”
Feasel references 1 Corinthians 6 as well, saying that our bodies are “temples” of the Holy Spirit, and questions if we should be doing things to hurt them.
“It would be a conflict of interest for me being a Christian to say, ‘I’m going to go out on the field and I’m going to put another nail my coffin,’” she says.
Nowinski—as well as many others in the field—agrees that “the most important change for all of football to improve football player health is to eliminate tackle football for children.”
But when it comes to the NFL—where players are making millions of dollars and are given a massive platform—the line becomes more blurry for many people. “Ethically, adults can choose to play a dangerous game if they want to,” he says.
For both Feasel and Nowinski though, it’s important that everyone involved truly understands the stakes. “If Grant were here today, he would be saying, ‘Please parents, look at the evidence,’” she says.
Now that the Players Association and the media are doing more to expose the dangers of CTE, Nowinski is beginning to see an impact within the league.
“It’s been interesting this fall to see reporters interviewing NFL players about how much they’re following CTE, and how much they’re understanding,” he says. “Some are choosing to keep their head in the sand so they don’t have to worry about long-term consequences. They’re out there playing a risky sport, and other ones are having those conversations with their wives or are even talking about walking away from the game … I think at that level, you want players to have informed consent, and you want them to know what the right choice is to make.”
That choice isn’t just one players who participate in the game have to make. It’s also one fans—especially Christians—must reckon with as they decide how and if they are going to support America’s most dangerous game.
writes about sports, faith, and culture.