As a science journalist who has written about climate change for a quarter century, I’ve struggled to understand climate change deniers. How, I wondered, could a group of otherwise intelligent people reject the clear and growing scientific evidence that the planet was warming, climate systems were going haywire, and human activities were at the root of the problem?
Then, as the new NFL season kicked off last week, I realized I was a science denier, too. Even in the face of mounting evidence that football is hazardous for players’ brains, I couldn’t stop myself from watching. I cheered gleefully as the Patriots lost on opening day Thursday Night Football and my Broncos prevailed on Monday Night Football, kicking off the Super Bowl LII season.
How different am I from people who put their skeptical heads in the sand and keep burning fossil fuels like there’s no next season? If I deny the neuroscience about the long-term implication of banging heads for sport, then I can continue being a fan, right?
Talk about inconvenient truths.
I love football, and I always have. My dad was a college quarterback in the old single-wing, leather-helmet days. Watching or playing some form of football was a year-round obsession for my dad, my two brothers and me. Among my fondest childhood memories was when my dad took us to see the Los Angeles Rams, back in the Fearsome Foursome days of the Deacon, Merlin, Rosey and Lamar. When our parents drove us to the mountains for Christmas, we’d play a made-up California game we called “Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears” by crashing into each other in snowdrifts on the tennis courts. I played football until 11th grade, and loved the camaraderie even though I never made varsity.
I always knew football was hard on the body. My older brother Bob was a standout high school quarterback. He received a football scholarship to Stanford in 1972, the year after Jim Plunkett took the team to a victorious Rose Bowl win. Bob started on the freshman team but had four concussions that year. He joked that Stanford was so excited about beating Ohio State that they forgot to recruit him an offensive line. In any case, he hung up his cleats and went into medicine.
Bob died of cancer in January 2001. He was delirious during his final days, but I phoned him after the NFL conference championships that year. Suddenly, he became lucid and told me that since the Raiders lost and so did the Vikings, there wasn’t much use in sticking around for the Super Bowl. It would probably be a stinker, he said, which it was. It was the last thing he said to me.
Even with this deep-seated love and lore of the NFL in my DNA, I started to feel slightly uneasy in the summer about the coming season. With the average NFL career averaging a little more than three years, I realized that I didn’t even recognize the names of half the starting quarterbacks. Other factors piled on: crushing knee injuries, domestic violence charges, teams switching cities at the whims of billionaire owners. The Los Angeles Chargers? And soon, the Las Vegas Raiders? Really?
More ominously, there was the drumbeat of news about CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This brain damage, inflicted from years of helmet-banging collisions, could only be diagnosed after death, and the casualties were mounting: I had watched the Chargers’ Junior Seau and the Steelers’ Mike Webster their entire careers; they both committed suicide. I saw Will Smith portray Bennet Omalu in “Concussion,” and I felt queasy about how the NFL covered up the mounting evidence even as the NFL Players Association won hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for affected players.
Study after scientific study piled on. But I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to stop loving football.
Then, lightbulb went on as Texas and Florida were reeling from back-to-back hurricanes. I read about the Environmental Protection Agency scrubbing grants for the “double C-word” and Rush “I am not a meteorologist” Limbaugh outlining his conspiracy theories about the climate change industrial complex. I sputtered disbelief. But then as I contemplated my fantasy football draft, it hit me: I’m a denier, too!
This revelation was a psychic rout. I’d read that social scientists have discovered that some people deny climate change science because they understand that, if it’s true, we really have to change things fast — and governmental action would be inevitable. In my case, no matter how much evidence I have that football is damaging thousands of players, I don’t want to give it up. And suddenly, I get why EPA administrator Scott Pruitt doesn’t want to talk about how warmer oceans contribute to more intense hurricanes — it’s the same reason I don’t want to think about the way steroids make a 6-foot-5-inch, 280-pound defensive end even more deadly to quarterbacks.
Here it was fall again, and as Hurricane Irma roared through Florida, I was texting my son about how the Broncos had taken an early lead over the Chargers, despite a recent paper I read detailing that 99 percent of the brains of dead football players the scientists studied had CTE. I realized I might have more trouble giving up Sunday night “SportsCenter” highlight reels and fourth-quarter comebacks than Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) would have renouncing claims that global warming is a “hoax” and promoting renewable energy.
Why, I wondered, was it self-evident to me that disruptions in our global climate system are human-caused, getting worse (as demonstrated in the summer by hurricanes Harvey and Irma and massive wildfires around the West), and require an effort to combat it that is commensurate with the risk — but the scientific consensus about the dangers of football doesn’t stop me from watching the NFL?
I don’t have a good answer, but I can’t live with this cognitive dissonance. Now that I know I’m a science denier, I can’t watch an unblocked weak side blitz with the same enthusiasm. If I remain a football fan, I will be doing my small part to ensure that more men and their families will suffer so I can take pleasure in their gladiatorial efforts. The difference between supporting the NFL as a couch potato fan, a ticket buyer or an official NFL merchandise-wearer is only a matter of degree from saying climate change science is a Chinese conspiracy and driving a Hummer. (Okay, maybe a matter of 1.4 degrees. Fahrenheit.)
I’m a science denier, but I don’t have to stay that way. I can’t help but wonder what my brother Bob’s brain looked like after he died, and whether those collegiate concussions would have taken a toll if cancer hadn’t claimed him first.
I’m not quite ready to stop watching football completely, but I am already starting to cut back. I stopped playing fantasy football. And in the spirit of bipartisan compromise, I’m offering climate deniers a trade. Although it might feel easier to completely transform the world’s energy economy than it will be for me to give up football entirely, I’ll offer them “Monday Night Football” and the Super Bowl in exchange for a cap-and-trade program, with a carbon tax to be named later.