Football and fracking are both inherently dangerous, inherently dirty and immensely appealing, especially in my home state of Pennsylvania. While football has long been a western Pennsylvania passion, it has remained, at least respective to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a one-sided issue. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is more recent and also the site of considerably more disagreement. Until a few months ago they were completely separate issues, before an unintended juxtaposition brought to light certain unflattering similarities between the businesses of professional football and natural gas extraction.
The bridge between the issues was a tweet by the mild-mannered and typically uncontroversial all-star strong safety, Troy Polamalu, of head and shoulders fame. The tweet in question contained Polamalu’s recommendation of Pennsylvanian filmmaker Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary GasLand, a critique of the environmental devastation caused by the largely unregulated industry of natural gas extraction.
Bill McKibben has recently made the case against natural gas, and fracking as a means of extracting it, at greater length and eloquence than I’m capable of. Still, I understand this basic fact: pumping a concoction of heavy metals, known carcinogens, and proprietary chemicals into the ground is the central and unavoidable step in this particular method of gas extraction. Yet, for many western Pennsylvanians, fracking is still an attractive proposition. Pittsburgh’s economy has stabilized reasonably well since the departure of big steel, but still lacks any one big-time industry to call its own; the possibility of becoming the Houston of a potential gas boom in the Northeast is tempting. Struggling farmers and rural landowners are tempted by one-shot, big time paydays to sell or lease their land. The decision to sell may well be made even easier by the knowledge that if they hold on to their property, not only might the gas underneath be extracted by neighboring slantwells, but that the land will lose farming value due to industrial activity on adjacent properties.
But the difference in bargaining power between international energy companies and a farmer seems to be whitewashed as soon as money changes hands. If the population of historically poverty-ridden areas choose to sell their land, they’re benefiting from if not complicit with the industry, and have no rights to feel aggrieved — or so the reasoning goes.
The same cynical reasoning that accompanies the conscience-clearing magic of the contract is often the moral justification for the irreparable harm inflicted upon the athletes that play our nation’s most popular spectator sport. Just as much as pumping mercury and cadmium into the ground is a part of fracking, hitting people as hard as possible — inevitably on and around the cranium — is the very essence of football. I would know, because grade-school football is where I picked up my first concussions, which aided my accumulation of subsequent brain injuries playing lacrosse in high school and college. I was, however, never in a position where I might have to rely on my athletic ability to make a living, as some do. Like the bottom of the profit pyramid in fracking, a disproportionate percentage of NFL players come from disadvantaged, low-education backgrounds. These promising athletes are scouted from high school, shuffled through a charade of higher education, and spit out into a league where the average career spans 3.5 years. Now when I watch football (and I have to admit I still do), I see concussions on nearly every series. If this seems like hyperbole, consider that the repetitive, helmet-to-helmet, sub-concussive collisions that start every play of a lineman’s career have been proven to induce brain damage of the kind that lead to the untimely deaths of former Steelers linemen Mike Webster and Justin Strzelcyzk.
The NFL’s response to its concussion problem may well be a foreshadowing of the way state and federal governments choose to regulate fracking. The policing of illegal hits by fines administered after defensive players have already brained defenseless players not only addresses the symptoms of the problem rather than the root, but punishes the same class of player it masquerades as protecting. It creates a specious antagonism between offensive and defensive players, who are at all times at risk of serious injury, while fining defenders for the same big hits that sell tickets in the first place. It seems completely possible, that when public outcry over fracking grows to the point where something must be done, that an under-powered regulatory agency will issue fines for only the most egregious offenses, thereby creating an illusion of environmental justice that abates the industries wider responsibilities to the environment.
If we really care about the environment, we’ll stop pumping heavy metals into the ground, just as if we really care about athletes’ health we’ll stop watching them play football. This would mean two additional things — one would be that the national conversation about climate change would shift from the search for the silver-bullet miracle fuel that allows us to live exactly as we do while consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels (but for it somehow to be a “green” solution), to the need for major structural changes to the way we live. The other would be the future of American sports without football, or finding a way to fit commercials into soccer.