"They know what they are getting into."
That is the overwhelming refrain of football fans from around the world who gathered in New York City Sunday to watch the Seahawks and Broncos battle, despite growing evidence that veterans of the game risk a heightened incidence of brain damage and early onset dementia.
"Man up, dammit! If you're going to participate, you run the risk," said Matt Nicolas, a 23-year-old tax consultant from Sydney who was cheering on the Seahawks at midtown's Blarney Rock Pub.
Nicolas's macho pronouncement was echoed by the majority of fans for both teams, who argued that there was little reason to feel morally compromised viewing a game played by men making millions of dollars.
The risk of brain damage, like any other injury, "is part of the game. They know what they are getting into!" chorused Broncos booster Kenneth Shomo, 48, a truck dispatcher who lives in Harlem.
But Pedro Garcia, 24, a salesman from Jersey City, conceded that players might not be able to imagine the repercussions of what life might be at age 50 or 60, without the cognition to make simple decisions or to recall whether they had fed a pet: "In your early 20s, you don't know what it's going to be like in your 60s. You're just getting a lot of money to do what you love: It's a high."
Last month, a federal judge said both sides of a lawsuit against the NFL brought by 4,500 players had to demonstrate that a proposed $765 million settlement would be enough to compensate retired football players, after studies have shown that ex-players may incur a risk of dementia as high as 19 times the national average. Brain damage and higher rates of dementia-type diagnoses are believed to result from the repeated concussions and head injuries.
An autopsy of linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012 at the age of 43, revealed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a form of dementia now found to be common in football players. And yesterday's Super Bowl came on the heels of fabled quarterback Joe Namath announcing he, too, has had serious health issues as a result of concussions.
"Everyone has a choice. They know the risks," said Levi Burgess, 29, an airman from Brainerd, Minn., cheering on the Broncos. "God has a plan for everyone," he added.
While most enthusiastic fans were not in the mood to harsh their mellow with thoughts of what the tackles and hits of tonight's games might mean to the futures of the players they love and loathe, a few were willing to admit that coverage of the concussion issue had cracked open a door of concern.
"I watch the game a lot more consciously now," said Tyler Bird, 27, a graduate school student in international relations at NYU who lives in Williamsburg. "I wonder about the long-term effects of all the great hits I see," and whether the wipeout of an opponent he cheers today may result in future heart -- and head -- ache. But the concern "hasn't put me off," football, said the Broncos supporter.
Few fans wanted to see rule changes in football that might make it safer if doing so meant diluting the game's vigor and rawness. But the NFL would be well-advised to research equipment and improve technology to better protect football players, counseled Jonathan Gant, 29, a Seattlite cheering on The Seahawks.
It's obvious that football is associated with brain injuries "and people shouldn't have to commit suicide," to get the NFL to take action, said the marketing and communications specialist. "The NFL really needs to improve its transparency," and, at the very least, fork over more money to help those already damaged, Gant said.
All the medical needs of players "should be taken care of," Gant added. "If the players made millions, the NFL is making billions. They have enough to pay for their health and well-being."