Football is the most popular sport in this country. The National Football League is a $9 billion industry and its popularity continues to rise. To complain about the violent nature of the game can border on heresy. But a major issue has arisen that cannot be ignored. Concussions have become endemic to the sport and current research shows an alarming rate of brain damage to former players. Is the game becoming too dangerous for its own good?
In the past two decades it has come to light that the pounding on players’ heads is causing major issues soon after the athletes’ careers are over. Chronic headaches, mood changes, dementia and suicide have become the norm among many retired players. In the old days it was considered a rite of passage to have your “bell rung” and then show how “tough” you were by getting back into the game without delay.
Nothing exhibited your “manhood” more than playing hurt. You could have a separated shoulder or a herniated disc and still not come out of a game. The last thing a player wanted to do was show he was “weak.” Health was for “sissies.” If you suffered a concussion and didn’t know where you were you would still want to go back into the game. Coaches encouraged that attitude and players wore it as a badge of honor.
It’s bad enough to see retired players walking around as cripples with broken fingers, blown-out knees, and chronic back pain because of the natural brutality of the sport. Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi once said that football was not a “contact” sport but a “collision” sport. Players knew the inherent risks and were willing to put up with them. The typical pro whined about any rules changes to make the sport safer.
It’s a little different though when you start talking about the brain and finding out that it can totally change your personality and possibly lead to suicide. Many of the same players who once complained about taking the brutality out of the game recently sued the NFL for what they believed was withholding information on the danger of concussions.
When independent research started revealing the connection between concussions and brain damage the NFL developed a bunker mentality. The last thing football needed was mothers finding out the nation’s most popular sport might cause brain damage in their kids. The NFL employed “experts” who agreed with the league that there was no proof of a direct link between the two.
But the backlash was swift. The NFL soon found itself compared to the tobacco industry who for decades denied a link between smoking and lung cancer. More and more retired players popped up who suffer from memory loss and erratic behavior. Just recently, two former All-Pros, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, committed suicide, and Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Jim McMahon and Brett Favre complained of memory loss. It was clear something awful has been happening to the sport.
A new book has just been released by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru called League of Denial: the NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth. It documents the whole sorted affair from its origins to the present day. It’s fascinating, illuminating, and depressing. It’s bad enough that there are so many former players walking around (if the can still walk) who have no idea who they are but it’s made worse by a league that’s been in denial mode and more interested in protecting its product than the men who played it.
One of the most unfortunate things about the concussion issue is that there are villains everywhere including those within the scientific community who were responsible for exposing the link between playing football and brain damage. Instead of being on the same “team” the trailblazers developed inflated egos, a distrust of colleagues and an appetite for monetary gain with their findings. When taking on a behemoth such as the NFL a united front was critical and it wasn’t always forthcoming.
Basic common sense tells you there is a major problem with the game. The authors of League of Denial have shown that the league has contradicted itself on the dangers of concussions. The NFL also settled the lawsuit by former players for $765 million presumably in part to avoid the spectacle of a public trail. At least the league has started taking steps to reduce the risk of concussion by outlawing helmet to helmet hits and the targeting of defenseless receivers.
There is the conundrum in that the more the NFL tries to develop a “safer” helmet the more the players like to use it as a weapon. Maybe the league should go back to leather helmets so the urge to use them as a battering ram would disappear. There is no easy fix.
Perhaps the best solution is to realize there isn’t one. Players and parents need to understand that there is an inherent risk in playing football and that you can’t simply sue the “deep pockets” whenever something goes awry and claim ignorance. The NFL needs to understand that retired players are going to suffer and it’s their obligation to provide lifetime health coverage once they’ve been vested in the league more than a couple of years.
The worst thing to happen is for players to think they’re immortal and the league to pretend there isn’t a direct link between concussions and brain damage. Nothing will change then and that will hurt everyone. League of Denial is an excellent primer for understanding the entire issue of concussions, the research behind it and how the NFL has reacted to it. It’s a topic that will only get bigger over time.