Bread and Circuses... and Brain Injury
Several years ago, as performance-enhancing drugs were becoming widespread in sports, a scare-’em-straight question was often posed to young athletes considering popping pills or injecting their butts: If you could take a drug you knew would let you play pro sports for 20 years but would take five years off of your life, would you take it?
No need for such hypotheticals. The NFL has been living proof for years that yes, we will chase glory over longevity. What is only now becoming clear, however, is the level of denial through which we delude ourselves.
America, it would seem, is addicted to football.
Oh, not all of America, of course. Here and there are some pleasant souls who say "football" when they mean "soccer" and have no taste for the American version. There are a few folks who eschew all ball-involved sports. And here and there is an occasional purist who thinks the world begins and ends with baseball and all other sports are irrelevant.
But with billions of dollars in revenues annually, mind-numbing hours of television programming almost every day, millions of fantasy leagues and dozens of Vegas betting lines, football is clearly the opiate of choice for the American masses.
Such thoughts percolated through my mind after I had the opportunity while on the road last week to see the PBS Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis," inspired by the book by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The episode examines the case of former Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster, who committed suicide at the age of 50 after battling psychological problems for several years and was the first NFL player diagnosed to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, then traces the growing awareness of the risks to mental health in football and the NFL’s active resistance to acknowledging those risks.
Earlier this year, the NFL agreed to pay 4,500 former players a total of $765 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the league knowingly concealed the risks involved in playing football, specifically risks to the brain. The NFL did not acknowledge any guilt in the settlement and prays this is the end of pesky inquiries into the dangers involved.
There hasn’t been an ending to a major public scandal so stinky and unsatisfactory since Ford pardoned Nixon. Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson said, "The NFL has given you 765 million reasons why you shouldn’t play football." I say it’s given us 765 million reasons to question why we allow ourselves to be hooked on this sport at all.
Look, I grew up loving football. I loved backyard pickup tackle games as a kid, smashing my face against bigger players’ knees (everyone was bigger than me), then washing the blood out of my mouth with warm saltwater. I never felt so alive.
I loved watching Jim Brown and Jim Plunkett and Bo Jackson and Joe Namath and Franco Harris and Larry Csonka. My heart soared when Dwight Clark leaped in the Dallas end zone to haul in Joe Montana’s catch and break the Cowboys’ hearts. Even now, I like tuning the set in to see how the Oakland "Commitment to Excellence" Raiders, irrelevant in the NFL scheme of things for a decade, are faring. I like reading about what’s the deal with Jim Harbaugh. Some of my best friends were football players.
And yet ...
When friends ask which sports I most enjoy watching, I tell them I used to like football but that it is increasingly difficult for me to ignore the damage being done to the players. When friends ask what can be done to finance non-revenue sports, I look longingly at the massive numbers of football scholarships. When someone tells me he loves the personality cults that spring up around career coaches like Penn State’s Joe Paterno, I think about the slimy Jerry Sanduskys lurking in the shadows. When someone tells me he doesn’t believe many players are taking steroids, I pull out my real estate brochures on bridges in Brooklyn.
I think back to my first few practices on the college rugby squad. It was explained to me that in rugby, you battle tough and have to control yourself so you don’t cripple or kill your opponent - there’s no equipment to stop you; in football, players try to kill each other and assume the equipment will prevent serious injury.
But what we are seeing, what surely the NFL and the players association see, is that the equipment doesn’t stop the worst injuries, the invisible, long-term ones. Helmets prevent facial lacerations and fractured skulls, but they don’t prevent the harmful rattling of the brain every time a player sustains a jarring hit. As players try to avoid hitting each other on the head, the number of serious ankle and leg injuries escalates.
What we see is that either through revolutionary weight training or the magic of modern chemistry, football bodies are getting bigger and bigger, too big for the frailties of the human skeletal system to oppose. We see that the hits occur by the hundreds each game, and they get harder and harder over time.
What we see is a sport run amok on excess.
The NFL’s defense has been to attack the science of those who raise alarms - even when it is their own scientists sounding the call. The NFL’s defense has been to say nobody really understands brain injuries or the long-term effects of head pounding or why so many former players develop Alzheimer’s. The NFL’s defense has been to say, hey look, wasn’t that a spectacular catch?! Watch that dude run. Want some beer and popcorn?
It will be interesting to see what impact League of Denial has. Perhaps it will trigger a true examination of the industry of football and lead to an overhaul of the sports, its techniques, and its equipment. Or, perhaps the NFL will treat it as just one more PR problem to be whisked away by better bread and circuses, more beer and popcorn.
Myself, I think football could use a major reality check and a return to sanity. If you are in a sport in which all of the energy is provided by fellow humans, not like horse racing or race car driving, you should be able to survive it with minimal protection and not have to be encased in plastic armor. Impose weight limits, require athletes to play offense and defense, eliminate line blocking - numerous possibilities exist.
So before you settle in on the couch and tune in to the next game, take a couple of hours to watch the documentary for a different perspective on what it really is that you are cheering.
There is a free screening of League of Denial Thursday, October 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kaiser Center, 300 Lakeside Drive in Oakland. The film will be re-broadcast on Comcast’s KQED World at 2 p.m. Saturday, October 19, followed by Frontline’s look at high school football. League of Denial is also available anytime online at http://www.kqed.org.