Next year, it will be close to criminal.
The American public can no longer plead ignorance when it comes to supporting, financing and enabling the cynical exercise in human carnage for cash that is known as professional football. Since the last Super Bowl was played, “Concussion” visited the movie theaters, putting in dramatic form the undeniable facts exposed in the documentary “League of Denial.” Both “Concussion’s” director and its star, Will Smith, have stated in interviews that they don’t think they can enjoy watching football any more.Reaching this conclusion should not require the experience of making a movie about the facts of the deadly concussion epidemic that the NFL blithely promotes, nor months of bringing to life a script describing how players have been misled and lied to in order to keep them sacrificing their bodies, minds and future to the greedy maw of a billion dollar. It should only require logic, humanity, decency, and bit of sacrifice.
In just the last several days, the casualty list of NFL stars found to have damaged their brains has lengthened significantly.
Former Oakland Raiders star quarterback Ken Stabler’s brain was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the concussion-triggered brain disease. A day after that announcement, the late Colts star quarterback Earl Morrall’s brain was found to be similarly damaged. Stories were published around the same time about former Minnesota Viking linebacker Fred McNeil, who died in November and was also suffering from CTE. He had become a lawyer after his playing days, but began losing his memory and ability to concentrate. He had violent mood swings, and by his mid 40s, had lost his career, his job, his family, and his home. Former NY Giants star and famous broadcaster Frank Gifford died last year: he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy too.
On September 8, former Giants safety Tyler Sash was found dead at age 27 of an accidental overdose of pain medications at his Iowa home. The results of an autopsy announced at the end of January showed that Sash already had advanced CTE. So did the brain of a 25-year-old former college football player whose brain was discussed in a February article in “Neurology Today.” From the case study:
The case, reported in the January 4 online issue of JAMA Neurology, involved a young man whose cognitive, mood, and behavioral symptoms progressively worsened following a history of 10 concussions incurred while playing football from age 6 till his junior year in college.
The patient completed a neurocognitive battery of tests prior to his death (due to an unrelated cardiac infection) at age 25. Although those tests revealed multiple deficits, and his symptoms steadily worsened for three years after he stopped playing, a consensus panel of clinicians blinded to his pathology report was unable to reach a primary diagnosis of CTE.
“Although CTE was considered,” the report stated, “the lack of delay in symptom onset, his young age, and his family history of depression reasoned against CTE as the primary diagnosis. Consensus members thought that neuropsychological performance, while impaired, did not discriminate postconcussive syndrome or major depression from CTE.”
That pathology report, however, was conclusive for a diagnosis of CTE, based on mild ventricular dilation, hippocampal atrophy, and pathological lesions of hyperphosphorylated tau consisting of neurofibrillary tangles, neurites, and astrocytes around small blood vessels found at the sulcal depths of the frontal and temporal lobes.
It’s not just the NFL that is crippling young men. It’s college football too.
Bill Romanowski was 16-year NFL linebacker, and his reaction to Stabler’s autopsy was that it was no surprise, and that based on what he has learned in recent years, he and most other football players have the disease, if not all of them. Here was the reaction of Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, last week:
“If I had a son I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk to sitting on the couch.”
Goodell, knowing what he knows, would love to have his son play football, also knowing that it would be likely to shorten his son’s productive life by decades. Is he a monster, willing to sacrifice his son to protect the sport that pays him? ( “My kids…were on that beach too!” says Mayor Larry Vaughn in “Jaws,” admitting that he risked his own family in order to support his stubborn denial that a Great White was waiting.) Is Goodell a liar, spouting comforting PR pablum so his league’s fans don’t have their nachos and beer spoiled by bouts of conscience tomorrow? You know, Roger, there are other ways to acquire values that don’t require pounding your brain into pudding, and the values NFL is promoting by killing its players—but for such a nice salary!—are horrific. “There’s risk in life” is a lazy rationalization, and a stupid one: yes, there’s plenty of unavoidable risk in life already without adding the avoidable risk of early dementia. “There’s risk to sitting on the couch” is a false dichotomy, a debate cheat. Sure, Commissioner, those are the only choices: sitting on a couch, or having repeated head trauma on a football field so you end up a drooling, angry cripple.
This year, even more than last, I have found the cheerful hype about tomorrow’s game unbearable in its callousness and willful denial. Nothing but rationalizations and pure selfishness can justify a fan continuing to support pro football by watching the product, helping the National Football League sell ads and promoting a deadly activity going on before viewers eyes as if it was only good, clean, fun.
John Mara, owner of the New York Giants, claimed this week that NFL critics were unfair:
“We’ve committed a lot of money for research. For me it’s not a game. It’s not for show. It’s to find answers to these problems. This is our business. We have a lot of young men playing this game that we want to try to protect. This is not for show. This is serious business.’’
Of course, until we find some answers, we’ll just keep killing these young men, right? That’s what he’s saying.
There is a significant likelihood that every single player in every single game is exposing himself to eventually fatal brain injuries. Let’s say, to be conservative, it’s just 90% How many industries would not be shut down by the screams of protesters and journalists, and then regulators, if 90% of its workers were shown to face that kind of extreme risk?
Think about it: how different is this from dog-fighting, which earned NFL star Michael Vick prison time and a lifetime of hate from dog-lovers? Many of Michael Vick’s dogs that were rescued have lived normal lives of normal duration, unlike NFL players with CTE. The difference is this: pro football maims humans, while dog-fighting only maims dogs.
I know the next rationalization: the dogs were forced to fight, but football players choose to play. How many current NFL players, or their parents, knew the risks when the players were set on the path to an NFL career? How many current players had real options after a college experience that was warped to be about football rather than education? Paying a human being money to harm himself is unethical, and even more unethical when they are not aware of the extent of the harm, as most of the players on the Broncos and Panthers were until it was too late.
The real reason you will watch tomorrow, if you do, is that you really don’t care. You just want to put the ethical issues out of your mind, and enjoy the party, the fun, the game. Last year I listed twelve rationalizations that support this cruel and irresponsible choice. Last year, using them was unethical. This year, it’s indefensible.
I’ll end this post the same way I ended the post a year ago:
Do you have another argument that will let you contribute to the mass maiming for another year? Congratulations, but I doubt that you’re fooling yourself.
The NFL has deceitfully, ruthlessly, cruelly and greedily constructed a culturally rotting form of entertainment that is too big and popular for the government to control. It will change, or go away, when it becomes less profitable, less powerful, and less popular. You have a role to play in that process, if you have the integrity to play it. I think you know what the right thing to do tomorrow is.
The question is, will you do it?