I’ve heard a lot surrounding this PBS “League of Denial” doc about the effect of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the NFL. One thing sports journalists, and fans I think frequently disregard is the other, dangerous side of the game; we get caught up in the stats, characters and excitement that we forget what the players are risking when they get out on the field. In football, especially, fans thrive on big, cringe-worthy hits that sometimes leave the victim sprawled helplessly on the field. Much of the game strategy in football revolves around strong contact and leaping tackles–and despite the padding and helmets–every hit is a big one.
The documentary highlighted a group of lineman who died from CTE, a brain disease that forms after multiple concussions and head injuries. Neurologists Benet Omalu and Ann McKee found the disease in famed, deceased NFL stars like Mike Webster and Tom McHale who, before their death, experienced dementia-like symptoms and confusion. Football players who committed suicide, like Terry Long, Junior Saeu and 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman Owen Thomas, also had signs of CTE in their postmortem brain tissues.
The stories themselves were downright scary and depressing–they told of widows and children who lost loved ones to a supposedly fun-spirited sport and their constant battle with NFL bigwigs like Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL doctor Ira Casson, who consistently denied that the game caused their husbands’ and fathers’ deaths. The movie portrays the NFL as a money-hungry, untouchable enterprise; no outside experts nor incriminating evidence could penetrate the system. Football is America’s sport–other than baseball, I guess–and we live for Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. Omalu and McKee were just pesky bugs attempting to infect the system, and the NFL just needed to swat them away.
The documentary exposed a coverup–though eventually the NFL openly funded CTE research at Boston University and confessed to the New York Times that concussions caused these deaths (not sure where the article is, but I found a relevant one)–and also presented football fans with a dilemma.
Yes, football is dangerous, and potentially fatal…woah…so do we give up on it? Get rid of it? Shut down the NFL and tuck football away on our historical shelf in the Smithsonian where fans can only reminisce about the game? Seriously, suddenly we have all this information, but what do we do with it?
When the movie ended, I felt conflicted. I felt bad for being a fan–I like big hits and tough play. These were guys that were risking their life to play football and at what cost? Millions of dollars for a short lifetime?
After a moment, I clicked on an article below the documentary, “What NFL Players are saying about ‘League of Denial.'” The article was a stark contrast to the tone of the documentary; the doctors, former players and families in the movie are warning football fans and players of the game’s dangers, but the players don’t seemed alarmed at all. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in a response to CTE issue, said “I don’t think about it at all. I’m not overly concerned.” And some players understand the dangers they face during the game, like Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who said “…I know the risk I take when I step on the field. Im risking future health and future mental health. I understand that, future physical health.”
Then I realized, perhaps all the concussion talk is old news. We know football is dangerous, and any hit to the head can cause head injuries that will stick with you for a lifetime if you are hit hard enough times. Fans know this, players know this, the NFL knows this. Should we uproot the football culture in America because it is dangerous?
Yes, the NFL is banking off of players risking a life threatening injury every time they step on the field, and that’s disturbing. We know corporate America is evil, yet there is no escaping it’s embrace; we’re in too deep, football is here to stay.
The new research found regarding CTE can answer a lot of questions, though. It explains many mysterious deaths within the NFL. But is the danger of concussions in football itself news? Nah.