Football’s Growing Dilemma

Image:: Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior

by Ivan Cole 

Craig is a regular at the center where I work. He is a Kansas City native, a University of Kansas grad and a fan of the major sports teams from that area including the Chiefs, Royals and Jayhawk basketball. Until a couple of days ago our conversations had been brief. We commiserated about our teams, expressed our distain for the Ravens and Broncos respectively and a mutual contempt for the Patriots. I recently congratulated him on the success of the Royals. But this time we got into an extended conversation with some interesting revelations.

Turns out we both played the game in our youth. Even more interesting, Craig writes for fan sites related to two of the three sports mentioned above. We shared common experiences such as over the top reactions by readers after losses (“Fire everyone!”), common personality types and their foibles and the constant struggle to keep our own obsessions at bay.

And then we began to talk about the issues that threatened our continued enjoyment and support of the game (football). And that brought us to injuries, and, in particular concussions.

Craig has a son who is moving into adolescence. He is struggling with whether he will allow his son to continue to play the game. He also struggles, as do I, with continuing to support a sport that will almost certainly shorten the length and quality of life for many of its participants. As our conversation moves past the one hour mark we also wonder about its future. Too big to fail? Yeah, they were saying that about boxing thirty years ago. Who would have thought that after Ali/Frazier I, Leonard/Hagler or Tyson/anyone that the sport would fall so quickly into irrelevance?

A few hours after this conversation comes Rebecca’s piece on the Steelers and concussions.

If you are a Colin Dunlap kind of person, what follows will be something of a groove killer that spoils our entertainment high. It will be dismissed as overly emphasizing the negative and being over the top. I am willing to own up to the possibility that this point of view may be right. What I am certainly guilty of is bringing an adult perspective to an exercise whose value has been the promotion of a childlike (in the best sense of the term) wonder—into a culture where real joy and a sense of abandon can be in short supply. But sometimes you have to call ‘em as you see ‘em.

I tend to be stingy about making predictions, but I think my record is pretty good. Back in 2010 I wrote an article for Behind the Steel Curtain proposing Charlie Batch as a better alternative to Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon. We all saw how that turned out.

A few years ago I wrote, also on BTSC, that the issue of concessions and CTEs was not going away anytime soon, and, additionally, it had the potential to bring down the game.

But you don’t have to be particularly intuitive to realize a new spike in attention is about to take place when the Will Smith vehicle “Concussion” is released later this month. Pittsburgh will be at ground zero when this occurs due to the centrality of the protagonist and some of the principle victims upon which the story is based. And as Emily Kaplan’s piece in MMQB chronicles, it will not be a pretty story.

There are so many places where one could direct their focus here, but I want to key in on the last portion of Rebecca’s article. It is probably too much to expect to make a successful appeal to the conscience of a Colin Dunlap and the huge number of fans whose point of view he represents, but I believe it is worthwhile to make some attempt to have this constituency own up to their positions and the consequences associated with embracing them.

The rationale often given for the callous disregard for the welfare of players is choice and money. The players after all, the argument goes, chose their fate and are being well compensated for their efforts, so what’s the problem? So let me tell you, beginning with a closer analysis of the concept of ‘choice’.

The subject of choice comes in three parts—two involves the athletes.

First, does the athlete understand the choice and its ramifications? For almost the entirety of their path to the NFL prospective players are children. This concept is difficult for some because of the size of the people involved and the prodigious nature of the activity, plus a few other factors that I will skip for now.

Most have crossed the threshold of adulthood when they begin their professional careers, though there have been plenty of exceptions like Stephon Tuitt who were technically still minors when they began. But in order to reach the rarefied level of a professional most have to begin their journeys early in adolescence, some prior to that.

Why is this important? Because part of the definition of being a child is an inability to make completely rational, responsible choices. This is why there can be no such thing as consensual sex between a child and an adult. It is also why in most cases when a person below a certain age commits a crime they are not subject to the same severity of punishment visited upon adults.

And even if you decide that they do have the capacity to make rational decisions of this nature, what do you think the chances are they have the complete information necessary to make an informed choice? How many of these children do you think know as they toil and devote themselves to their craft that in more than a few institutions of higher learning there may be little chance their scholarships will translate into a legitimate opportunity to receive a degree? Or that the dollars quoted from the contract negotiations will ever reach their bank accounts, or that they will have a much better chance than most to have shortened lives which end physically broken, demented and destitute?

The adults they depend upon to provide guidance will, with depressing regularity, betray them. Sometimes the letdown is unintentional, fueled by the naiveté of adults who are dazzled (or bamboozled) by a vision that is seen as all upside.

All too often they are deliberately exploited by those who see in these children an opportunity to advance their own careers or reputations, to make a sizable amount of money or to be “entertained” on a Saturday or Sunday. The player is reduced to a thing, a commodity to be used, lauded for their prowess, and then discarded when their utility wanes.

How, for example, does one justify the notion that proper preparation for a career as an independent contractor (which is what every professional football player is) has been given without any training in making business decisions? Even if the extent of those decisions is choosing one’s representation in business matters and being able to evaluate their competence and ethics.

None of the former players and relatives quoted by Kaplan appeared to have anything close to full prior knowledge of what the sport was doing to the players, nor the details of the fate that befell their colleagues.

Too cynical? Okay. Let’s pretend that none of the above ever happens, or if so, only rarely. Let’s move to the second element of choice.

What is the quality of the choice?

In one of his routines, comedian Chris Rock points out that a man’s fidelity in a relationship is directly related to the quality of his options. Citing one extreme but clear example, those who were unfortunate enough to be victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had a choice. They could submit to one of the most brutal and barbaric systems of human bondage ever devised, or they could die at their own hands or that of their captors. How do you like the options?

Craig and I discussed this at length. The trend would seem to be that football, like boxing or enlisted military service, is increasingly segregating to those segments of the population with limited economic options. Even now, the game is strongest in the poorest section of the country (the South) and is weakening in the middle class demographic.

As former Steeler Randy Grossman said about the upscale community of Fox Chapel where he resides, you won’t find many boxing gyms there. And in Fairfax County, Virginia, where Craig and I live, what was for years the most affluent county in the United States, youth football programs have skewed decidedly in the direction of participants being more working class and browner than they were when I coached at that level two decades ago.

And then there is college football. As Michael Baumann points out in this piece in The Atlantic:

College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it.

The piece further points out that not only are the spectators predominantly different from the participants according to class and race. Those who realize the greatest compensation from the college game, athletic directors and head coaches, are nearly 90% white (not counting Historically Black Colleges and Universities,) while blacks are now the majority of the uncompensated talent, a robust percentage not reflected in the numbers among the student population at large. And as this article by Donald Yee emphasizes, the impediments to coaching opportunities for non-whites is structural.

Cord Jefferson was quoted in the Baumann piece:

Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.

You would think the league would see the direction where things are going and try to head it off. Or maybe not. If the game successfully internationalizes, it opens “opportunites” to vast populations who experience more profound levels of deprivation and will perhaps be more likely to embrace the NFL’s risk/reward ratio, or less able to oppose it.

And given the narcissistic slant of our culture, as “appalling” and noxious as Dunlap’s comments are—even explosive when class and race are considered—it can be potentially much worse if the humans involved are foreigners from societies that, generally speaking, we care nothing about.

And there is one more aspect of choice which needs to be discussed.

Those of us who choose to patronize the sport are complicit in its abuses as well.

Certainly not! I’m just an innocent spectator who tunes in after the players choose to accept compensation to participate in the cruel spectacle that is professional football. But, correctly understood, the funding and support for the league comes as much through the owners as from them.

When I first began to write what follows it was based upon the assumption that the fans and general public were selfish but for the most part unwitting enablers of a process which is much more exploitative than anyone would like to acknowledge. However, the argument can be made that the fans are not just complicit, but in a very real sense may be subject to exploitation themselves, and are as unaware of their condition as the players.

Start with the tax payers and their representatives who choose to subsidize the teams’ infrastructure, and then turn around as customers and accept highly inflated costs for tickets, concessions, apparel and other services like parking. Gregg Easterbrook article points out the extent of these practices. It was shocking to me, and I considered myself more aware than most about these things.

When the extent of taxpayer and community support is clarified, it becomes obvious that massive subsidies and government protections mean that the public, as much as the owners, are paying the player’s salaries. This is often at the expense of subsidizing high school extracurricular and youth sports activities and even more basic public needs. To add insult to injury, as Easterbrook writes,

That typical people are taxed to fund NFL facilities, yet only the expense-account set can afford to enter, ought to be a source of populist uproar.

Owners and their resources come and go, but the game cannot survive or thrive without the fans. As Easterbrook says,

There’s no law of nature that says the NFL, or any professional sport must be publicly subsidized.

As evidence mounts that the sport is destroying some of its participants, the partnership between the public and the business can be viewed as troubling, to say the least. And while it is true that the choices of any one fan are not going to impact the NFL in any significant way, this does not inoculate any of us from ethical decision making. The status quo is created and continues because of the willing endorsement of some, the indifference of others and the quiet acquiescence of the rest.

Is this an appeal to turn away from the game? Fear not. I’m not ready to walk away just yet. But a reckoning is almost a certainty. It may be a death on the field of play as millions watch, a homicide fueled by a CTE fog, a successful lawsuit, a players’ rebellion, a scandal related to treatment irregularities or cover ups, or any number of other possibilities which may render the game mortal at long last.

Along the way, all of us will have to consider our choices related to our continued fidelity to the game. That is, assuming that the game’s fate isn’t determined for us in the final analysis.

The image which heads the article was used in a very interesting article in Wired Magazine, which you can read by clicking here It describes a test which would allow a player to see how much damage has occurred thus far, something which has not be possible up to this point. Previously, CTE has only been able to be diagnosed, and the extent of it discovered, by posthumous examination of the brain.

16 comments

  • A sobering article. The more I read about this issue, the more conflicted I get. I love the game, but I’m feeling differently about the big hits I used to enjoy, even the clean ones.

    Thanks for this Ivan. If we love our players, we have to support a meaningful solution to enhance head injury prevention.

    Liked by 1 person

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    As some of you know, this one hits a bit close to home for me. If I had it to do over I would have steered my kids into baseball (soccer appears to have head injury issues as well) but football seemed more athletic and we wanted to get the kids physically active though that may not have mattered. Attempts to get them into swimming, track, volleyball and soccer all failed. Football was the game that interested them.

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  • The clock has been ticking on this issue for more than a decade. Even before that, when the issue of steroids was front and center, there were stories of “punch drunk” ex-football players living in abject poverty, without medical care or insurance. Perhaps no group of American workers have benefitted more from the Affordable Care Act than former NFL players. The stories that came across my desk as far back as twenty years ago – some involving guys still in their 30’s – were heartbreaking. At least now they have medical coverage. But that medical coverage may lead to even more liability woes for the league as we learn more and more about long-term effects of what the American poet called “suicidally beautiful” young men who “gallop terribly against each others bodies.”

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    • The poet was James Wright, and the poem, “Autumn Comes to Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.” Martin’s Ferry was, coincidentally, the home town of Lou (The Toe) Groza, and the poem can be found in the Smithsonian American History Museum next to Groza’s kicking shoe. Steve Sabol did a piece on all that for NFL films.

      Like

    • Wow! This is a bombshell. “The stories that came across my desk as far back as twenty years ago – some involving guys still in their 30’s – were heartbreaking.”

      In the public rendering, Mike Webster’s death is seen as the “first” case of someone who was suffering from CTE.

      But I’d been wondering if that was truly the case. If there weren’t other cases of former NFL players who suffered from CTE like symptoms before that, that we never knew about. Based on what you’ve said, that’s probably the case.

      Thanks for sharing this.

      Like

      • The issue dawned on me when I was working in Cleveland and Milt Morin retired after the 1975 season. We had a heart-to-heart talk, and he told me that when he started playing football, he’d hurt for a day or two after the game. As he moved from college at UMass to the pros, the aches and pains would last longer into the week. Over his pro career, he’d hurt all season long, but the pain would gradually subside in the off-season. Now, it never went away. And, being a tight end, Milt made a career of going over the middle, catching third down passes for first downs. He’d get hit time after time in the back and kidneys and that’s what hurt, all the time. He said it was time to quit. He had already had at least one extensive back surgery.

        The last time I saw Milt in Pittsburgh was the weekend of his final Browns-Steelers game. The Brownies were staying at the Marriott Greentree, and Milt had just rented a car. He said he was going to visit “a blind gentleman who was a great friend of my father, They served together in the service. He lives in the Mon Valley.” That’s how he spent his few hours of private time the day before a game, and that’s the kind of guy he was.

        Milt lived to be 67, stayed married to his college sweetheart (44 years), and went about his life’s work as a well-respected corrections officer – in constant pain and discomfort. He died of a heart attack in 2010.

        As far as the “bombshell,” when the steroid scandal hit, there were stories of high school kids committing suicide from roid rage and all kinds of other horror stories. And the NFLPA’s office was two blocks away from where I worked at ABC News. Gene Upshaw and Mark Murphy saw to it that reporters working the roid story also knew about former NFL players who had been crippled and were without medical insurance. Some of these guys had cognitive issues or suicidal ideations. That might have moved the story forward, but the Congressional hearings at the time deal with steroids, but we did some stories on the crippled former NFL players. We generally stayed focused on the steroid problem. We had no idea about CTE or how widespread it was.

        I remember when we looked into the NFL injury story, Mike Ditka (also a tight end) said he can’t take a step without some pain,and he has undergone numerous surgeries on his back, hips, and knees. When you look at Iron Mike, you can see how tough he is. But one word that doesn’t come to mind is “spry.” He’s battle-worn, to say the least.

        I’ve retired from ABC News. The NFLPA has voted three blocks away from their old HQ to a new building just down the street from me (I pass the Gene Upshaw Building just about every day), and there are more and more old wounded warriors. At least now, they have medical coverage for their pre-existing conditions and we are gaining some understanding of the scope of the problems facing former players.

        Liked by 1 person

        • cold_old_steelers_fan

          This makes me wonder just how beat up Heath Miller will be by the time he finishes. I don’t know if any Steelers takes more hard hits.

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        • When news of CTE first started to break, one of the things that caught my attention was that it was less prevalent in former CFL players. Now I am not sure if that is still the case or not, but it did occur me that perhaps the problem was not as bad there because of differences in health care policies between the two Anglo American countries. (It could just be that CFL players are smaller and slower than NFL players, so their hits generate far force.)

          A couple of three years ago, Clark, aka “PaVA Steelers Fan wrote a great article on BTSC, taking the NFL to task, having researched the history of “Punch Drunkeness” in boxing. I thought he made an excellent point, but my reaction was, “OK, but people associated Punch Drunkness with boxing in the 30’s, it wasn’t until Iron Mike’s death that anyone ever thought about it with respect to the NFL.”

          From what you say, that is not the case. I think more reporting needs to be done on this angle of the story.

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  • When ‘Concussion’ comes out, you will find that the most vociferous defenders of the league will be fans. NFL won’t have to spend a dime.

    However, if the NFL went away, I truly think that it will play out like the end of the Truman Show… people will very quickly simply ask, ‘well, what else is on?’.

    I watch less and less football every year. The injuries are a factor in that (so is not having TV reception) but so is the fact that football is..well..kind of boring. I find myself noticing the 50 seconds between plays more than the 4 seconds of actual game play.

    But… the NFL has one thing that boxing never had. A shield that can keep the public malaise away for awhile… college football. The gateway drug to the NFL… college football grabs folks from 16-22 years of age and that’s that. The handoff to the pros is easy after that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elpalito, you’re on to something. I’ve written about this both on BTSC and on my own site, that the NFL’s international expansion will go no where because fans outside of the US are not conditioned to accept the numerous stops in play.

      Now honestly, I think that the stop-start nature of the game is something that can be made palatable. But the TV Commercials are something else. The Networks are paying billions to show one of the last true “content” pieces that can be “broadcast.” They’re going to recoup their money, I get that.

      But the the commercial interruptions in NFL football are truly distracting. I mean, do we REALLY need a commercial between the touch back and the first offensive snap?

      But I’ve wondered that as attention spans shorten, will fans continue to sit through 3 hours of a football game….

      I noticed on Twitter during the World Cup that US fans started mentioning how convenient 2 hour games were….

      When I make comments like this, most people tend to think that I’m saying this because after living in Argentina for so long, I’m accustomed to soccer.

      Nothing could be further form the truth. In 14 plus years, I don’t think I’ve deliberately watched a single non-World Cup game.

      But prior to coming to Argentina, most of my football watching was done in Steelers bars where bathroom breaks, beer breaks and/or Arm Chair Quarterbacking occupied the commercial breaks. Down here, watching at home, by myself is when the true impact of commercials on the flow of the game really hit me.

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      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        When possible I will PVR a game and watch it later so I can skip over the commercials otherwise I listen to the game on the Steelers.com radio broadcast so I can at least have some decent commentary and then I will watch a rebroadcast that I PVR’d. It is rare that I watch an entire game as it is broadcast. This usually only happened for prime time games.

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        • I find it difficult to both watch and enjoy a game whose outcome I already know. Now living in Argentina I’ve been able to tape games and watch them w/o knowing the outcome. While this is more difficult in 2015 than it was in 2005, it is still possible.

          However, I do take advantage, at times, of DirectTV’s “Live Pause” and sometimes watch about 20 minutes behind so that I can fast forward through most of the commercials.

          The downside is that I can’t participate in social media (really I’m only talking about Twitter.)

          So one thing that I do, is watch live, and when a commercial comes one move to my computer to Tweet (the WiFi signal doesn’t quite reach my TV viewing area.)

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  • Ivan, this is an incredible piece of work.

    And you’re right.

    The moral issues that fans must confront are very, very real.

    Like you, I haven’t reached my “Come to Jesus” moment. But this is what I was attempting to get at a few weeks ago when I posed a question about Adrian Robinson in the 5 Smolderings. Here’s a kid that took his own life at age 25. He’d appeared in 22 NFL games…..

    What was his total snap count?

    I don’t know, but it would not surprise me to learn if it was less than 100, including special teams appearances.

    I bleed Black and Gold and love football. The fact that the game has been violent and dangerous is nothing new. I remember when I lived in Boston, reading Bob Ryan writing that, “If you like sausage, don’t visit a sausage factory, if you like football don’t ever visit an NFL training room.” He wasn’t thinking of CTE, we didn’t know about it then (although perhaps we knew more than is commonly accepted) he was talking about the life-long physical toll that NFL players pay.

    But CTE is a different kind of devastation.

    When Jack Butler passed away, the famous Steelers DB and then later BLESTO scout, it was mentioned that pain from his NFL injuries was a daily part of life for Butler. But he also said he’d do it all again.

    The suicide notes from CTE victims suggest they feel differently. To say the least…..

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  • As I was preparing this piece, my son in law shared that he had been dealing with occasional bouts of depression. Another family friend and former teammate had similar issues. And they did not move beyond the college level, though Antawn could have taken a shot at the NFL but decided not to. Brings the issue home obviously. Jaylen, my great nephew is now fifteen and played freshman football but for now is too small to take that passion too far, but if he is like my brother he will have a late growth spurt. I think I am rooting for basketball.

    Like

    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      My son’s one concussion we knew of when it happened was when he was 15. The rest were small enough that he didn’t think much of them at the time but they add up. Teenage boys often think they have something to prove even when they don’t and the peer pressure to not let your buddies down is high.

      I wish the best for your son-in-law. Depression is insidious, easy to dismiss (even though it shouldn’t be) and difficult to treat.

      Like

    • Wow Ivan.

      Again, this just goes to show how serious the issue is. My first reaction when friends talked about not wanting their kids to play football was “Come on, I know tons of people who played at the high school level and have no cognitive effects later in life.” I largely kept those thoughts to myself because they’re not my kids, and I don’t have kids of my own (and if I did, my DNA would ensure they probably would have difficulty making the team, and wouldn’t play much if they did.)

      But there’s a lot of truth to that statement, however….

      …as previously stated, the Adrian Robinson suicide shows that the roots of CTE run far deeper than the NFL.

      Honestly, if I had kids of my own, I’d have to think long and hard about letting them play.

      Like

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