Like most of those reading this piece, I’ll be watching the NFL sometime between now and sunset. After watching the PBS documentary “League of Denial” and reading the companion book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, it will be with a huge sense of moral conflict. The debate has been there for a while. and obviously the League’s agreeing to a $765 million settlement last month with over 4,500 former players and survivors who had sued the league, indicates the NFL knew they had a severe legal problem. Given the legal tactics detailed in the book, executed in the face of mounting medical evidence , America’s favorite sport has ethical issues on the scale of Big Tobacco. Those running the planet’s most powerful sports brand have been using tactics to keep the issue hidden, that seem to be torn from the PhilipMorris playbook.
A few weeks ago, I posted a piece on Howard Cosell, who was one of the first to point out that given the amount taxpayers were spending on stadiums, the amount media was spending on broadcast rights, and the amount we as fans spend on tickets and merchandise, professional sports was a matter of compelling public interest. Now there is a huge body of work defining the risks of permanent brain damage our entertainers are taking on, in order to provide the masses America’s favorite sport. And knowing that playing in the National Football League can destroy men's cognitive health, leaves us with this real dilemma, which is that a couple of decades hence, many of the players we watch today will certainly be disabled. And we have not even mentioned all the collision related trauma seen on High School Friday Nights or College Football Saturdays.
Like millions of other American young men, I had experience with “having my bell rung” , back in my high school athletic days and coupled with a more recent concussion admit to a small bit of shared terror. And this is trivial compared what we will see on Sunday. I have more than one friend from those days suffering the effects of their participation every day, though thankfully (not yet) affecting cognition. And you are correct that we knew much of what playing collision sports entailed back in the seventies. It was a risk many of my contemporaries readily accepted, for an athletic scholarship was their ticket out of places and neighborhoods few escaped by other means.
Football is the quintessential American game, and given the powerful images supplied by the networks and the nearly 50 years of the amazingly effective propaganda of it’s in house organ, NFL Films, it’s become a pervasive part of our national culture . In a recent Huffington Post piece, commentator Tom Krattenmaker points out another interesting dynamic, “Now that the lid is starting to blow off, the revelations are sure to intensify the debate over the complicated relationship among faith, morality and football.” I have always loved the classic quote by the football addicted Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, that the NFL was “the last bastion of fascism in America.” As Krattenmaker observes, “In recent generations, evangelicals have used football as a huge platform to promote their religious values. And why not, you might ask? The qualities of football closely align with Christian virtues such as sacrifice, discipline and courage.”
When the NFL agreed to the aforementioned three quarters of a billion dollar settlement, it had one very disquieting effect. As William Rhoden noted in the New York Times, “By settling, the former players and their families won immediate financial assistance for pressing and sometimes costly medical problems. However, they lost a golden opportunity to learn more about what might have caused them.” Rhoden also points out these parallels between the NFL and Big Tobacco:
“A trial would have forced the N.F.L. to make a concession similar to the one made years ago by the tobacco industry. That industry was ultimately forced to agree with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases like lung cancer than non-smokers. There is no safe cigarette.”
There also is no safer football helmet. By settling the league stopped short of having to admit that mind boggling collisions by behemoths at full speed has a causal effect on later life for players. Absent the discovery process, the can has been kicked further down the road, and for now the league will go on. Though it’s a matter of dwindling time before Riddell and other helmet manufacturers have to face their own encounters with product liability suits and the same legal process begins for the other taxpayer supported colossus benefitting from big time football, which is the college and even high school game.
As far as the NFL is concerned, the settlement comes without admission of liability. As Rhoden notes, in taking the settlement offer, “the former players — and by extension current players — have spoken: they know what they signed up for and are willing to take the risks. Without admitting guilt or revealing what it might have known about head injuries, the N.F.L. agreed to pay for the outcome of those risks. The settlement was a game-changer in the discussion about head injuries and player safety, and for the N.F.L., it came with a relatively cheap price tag.”
The NFL alone is a 10 BILLION a year industry. The settlement is a fraction of the annual monies the league and the BCS series receives in TV revenues. The league has actually gotten off cheaply compared to Big Tobacco, for we never really will know what they knew and when they knew it. One thing that is fascinating, is that the “League of Denial’ project began as a joint venture between ESPN and PBS. Given the fact that in the days leading up to the Frontline broadcast, the ABC/ESPN moniker was removed from the project, is indicative of both the leagues reach and the fact it is carried by the 4 major networks. At least for the foreseeable future, it’s doubtful there will be companion pieces on 60 minutes, NBC Dateline, or Faux News.
It’s doubtful many will lose much time thinking of concussions come game time. At least for now the games are still there, and let’s face it nobody watching will dwell on stats like this one, 45 of the 46 brains of NFL players autopsied to date show the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disorder. Some players have also developed Lou Gehrig’s disease. Given the ongoing progression of athlete’s size and speed it’s hard to be optimistic that coming years will demonstrate any result but a deepening list of causalities. With the recent settlement, there may be a hundred more cases like Junior Seau and the settlement will be cited as representing a proportionate solution. For now.
As consumers we are now the only entity that can effect events. For now. As time goes on increasing numbers of parents in America will hit the point future Hall of Famer and frequent concussion victim Kurt Warner did, and start forbidding their kids to suit up. Though the settlement may have addressed the NFL’s issues for now, it’s doubtful it will stop product liability suits against equipment manufacturers or the colleges benefitting from the BCS gravy change. And whatever way we personally address the dilemma of continued support of our beloved games, our grandchildren may yet join the rest of earth as soccer fans. For though the gates may be secure for now, it will be interesting to see how quickly the edifice of professional football crumbles without kids suiting up, especially when state supported universities experience litigation that even the most football addicted boosters will not afford to support.
As far as myself, I plan to post this note and take a walk to the local bookstore. It’s doubtful I’ll cease watching the NFL overnight, going cold turkey on my lifelong addiction seems impossible, and it’s impossible to ignore the game’s cultural implications. But it will be from the perspective of a critic , and not that of a fan.
MANY BLESSINGS - NOEL
LEAGUE OF DENIAL- FULL PBS DOCUMENTARY
NFL FORCES ESPN TO DROP OFF FRONTLINE DOCUMENTARY