For years, the players and their family members have been suffering and dying for the status quo in pro football. Something's gotta give.
I am not a sports fan; I should acknowledge that up front. The last time I genuinely attempted to care about professional football was in 1986, when the Chicago Bears were on their way to Super Bowl XX. I was in sixth grade and living in the Chicago suburbs, the “Super Bowl Shuffle” was constantly on the radio, and Defensive Captain Gary Fencik, who was from my hometown, was extremely handsome. Between wanting to fit in with my peers and feeling legitimately swept up in the excitement that suffused the whole region, I really wanted to learn to love the game that year.
Every now and then, I’d see a glorious touchdown, or a moment when the late Walter Payton took off on an incredible run, and I’d understand the thrill of it. But mostly, my impression of football at 11 years old was the same as it is today: three seconds of action, a pile of men, and then a whole bunch of boring talk and shots of men standing around until the next three seconds of action.
So, on the one hand, I simply don’t get it. On the other hand, I live in Chicago proper now, and I love a lot of people who practice fandom as religion. I hang out at a local bar where at least two games are always on, and if I had no respect for the instant camaraderie and shared emotional highs and lows of watching sports, I’d have had to move by now. Even if I’m usually playing Candy Crush on my phone while all of the other patrons hang on the athletes’ every move, I can appreciate how much the games mean to people.
And as much as I’ve complained about football culture fostering violence and entitlement off the field—from the Steubenville rapists to Jerry Sandusky to Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy—I also have a nephew who credits high-school football with his transformation from a shy, awkward kid to a strong, self-possessed young man. Sometimes, all of the professed virtues of team sports really do fall into place and make only a positive difference in the players’ lives. Sometimes, instead of a coach Reno Saccoccia, you get an Eric Taylor. Or a Matt Labrum, who recently suspended most of his team for bullying other kids and shirking their academic duties this season, telling them they’d need to earn the right to play through community service and improved behavior.
But then, sometimes, the worst parts of football culture travel all the way up to the NFL for a few generations, and you wind up with an institution that gives cover to rapists, wife-beaters, and child abusers, all while doing its best to hide the fact that its million-dollar athletes are doing severe, permanent damage to their brains.
Like many of us, I first became aware of how serious the brain injury issue is when I read about the suicide of Dave Duerson, one of those ‘86 Bears, and the NFL’s Man of the Year in ‘87. Duerson, who was never knocked unconscious in his 11 years as a professional football player, was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy when he shot himself in 2011, at 50 years old. He deliberately put the bullet through his chest, so his brain could be studied.
Since then, I’ve been astonished to learn how many former NFL players whose names even I recognize are also apparently suffering the effects of brain damage in retirement. Junior Seau retired from the league in 2010, and shot himself in the chest in 2012, at 43. Jim McMahon, quarterback for the ‘86 Bears, has dementia, in addition to depression and chronic pain. Brett Favre, who is 44, spoke last year about his struggle to remember simple things. Ben Utecht, who helped the Indianapolis Colts beat the Bears in the 2007 Super Bowl, had five concussions in his four-year NFL career, and is now suffering memory loss. This summer, he released a song about his fear that one day, he won’t recognize his wife and daughters. Ben Utecht is 33 years old.
Current players, too, are increasingly aware of the toll head injuries take. Arizona Cardinal John Abraham, 36, decided to leave the team last Tuesday and was considering retirement after his latest concussion. Today he announced, however, that he will continue playing, despite reports that he has been experiencing memory loss over the last year.
When I saw the news this week that actuarial models suggest nearly one-third of NFL players will eventually have long-term cognitive impairment, beginning at “notably younger ages” than one would typically expect, I was shocked anew. The NFL, though, has known about this problem for decades. The actuarial data released this week was originally filed in federal court documents during a class-action lawsuit by 5,000 former players—5,000!— against the NFL. (The case was settled last year with the establishment of a $675 million fund for taking care of former players diagnosed with head trauma-related health problems.) As companion to a Frontline report on “The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” PBS published a timeline of evidence that the organization knew about and consistently minimized the seriousness of the issue, beginning with the formation of a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee in 1994.
That came in the wake of a 1987 strike and two federal lawsuits in 1992 and 1993—one of which included Dave Duerson as a featured plaintiff—by players demanding numerous improvements in their working conditions. As Paul Solotaroff reported for Men’s Journal in 2011,
The owners grudgingly cut a deal, awarding free agency and a broad slate of rights to players. Among the key gains was the creation of a board to hear the disability claims not only of active players but of retirees whose injuries prevented them from holding a job. The board was composed of six trustees (three each of management and union members, the latter being appointed by Upshaw), and the disability money, many hundreds of millions of dollars, was funded almost entirely by owners.
Many of the subsequent disability claims, however, were denied—usually after a series of Byzantine administrative hassles. In a tragic irony that left a permanent mark on his legacy, Duerson sat on that board beginning in 2006, and was not only an active participant in denying other players’ claims, but openly hostile toward some of them. Although it’s unclear what motivated Duerson to side with owners against players at that point, his ex-wife Alicia told Sotolaroff of behavior changes that came along with the retired safety’s “persistent headaches and frightening spells of blurred vision.” A year before he joined the disability claims board, and four before they divorced, Duerson sent Alicia to the ER with cuts to the head, dizziness, and pain, following a “small-hours argument” at a hotel.
Well, would you look at that? First, we’re talking about brain injuries, and suddenly, we’re back to the NFL’s domestic violence problem. Almost as though the two might be connected.
As I argued last week, football players who abuse their intimate partners (and/or children) are part of a larger culture that still prefers to think of domestic violence as a “private” problem, and famous men who commit it as good guys who messed up once or twice. And the dark side of football culture—wherein violent men are rewarded extravagantly for playing a violent game, then frequently excused for antisocial and even criminal behavior off the field—remains. But while we’re talking about Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, John Abraham, and those actuarial models at the start of this football season, we should take time to connect the dots.
Dementia can cause radical personality changes, with some forms even robbing patients of their emotional attachments to other human beings. Memory loss in itself causes tremendous fear and anxiety—imagine suddenly not knowing how to find your house, as McMahon has reported, or entirely forgetting that your daughter played youth soccer, as Favre has. Imagine not recognizing people you’ve known for years. My 79-year-old father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and the look on his face sometimes, when he stumbles upon a hole in his memory, is heartbreaking. He gets so frustrated and angry with himself that if he were a different sort of person, it would be a short hop to taking that out on others. Being unable to trust your own brain is terrifying and isolating. It breaks people down. Imagine it starting to happen in your thirties or forties.
We saw the tragic intersection of repeated brain injuries and unchecked domestic violence among NFL players most clearly in late 2012, when Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before turning the gun on himself. People knowledgeable about intimate partner violence immediately pointed out that a history of abuse is the No. 1 risk factor for murder-suicide, present in 70 percent of such killings. People knowledgeable about brain injury, meanwhile, focused on reports that the 25-year-old Belcher had suffered memory loss after repeated concussions, and been forced to play before fully healing from them. In 2013, Belcher’s mother—who witnessed her son killing Perkins—filed a wrongful death suit against the Chiefs.
“Did the Kansas City Chiefs make Jovan Belcher a monster—or was the monster already there?” asked a Fox Sports headline. Based on publicly available information, there’s no good reason to conclude the answer is anything but “both.” Regardless of whether Belcher’s brain shows signs of brain damage (his body was exhumed in 2013 so it could be examined), we know two things: 1) There’s very little chance he had never laid a hand on Perkins prior to murdering her; most likely, he was one of many professional athletes whose employers and colleagues turn a blind eye to their violent off-field behavior, at least until the PR problems become too great. 2) Like most of his colleagues, he suffered multiple head injuries, and kept on playing.
Either one of those alone would be a good enough reason to boycott the NFL. Together, they absolutely demand action.
I understand that NFL football is a major part of many people’s autumn social lives, bringing folks together physically and emotionally as they enjoy the beauty of team strategy and individual human bodies running close to their limits. But too often, those limits are exceeded in routine game play, and even the fittest athletes are vulnerable to injuries that can steal their memories and corrode their personalities. The extreme violence of the sport as it’s currently played both attracts and creates men who don’t contain that aggression to the field. And the culture of secrecy that prioritizes the game above all, the multi-billion-dollar industry above the well-being of those involved, covers for both abusive players and executives who have long known damn well that they’re condemning thousands of young men to the terror, isolation, and shortened life spans of chronic pain and early-onset dementia.
It’s admittedly not hard for me to give up football, but I ask those of you who love it to fully consider the long-term health of your favorite players and their families as you watch this season. Please imagine your favorite player at 50 years old, struggling to remember his home address and his children’s names. Imagine him hitting his child with a switch, as Adrian Peterson allegedly did; knocking his wife out cold, as Ray Rice did; or physically throwing her out of a hotel room, as Dave Duerson’s ex-wife says he did. Imagine him murdering his girlfriend in front of his own mother and baby. Ask yourself if keeping football just as it is today is worth all that.
At some point the consumers who keep providing the NFL with billions of reasons to maintain the status quo must engage their consciences, if the league and team owners won’t. To those of us who don’t love the sport, allowing things to continue this way seems positively sociopathic. Young men and their family members are suffering and dying for the sake of a broken institution. Literally and figuratively, the game must change.
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