“Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport.” –Vince Lombardi
According to the NFL coach after whom the Super Bowl trophy was named, the essence of football, the heart, soul, and main attraction, is the collision. Every play of every game includes collisions, the pain involved, and the possible injuries caused. Some fans wonder if we are supporting an unacceptably dangerous form of entertainment, like boxing.
The NFL brings in $11 billion per year (yes, Billion) operating as a monopoly (it is exempt from anti-trust legislation). Commissioner Roger Goodell is reportedly paid over $35 million annually. Most NFL revenue comes from television contracts. College football also generates huge sums of money via television. Like prominent pop musicians, movie stars and others in the entertainment industry, top NFL players are paid millions of dollars annually and team owners operate with hundreds of millions each year. Much is at stake when considering the safety of the game. We might want to believe that the league would choose player safety over profits, but looking into the matter shows such wishful thinking to be naive.
I consulted “The Collision Sport of Trial” by David Maraniss in the February, 2016 issue of “The New York Review of Books.” Maraniss, a serious football fan, reviews four books and two films on the subject. I highly recommend not only his essay but a closer look at his sources for a sobering account of the dangers of playing football. Below you’ll find a brief overview.
“Concussion,” the Hollywood film, is based on a true story and stars Will Smith as the Pittsburgh pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu, working at the county coroner’s office, discovered a neurodegenerative disease in the brain tissue of deceased football players. It is known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The film depicts the NFL response to Dr. Omalu’s findings: the league considers him a quack and his work to be bad science. The NFL formed its own study group (stacked with doctors affilliated with the league) with a goal of obfuscating the problem. One NFL report stated, “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.” In fact players endure thousands of such blows, some tens of thousands in long careers.
Chris Borland played one brilliant season as an inside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. One newspaper labled him “the most dangerous man in football.” He retired in March, 2015, at age 24, after studying the long-term effects playing football could have on his brain. “I want to be seventy-five and healthy if possible” he told a documentarian. Borland suffered a concussion at training camp during his first season and from then on thought about retiring. He made his decision after reading LEAGUE OF DENIAL and consulting with a brain trauma expert at Boston University. By then there was no debate about CTE.
As it turns out, the NFL settled a class-action lawsuit filed by thousands of former players charging the league with a long-standing cover-up of what it knew about connections between traumatic brain injuries and football. The players settled for nearly $1 billion spread over twenty years but observers considered the award a win for the owners because in order to collect any money players had to waive their right of further legislation.
CTE cannot be diagnosed; only autopsies confirm the disease. Symptoms vary widely: depression, bursts of anger, varying degrees of dementia, loss of concentration, even suicide, and so on. Unfortunately, no helmet has been designed that can “effectively reduce the rotational acceleration, that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.”
A few days ago I learned that my grandson’s soccer league had outlawed the header during practice and play in his league of 9 year olds. No doubt that “sloshing” of the brain within the skull can be provoked any number of ways even in non-contact sports. One can only hope such changes become increasingly common as responsible officials move to make sports safer for everyone. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the NFL. As with politics, money rules.