I was raised by parents who are baseball and football fans – not fanatics, but loyal enough to their hometown teams to be regular watchers and attendees at Padres and Chargers games. I would say we were more of a baseball family, and I count going to Padres games at San Diego Stadium (then Jack Murphy, and now, in this era of paid advertisements masquerading as sports fields, Qualcomm) as some of my fondest childhood memories. I followed the Chargers more peripherally, but you knew it was football season when you could hear the occasional shriek from my house indicating to the neighborhood that the game was on and my mom was watching. I started watching football more regularly in college and remained a Chargers fan. In the last few years I even started watching games not involving the Chargers, and I was really enjoying learning more about the strategies, the roles of the different players, and the intricacies of some of the plays. I sometimes felt a little tug of guilt on Sundays when I would schedule the day’s activities around the game, but even though the game might keep me at home I would often just keep the TV on in the background or listen on the radio while doing other things rather than glue myself to the screen for 3+ hours. But make no mistake, I enjoyed my football.
On May 2, 2012, former Charger and frequent Pro Bowler Junior Seau committed suicide. Seau had been in and out of the news since his retirement for some minor brushes with the law, but his suicide was a blockbuster story and a heartbreak for all football fans, not just fans of the Chargers. Seau shot himself in the chest, and immediately comparisons were drawn to the February 2011 suicide of retired NFL player and four-time Pro Bowler Dave Duerson, who had also shot himself in the chest. Duerson left a note requesting that his brain be used in scientific research, which is why he had chosen to shoot himself in the chest instead of the head. Although Seau left no note, as the investigation proceeded it became clear that Seau’s wishes may have been the same. What was the link? Both Duerson and Seau, and as it turned out, a number of other retired players who had committed suicide, all exhibited symptoms of a condition called CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
A few months into the 2013 season, I watched the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial.” This documentary explores the link between football and CTE, and investigates how the NFL was dealing with the problem. They found that the NFL consistently denied that football was dangerous to players and insisted that concussions, even multiple concussions, were not responsible for the degenerative brain disease that some former players were developing. The documentary is pretty damning in its conclusions that the NFL brass actively conspired to thwart research, intimidate the researchers, and cover up their lack of disclosure to players about the potential for developing CTE and the seriousness of concussive injuries to the brain. The implication is that the NFL was much more concerned about protecting its financial bottom line than it was in protecting the health and safety of players. I highly recommend watching the show to learn the full extent of the issues.
In spite of being very impressed with “League of Denial” I was left with questions. Although the correlation between CTE and concussions in NFL players, especially those who commit suicide or otherwise die young, is very high, it’s always important to research cause and effect before drawing conclusions. I believe that much more research needs to be done to truly understand what is going on. A well-designed study of CTE in football players needs to control for multiple factors, such as length of time playing; behavior off the field (e.g. drug and alcohol use, non-football-related injuries); individual and family medical history; non-medical background factors (e.g. money problems, relationship problems, and other stressors); and genetics. It may well be that concussions and CTE are directly causally linked in football players and that there are no other factors involved. But research like this could determine if there are other factors involved, and if so, make the game safer by using those factors to determine an individual’s risk.
Research on the incidence of CTE in boxers has established that boxers are at risk of developing CTE due to repeated blows to the head. This seems intuitive, since boxing involves head shots that are intended to render the opponent unconscious. But football, with its helmets and pads, has led to the assumption that it is intrinsically safer than a sport like boxing. Paradoxically, it may be that the more you pad a player, the safer he feels, so he ends up taking more risks than he would otherwise, resulting in a higher number and a worsening degree of injuries. Some people argue that actually reducing the pads and helmets, if not banning them outright, would make football safer. It’s an interesting idea – back in the day of leather helmets and no padding, football players tackled the body, whereas now, shots to the head are commonplace (though the NFL has made certain head-busting plays illegal). Still, if you watch “League of Denial,” you can see that the game has become more and more brutal, and that head- and body-crushing violence is glorified not just on the field and in the locker room, but by the league, the media, and the fans. Yes, beautifully executed passes and running plays are glorified too, but bone-crunching tackles are also looped endlessly on the sports shows.
After its years of denials, the NFL did finally start putting some money towards research into concussions even though it still continues to deny a link between football head injuries and CTE. Plus, it settled a lawsuit brought by former players alleging that it had actively downplayed the risks of the game and concussions in particular. Interestingly, the terms of the $765 million settlement state that the NFL is not admitting to any guilt; instead, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the settlement was the league’s way to “do the right thing for the game and the men who played it.” While $765 million is a lot of money, in reality it’s a very small sum for the NFL – it amounts to under 8% of the league’s annual revenue of around $10 billion. In fact, the league saw the settlement as a victory because it prevented a lengthy court battle and the risk of having to engage in a discovery process that could bring some very unsavory things to light. If you want to be cynical about it, you could call it a payoff – and for the former players (and their families) who are suffering, some money now is better than a long court fight during which some of them will surely die.
So why am I writing about all this? Because I have decided that I cannot, in good conscience, support the NFL. After viewing “League of Denial,” I stopped watching or listening to games (although – full disclosure – I did attend the Chargers-Broncos game on November 10, 2013, because my sister bought the tickets for my birthday in September and I didn’t want to let her down). I have brought this up with several people, and every single one has said to me that the players know what they are getting into, and not only that, they are paid millions to take on the risk. I disagree. I think they are only just now starting to learn what they are getting into. I think they are not given the information they need to make an informed decision. Bear in mind, these athletes begin playing as kids. Do you think their parents were aware of CTE in the late 1980s and early 1990s when some of today’s players were in Pop Warner or high school? If they knew then what they know now, would they have allowed their sons to play? Parents today are better armed than the parents of current players, but even now not enough research has been done. That research must happen if players and their families are to go into this game with all the information – and the NFL has to pay for it if they want players to keep taking on the risks. As for the “millions of dollars” argument, it doesn’t sway me at all. How much is your future health worth? How much money does it take to sacrifice your brain? Is there really a number you can put on that? And let’s talk about league minimums. In 2013, the minimum salary for a rookie was $405,000. A 10-year vet makes at least $955,000. A lot of money? By minimum wage standards, you bet it is… but when you consider that the average NFL player’s career lasts about 3.5 seasons, it suddenly doesn’t seem like that much. Obviously not every player makes the minimum, but even if you manage to make $3.5 million for your 3.5 seasons of service, once you are cut from the team in your mid-20s, what comes next? Individuals are responsible for managing their own money and some of the players probably are well-advised and do okay for themselves, but 3.5 years of a low-to-medium six-figure salary (especially, sadly, for men who didn’t give much thought to how they’d support themselves once their football careers were over) will not last forever, and it certainly is not enough to compensate for repeated traumatic brain injuries (not to mention the overall body injuries that can keep many players in pain for the rest of their lives). And let’s not forget that most of these players played in high school and college, suffered the same injuries, and were not compensated at all (my beef with big-money sports in college is a rant for another time). So no, I don’t buy that these players are paid well enough to justify the risk, even if they are one of the few star players with a multi-million dollar contract.
I know a lot of people who read this will disagree with me, and that’s okay. I’m not expecting anybody else to change their behavior, and I do not judge people who continue to watch and enjoy the game. The Chargers managed to squeak into the playoffs this year, and even though I’m not watching I am still happy to hear when my hometown team wins. But until the NFL admits their role in downplaying the risk of concussions and acknowledges the link to CTE, I won’t be watching. Until they put as much money as it takes into researching the correlation between concussions and CTE, I won’t be watching. Until that research either definitely shows that there is no link, or comes up with ways to quantify the risks and applies it to improving player safety, I won’t be watching. Until the NFL fully and thoroughly educates each player on the risks of the game (and if you watch “League of Denial” you’ll see that they currently don’t do much), I won’t be watching. And until the NFL prioritizes the lives and health of players over the bottom line, I won’t be watching.