Thanks for your letter about the problem of head injuries in the NFL. My thoughts on this are still evolving as I read more, but I’ll attempt a coherent response.
As you know, I’ve grown up as a die-hard hockey fan. I grew up surrounded by people who loved the sport of hockey in a way that I rarely encounter with other sports fans. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimmer of it in the old-time baseball fans who delight in tracking stats and love to recount the lore surrounding the truly great players, but it’s still different. Hockey is not just a sport that you pick up or discard at will: it is a culture, a history, an ethos, a guiding philosophy, a religion.
Part of the ethos of hockey, as in many sports, is that the team comes first. Taking a stupid penalty is bad because it hurts the team; being selfish with the puck hurts the team; not sticking up for your linemate if he suffers a cheapshot from an opposing player hurts the team. Those are cultural norms. But another part of the culture, one of the most revered pillars of the temple of hockey, is toughness. Whatever the physical problem is, you play through it– especially during playoffs. Broken wrist? Play through it. Broken ankle? Play through it. 100 mph slapshot to the face? Play through it. A separated shoulder and a broken rib which then punctures your lung? You better believe he played through it.
You can see how this would be a problem.
The NHL has also suffered greatly from player concussions over the years, and many players in the recent past suffered from the lack of knowledge and hard science about concussions. The NHL began mandating baseline neuropsychological testing in 1997, however– many years before the NFL– and the current league culture (for the most part) respects a player like Sidney Crosby’s decision to sit out for as long as it took until he felt 100% with absolutely zero symptoms. That wasn’t always the case– see Eric Lindros, given the mantle of the Next Great One at age 18, whose career was destroyed a decade ago not only by repeated concussions but by the Flyers organization’s response to them. Lindros eventually became an unwilling poster boy for the dangers of concussions, and though his experiences were validated by later scientific studies, at the time, he was crucified for not playing through his multiple concussions. I’m thankful that now, hockey culture has a much, much higher level of knowledge about concussions, concussion symptoms, and how to treat each one individually. Both the league and individual players speak freely about how seriously they take concussions, and the impact on one’s brain that repeated concussions can have. The trickle down effect of this knowledge has permeated junior leagues and children’s leagues as well, so there’s a consistent conversation about player safety. And while the NHL certainly isn’t perfect, they’ve managed to respond to the scientific evidence and help educate players so that concussions aren’t a hazy, illegitimate concept: they are a scientific fact. This is so obviously not the case in the NFL. As you said, “it seems like we’ve got an epidemic of concussive & cumulative sub-concussive hits that are causing some serious fucking damage to players’ brains.” Amen. So what’s to be done?
One of the biggest problems with how the NFL has mangled their response to this crisis over the last 20 years– and I don’t mean a PR problem, I mean the actual horrifying nature of how players and former players have been treated– is that they still haven’t made a single attempt to change league culture around this issue. Just skimming over this list of responses from current NFL players and coaches is chilling, at best: Tom Brady is “not worried” about concussions. Bill Belichick, the dark lord of all that is evil, says that “…that’s medical procedures that I honestly don’t even know enough to talk about.” Aaron Rodgers, educated at UC-Berkeley, won’t bother watching the documentary because he knows “the risk that I take when I step on the field.”
Does he? It seems so obvious to me that he doesn’t. And an NFL head coach doesn’t know what the f***ing medical protocol is for concussions? Are they kidding us with this?
I believe you’re absolutely correct when you posit that “if guys that quit playing decades ago are only now showing symptoms of the long-term effects from all those hard hits, is it unreasonable to assume that current players could be even worse off in the decades to come?” Yes, that may be the case, because improvement related to player education and treatment is coming at a glacially slow pace or often doesn’t exist at all. According to this timeline and the lawsuit filed by the players, the NFL has systematically ignored mountains of scientific evidence demonstrating that concussions were a serious, potentially life-altering injury, and even their “improvements,” like the concussion pamphlet distributed to players in 2007, are a total joke.
That tells me that they don’t know anything. The league has not educated them, and they’re refusing to educate themselves. Whether it’s a macho instinct related to the brand of toughness I talked about seeing in hockey players, or whether the NFL is simply full of people who love conspiracy theories on the scale of “global warming is a scam cooked up by liberals”, I don’t know. You’re right that something has to be done. I’m a goddamn lily-livered liberal, so of course my robot response is: EDUCATION! Education is the only way to fix deep-seated, pervasive ignorance, I’d say. The NFL has a moral and financial responsibility to educate the players (that they’re obviously ignoring), and it’s in the players’ interest to educate themselves. But as we know, that’s not happening– so what gives?
I’m all for protests, and I’d even be on board for you and me shutting off our TVs to the NFL for good, if it would do anything– but it won’t. So your suggestion got me thinking– if there were truly to be a boycott, who should lead the charge? The natural question for me was, where the hell is the players’ union on this issue? When it’s so mind-bogglingly obvious that the NFL has completely screwed over the players in the name of making money, that the only way for the players to protect themselves is to educate themselves and demand better, then how are the players, and by extension, the players’ union, not throwing a fit? I don’t mean this in any way to absolve the league powers of their actions, or to put the onus on the players to do research entirely on their own about the current state of the science of concussions. But instead, shouldn’t they be putting pressure on the league to make changes? Shouldn’t star players be issuing statements about how they’d like to be able to remember their kids’ names when they turn 40? Shouldn’t they be writing op-eds about how they fear the forgetfulness, anxiety, and depression reported by former players which led those players to drink battery acid, hang themselves, and shoot themselves? Or even better, shouldn’t famous former players, who aren’t under the HUGE pressures of being a current player in the NFL, also take it upon themselves to lead the charge? That’s what Eric Lindros did, and continues to do– he lobbied the players’ association, he gave speeches across Canada, he talked to kids’ teams about his experiences, he donated his personal funds to medical research about concussions, and he spoke out forcefully against a culture that told him to shut up and play. Is it possible for former NFL players to exhibit the same kind of courage? Right now, according to those quotes from current players, it doesn’t seem like it– because they don’t believe that concussions are a problem. They don’t believe concussions could end their career or ruin their life, they don’t believe that they could one day not recognize their kids, they don’t believe they could descend into deep depression and eventually commit suicide as some of their colleagues have. They’re like climate change deniers, except that the results of their denial will come a lot faster and feel much more immediate.
As far as I can tell, the producers of that Frontline documentary couldn’t have chosen a better title: League of Denial. The NFL, as a multi-billion-dollar business, was willfully in denial about all of this. But, it seems, so are the players and coaches and alumni. And until that changes, until all of those people choose to speak out, I don’t see how things can change for the better– even if you and I and everyone we know refused to watch the NFL.
P.S. As an aside that’s not directed at you, but more so a general observation: one thing that’s frustrating about the discussion arising from problems like this is that non-sports fans are bewildered by athletes’ willingness to sacrifice the safety of their bodies, unsure why a person would subject themselves to such torment as playing hockey on a broken ankle. It’s just a game, they say, which is roughly equivalent to telling a writer that all fiction and poetry don’t matter because they’re just make-believe. If sports don’t interest you, that’s a perfectly valid position to have (even if I can’t comprehend it in the slightest), but issues like the NFL’s terrible handling of the concussion crisis often serve as rallying cries for people who fundamentally don’t enjoy sports in the first place, and want to tar every form of organized athletics with the same brush. I’m never going to let my kids play, they say. Look at how violent that is. The fact is that a 13-year-old is not going to be hitting his teammates at anything near the force and velocity of college or NFL players, and she’s not going to play/practice 40 hours per week, and instead he or she will probably play for a few years for fun while in school, alongside other kids who enjoy playing but aren’t going to pursue it as a career. This is a completely different conversation than 15 or 20 years of sustained 40-hour-per week blunt force trauma on a daily basis. A parent who fears for the safety of their child in any given situation is, by definition, a parent. But you know what parents do who both worry about the safety of their child and want to encourage physical activity? They get involved. They play with the kid. They make sure their child has protective equipment, that they know how to use it, and that they know why it’s important. They make sure their kids’ coaches care about safety, that they learn how to slide into a base without injury or how to shoot a puck without swinging the stick too high. Should everyone, parents and non-parents alike, care about the safety of our youth who play sports? Yes, absolutely. But I have zero tolerance for those who want to use a multi-billion-dollar company’s orchestrated cover-up of scientific evidence showing that their super-elite NFL players were being injured in the course of NFL play to argue that kids across America shouldn’t play organized sports because they might, at some point, get injured.