guilty as the nfl: an open letter response

melissa huggins

february 3, 2013


dear huggiebear,

thanks for your letter & let me begin with this: congrats.  your beloved seahawks made peyton manning’s record-setting broncos look completely ineffectual (even in denver’s best moments).  how do i know they did that?  cuz i watched the super bowl.  kinda.  steve almond was right in that this game has practically become a secular holiday.  friends of mine host a big party for it every year—and there are actually some friends of mine that i only see at that super bowl party (yes, their kids are fine & life is pretty good, in case you were wondering).  so, i did see that safety to start the game.  and then basically nothing else until the 2nd half.  but i was there, and i definitely stole glances at the tv screen (was that james franco with a fucking tiger?).  i even watched a good part of the 2nd half as more&more guests headed home (yes, those parents are responsible & their kids do have bedtimes, in case you were wondering).  but that does kinda prompt the question, wtf, jason?

so let me also acknowledge this: i didn’t exactly maintain a strict ban on watching my beloved bears this past season.  i tried to stay away.  but then some guys would invite me to the bar to watch monday night football with them, and i’d want to hang out with them because i haven’t seen them in a while, and then i’d see alshon jeffery make an absolutely sick catch against dallas, and then i’ve fallen off the wagon, as it were.

so watching football again was, in part, because of my own personal weakness.  the bears aren’t just my own beloved team.  they’re basically a cultural institution in this town.  there’s even an ad campaign claiming as much.  the crazy-popular brunch place with the hour-long wait lines in the heart of hipsterville that you’ve been dying to go to?  you go when the bears are playing & you walk right in.  we all still love mj around here, but not even the greatest basketball player of all time was able to dislodge iron mike ditka & the ’85 bears from that most special sports place of our hearts.  i don’t think there’s anyone in this town that doesn’t know why we literally wear GSH on our sleeves.  that’s the kind of true love chi has for da bears, and i didn’t want to be left out of that.

but.  there was another reason…  in an insane—but completely true—coincidence, i happen to know a neuropsychologist.  not only that, but this neuropsychologist specializes in sports injuries.  and not only that, but this neuropsychologist has even treated an nfl player.  this doctor also happens to be a fan of nfl football, but has no official (or unofficial) association with the league.  so you better believe i grilled this doctor about the whole nfl/head trauma business.  and i was a bit surprised to learn what i did from a medical opinion that wasn’t generated to be a sound bite—for either side of the argument.

my neuropsychologist friend hadn’t seen the pbs documentary about the nfl, cte, etc.  but when i explained what i’d seen & read, the concern raised was a strictly scientific one: that there just wasn’t enough evidence to create that definitive link between head injuries in the nfl & cte (or other severe brain trauma) later in life.  that’s not to say that the nfl has had no role in preventing scientists from gathering sufficient data (for decades now).  that’s also not to say that this link doesn’t exist.  it’s just that the sample size has been way too small, and even the research on that small sample size not deep enough.  were lifestyle factors taken into consideration?  and family medical histories?  i don’t recall frontline delving into any potential correlation between addiction, or mental illness, or steroid use, or non-football-related physical abuse in those confirmed nfl cases of cte.  there were just too many unanswered questions remaining.

to be clear, i don’t think the current lack of evidence exonerates the nfl (or its fans, for that matter).  near as i can tell, the league has acted fucking shamefully—for years, and on multiple levels—with regard to concussions.  the single case that my neuropsychologist friend saw involved a player who was totally oblivious to the concussion protocol that the league says it’s had in place.  and though the pile of evidence connecting cte to football is small, it is most certainly damning.  there is no individual or association in the world that’s better positioned to further study in this matter than the nfl.  not just because of its money, but even more importantly, because of its connection to players.  but the league has acted to thwart advancing the science every chance it’s had.

and neither do i want to let football fans (including myself) totally off the hook.  in your previous letter you drew a parallel between this matter and the nhl, saying that until the players themselves acknowledge the safety problem, a boycott likely wouldn’t matter.  the president has even gone on the record, saying, “these guys, they know what they’re doing. they know what they’re buying into. it is no longer a secret. it’s sort of the feeling i have about smokers, you know?”  but here’s the thing: i still think it’s entirely to easy to justify continued football watching because (a) the protest would be too small to matter, and (b) the players would need to acknowledge the problem first.

how often has a protest spontaneously come into being with thousands of people already behind it?  these things start small.  let’s not forget the margaret mead quote that every nonprofit i’ve ever worked for has latched onto: “never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. for, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”  and right now, it’s steve almond.  and kinda me.  but we keep talking about this, and there might be some more.  as for the players: if we the people weren’t pouring literally billions of dollars into their checking accounts, i’m willing to bet those players would start re-assessing real fucking quick just what exactly it was they were doing to themselves.  obama might be right: they might know what they’re getting themselves into.  it’s a potential future full of hurt, but a whole fuck ton of money (which used to be ours, and now is theirs).

which is all a very long way of saying “yeah, i totally watched the super bowl.”  but also, “i’m still thinking about how steve & i can get more people on board for next season.”  which is to say, not on board at all.

meantime, enjoy drinking that sweet seattle nectar from the cup of champions,

jason sommer
sometimes thursdays


p.s.  this and also this.


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