Junior Seau, Homer Simpson, Concussions and Big Football's Impending Cold War
The two-time Super Bowl MVP and starting quarterback in the country's largest media market hosted the renowned sketch comedy show for the first time. He was funny, a little goofy and showed a charisma that often eludes him on the gridiron.
But then Homer Simpson got a concussion. And less than 24 hours after SNL's broadcast, a mainstream audience was reminded about the leading danger in professional football today.
Head trauma in the NFL is taking on similar tones as so-called "performance-enhancing drugs" did in baseball a decade earlier, overriding the game's day-to-day conversations, or at least looming over them.
It's entirely coincidental that Homer's concussion happened less than a week after the sudden suicide of former NFL linebacker Junior Seau. The animated FOX program spends six months producing each episode, a cycle that all but prohibits subject matter addressing current events. But just as we watched Mr. Burns decide, out of fear of a lawsuit, to grant Homer eight weeks of paid vacation, we couldn't help but see a silhouette of how the NFL had spent so many years doing just about the same thing.
Seau's curious self-demise has re-amplified the conversation of head trauma in all levels of football. Fans only previously aware of ACLs and OTAs are now getting to know CTE, the progressive degeneration of brain tissue found in an increasing number of former NFL players. And a lot of those players, feeling that the league misled them about the dangers of its game, are taking the NFL to court. The count of lawsuits stands at over 1,200, and continues to grow. It is litigation that already is changing professional football as we know it.
The NFL did a nice job of dodging the PR nightmares that plagued other sports in generations past. Baseball's steroids problem stemmed from its own passive player testing, which led to the ensuing assault of muscle-bound sluggers on the game's record books, a problem that the NFL (despite its own performance-enhancing issues) never had to face. The NFL and Goodell's controversial player conduct policy also helped the league skirt some unfavorable image issues that had plagued the NBA in recent years. Some, but not all.
But this concussion stuff is unique to the NFL. Not even hockey, which has seen its share of head trauma (from Sports Illustrated), can approach the head-mashing routinely seen in a pro football game. Even as the league heads into year three of enforcing its "defenseless player" protocol, fining and even suspending players for helmet-to-helmet hits, the conversation of head safety is heating up.
Debate rages on over how to best address the issues, even between the NFL's own. Former quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner said last week in a radio interview with ESPN that the thought of his sons playing in the NFL was "a scary thing" (via Sporting News).
He would backpedal from that remark almost immediately, after facing the ire of other former NFL players, including ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, a guy who has beaten the concussion drum almost since he first got off the plane in Bristol.
Warner didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know, but he may have unintentionally re-framed the debate, setting the NFL as a corporate entity whose product has the ability to kill people. Warner's own concussion at the hands of the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal sent him into retirement after the 2009 season, a fact that gives his remarks extra weight in an endless sea of pro football pundits. Hearing a former (and actually, current) employee of the NFL offer a stark admission of his own concerns is jarring, and his original remarks will follow this issue for as long as it exists.
It's a fair but admittedly imperfect parallel with another former national staple: cigarettes. It wasn't 50 years ago where a large majority of Americans still lit up because it was pleasurable, fashionable or just a fun way to spend five minutes. But as the health risks became better known, so too did more regulation—age limits and sin taxes and all of that. Young people that didn't smoke grew up to be adults that didn't smoke, and adults that did smoke either died of lung cancer or likely enjoyed a piece of the master $200 billion settlement signed in 1998.
The ornery, fear-invoking term "big tobacco" still carries a stigma, and while cigarettes are still sold today, their mainstream use is all but nonexistent. While big tobacco managed to dodge findings of liability, big football may not be so fortunate as the public is brought up to speed on its own unique set of health hazards. That will be up to the courts, and while the shield sports an impressive record in litigious matters, the very process of 1,200 lawsuits should be enough to keep the 32 owners from sleeping well for quite a while.
The NFL long denied any correlation between its style of play and brain trauma, a political stance whose proverbial chickens are on their way home to roost. Some groups are clamoring for more regulation of football at the amateur levels. While advocacy groups like Mothers Against Pro Football might seem a bit ridiculous now, the window for such an organization continues to open. And as the NFL continues to pound the phone lines in Minneapolis for a new stadium, the questions of why and how much money is earmarked for big football will be answered in a public forum.
Can we have pro football without colliding heads? The league seems desperate to find out, as it continues to harvest the violence out of its game. Menthol football, if you will. While some fans may hate seeing games decided by flags thrown, quarterbacks getting tapped on the helmet or defenders actually using their body weight to finish a tackle (seriously, that's illegal now), they put the NFL in a more safety-conscious light, a very necessary first step toward the end zone in the court of public opinion.
The other question that remains, regarding the risk that players take when they buckle their chinstraps every Sunday, is how clear that risk has been outlined to them. Warner spent the bulk of his adult life chasing down his NFL dream, and his comments illustrate that even he might have been unaware of how he might have leveraged his future health in exchange for Super Bowl glory. Players in the league today will have to come to terms with that trade-off. At the least, they will have a better understanding of the facts.
A cold war is defined as a subversive battle between rival factions, where military action gives way to those economic and political. Is there a better way to define the relationship between the NFL and its army of retired players? In a cold war, bombs and bullets are replaced by propaganda and power. That's the NFL's wheelhouse.
The league will need all they have to pull the public perception of its game off the brainwaves of its current and former players, which will hover over everything happening this fall and beyond. Big football has a long campaign ahead, and unfortunately, history is not on its side.
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