Can We Really Support a League Which Has Caused so Much Harm to Its Players?
You support the NFL.
You watch games on TV. You read and watch news and analysis in the media. Likely, you sometimes go to your favorite team's stadium and watch them do battle. You at least tried the fantasy football thing. You probably have a hat or T-shirt proclaiming your NFL allegiance, if not several, plus maybe a coat, or jersey, or more.
You've spent years of your life following pro football, hundreds or thousands of hours watching games, highlights or analysis, and more dollars than you'd prefer to count supporting your favorite team.
Depending on how long you've been a fan, somewhere between one quarter and one half of your emotional and financial investment has directly enriched the players you cheered for. The rest went to the NFL: the owners, executives and staff of your favorite team, as well as the people in the league office.
Tuesday night, a PBS Frontline documentary called League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis showed the world some of what those people in the league office knew about brain injuries in football, and when they knew it.
If you missed it, you can and should watch:
ESPN journalists Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, working together with the Frontline folks and other journalists, told the story of an NFL that spent almost two decades stonewalling, blackballing and bullying everyone who looked into the connection between football and brain injuries.
From broken-hearted widows and teary-eyed children to doctors and scientists at the very peak of their professions, the NFL shunned and belittled them all. The players and their families were pushed aside and silenced by NFL leadership. The league smeared the doctors and scientists working to understand the truth, publicly trying to discredit their work.
League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis let the victims, the sufferers, the families and the researchers tell their story directly to the camera—to us.
In 1994, after a series of prominent players retired prematurely due to concussions, the league appointed a committee of doctors and scientists who spent 15 years doing the opposite of what doctors and scientists are supposed to do.
As the evidence gathered by Frontline, Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, and many others show, the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee started from a conclusion: Football is safe, and its endemic brain injuries pose no short- or long-term health risks. Then, they ginned up evidence and research to support it.
In the process, they prevented many suffering former players from knowing the nature of their torment—and they let another generation of players come through the game without understanding its devastating risks.
Your money lined these people's pockets. You subsidized the players' and families' suffering. You paid to watch these men destroy their lives, you paid to help cover up the truth, and you're still paying the salaries of the ruthless suits who engineered it all.
What are you going to do about it?
Legally, there's little you can do. The NFL just reached a settlement with a class of former players, setting up a seemingly massive fund for treatment, care and research.
Yet as Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth explained, that fund isn't nearly as massive as it will likely need to be once current and recently retired players fall ill. And as part of the terms of the settlement, the NFL admitted no wrongdoing or liability.
That's right: Once the settlement agreement is finalized, the NFL can close the book on everything it did without copping to specifics about what it knew, when—or even saying it's sorry.
The same men who perpetrated and perpetuated the cover-up are largely still involved in football—including commissioner Roger Goodell, who inherited the situation from his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue.
What did Goodell know? What does he know now?
Nobody knows—and it looks like nobody ever will.
Knowing the Risks
When fans hear about former players suffering from debilitating injuries, many shrug and say, "They knew the risks."
All of the groundbreaking research into football, concussions, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), dementia and depression has proven one thing above all else: Nobody knows what the risks are.
My colleague Michael Schottey spoke with leading CTE researcher Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University (who speaks in League of Denial) and Dr. David Yukelson from USA Football's medical advisory board. They said they still don't know all the risks.
So, how could any NFL player have known when he started playing as a child?
How can today's children?
This is the awful part. The research done to date proves that a stunningly high percentage of former football players come away with long-term brain disease, damage and disability—but can't establish exactly how football causes these injuries, or exactly what percentage.
The NFL is using this uncertainty as a fog, a black curtain to drop in front of the truth while the show goes on.
The league dismantled its old MTBI committee and established a new one. It donated significant monies to major health and neurological researchers—including Cantu's Boston University. It worked with USA Football to establish the "Heads Up" safety certification program, encouraging proper tackling techniques in youth football. It's made multiple rule changes to levy major on-field penalties, fines and suspensions for dangerous tackles and head-centric football techniques.
While the NFL outwardly does everything it can to make the game seem safer, it's gone back to obfuscating and denying a link between the game and CTE.
As League of Denial showed us, Goodell's message, and that of the new Neck, Brain and Spine Injury Committee, has reverted to the unsatisfying talking points Goodell recited in front of Congress in 2009: Nobody knows whether there's a link, nobody knows what the risks are, we're going to let the researchers work it out.
Meanwhile, the league is aggressively promoting youth football, organizing its own youth leagues and letting children strap on helmets bearing the logos of their favorite teams.
Meanwhile, high school and college players are suffering and dying from these diseases, well before they're offered NFL treatment, NFL doctors, NFL facilities, NFL health benefits or NFLPA union protection. Among 50 deceased football players' brains found by Boston University to show evidence of CTE, nine were from college players and six from high school players, per USA Today (via WGRZ.com).
Meanwhile, the NFL is keeping the growth pedal to the metal. The NFL has resumed pushing for an 18-game schedule, per Pro Football Talk, it's talking again about expansion to London and Los Angeles, per the Telegraph, and the league is promoting youth football like never before, with a multimedia blitz that includes a Sunday-morning cartoon show and kid-targeted website.
The Next Generation
Here's where the NFL is forcing our hand.
They're teaching kids "Heads Up Football," but just as the NFL can claim nobody really knows how playing football risks long-term brain damage, there's zero evidence that proper technique mitigates that risk.
The NFL is donating millions to respected medical institutions for long-term research, but we're approaching two decades of the NFL "researching" brain injuries with little real action.
What happens in six, 10, 20 years when researchers find the gun we can all see smoking?
The same people who lied to former players, stonewalled Congress and never stopped aggressively expanding the game despite shocking evidence will still be lining their pockets with your ticket money, gear money, TV-watching time and Internet clicks. They'll still be the ones in charge of making the game safer.
You can't support the NFL and not support the men who willfully ignored, discredited and covered up evidence that football causes devastating brain injuries. You can't support the NFL and not support them actively enlisting grade-school kids to play that same game—recruiting another generation of Mike Websters and Junior Seaus to wring billions out of.
Does this mean you can't support the NFL?
A Clear Conscience
Here's where I have to confront my own conscience.
I'm a lifelong NFL fan. I have a closet and dresser half-full of officially licensed apparel. I've worked in a sports memorabilia shop. I've bought and sold and traded NFL-branded merchandise since my own elementary school days. I've consumed football media in print and on television voraciously my entire life. For almost as long as there's been a World Wide Web, I've been reading and writing about football on it.
I'm a parent of three children, whom I've raised to know and enjoy the game as well. My seven-year-old desperately wants to begin tackle football in fourth grade, as they always have in my area.
I have to tell him no—and keep telling him no until either we know more, or he's old enough to make his own decision.
I'm also a full-time member of the NFL media. I make my living covering professional football. The players, coaches, staff, executives, owners and league executives rely on your investment in the game to secure their future, and so do I.
I have to be willing to use my megaphone to draw attention to these issues, even if it impacts that future.
What You Can Do
As a fan, you can let the NFL know you demand transparency and accountability.
The NFL has many social media accounts, including the league's Twitter feed (@NFL), the NFL's Facebook Page, and Goodell's own verified Twitter feed (@nflcommish). USA Football has an official feed, too (@USAFootball). You can also call the league office at 212-450-2000.
However you reach out to the NFL's leaders, let them know their access to your passion and money is conditional.
Tell them you expect them to not only support concussion research, but also to be the driving force behind discovering exactly how football causes brain injuries—and be committed to changing the game once the discoveries are made. Demand they proactively keep the public appraised on the latest findings—and be willing to change the game accordingly.
When you say these things, mean them.
As a parent, you can educate your children about the risks of the game (as we know them so far), and explain that's why you're not letting them play tackle football until they're at least 14 years old (per Dr. Cantu's recommendation), or until we know more about the causation and frequency of football-related brain injuries.
You have a third choice: You can stop supporting the NFL. Stop watching the games, stop buying tickets, stop buying gear. Find some other sport, or hobby, to consume your free time and emotion.
The only ethically indefensible thing an NFL fan can do is hear and see the evidence and ignore it. To know the league is talking safety and fun to families and kids while selling danger and violence to its customers and shrug. To see the twisted, broken body of Mike Webster and weeping widows and children in League of Denial and not act.
If you have supported the NFL, you can make peace with what the league has done in the past. To continue supporting the NFL, you cannot accept that what the league's doing now is enough.
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