It was initially easy to laugh at Russell Wilson's bubbles-cured-my-concussion claims. It was giggle fuel. He was also claiming the bubbles healed a teammate's knee injury. Silly stuff. No one would believe it, anyway, right?
Then, when Wilson later repeated the claim, still confident despite the silliness, this story became something else. This story became dangerous.
First, go back in time for a moment to last year's NFC title game. Wilson was hit hard in the head by Clay Matthews after throwing an interception. It was a nasty, brutal hit:
It seemed as if Wilson was concussed, but he stayed in the game and didn't miss practice time in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
This week, Rolling Stone profiled Wilson, and in the story, Wilson claims the reason his head was fine was a product called Reliant Recovery Water—which, interestingly, costs $3 a damn bottle. The full passage:
Wilson is an investor in Reliant Recovery Water, a $3-per-bottle concoction with nanobubbles and electrolytes that purportedly helps people recover quickly from workouts and, according to Wilson, injury. He mentions a teammate whose knee healed miraculously, and then he shares his own testimonial.
"I banged my head during the Packers game in the playoffs, and the next day I was fine," says Wilson. "It was the water."
[Agent Mark] Rodgers offers a hasty interjection. "Well, we're not saying we have real medical proof."
But Wilson shakes his head, energized by the subject. He speaks with an evangelist's zeal.
"I know it works." His eyes brighten. "Soon you're going to be able to order it straight from Amazon."
So, water healed his brain. And his teammate's knee. OK. Got it.
Those nanobubbles are awesome!
Next up for Wilson: Bacon lowers cholesterol.
Part of this would have been chalked up to an overeager pitchman who isn't always the most sincere person to begin with. But then, incredibly, Wilson doubled down. Late Wednesday, he sent this tweet:
Is it possible that water infused with bubbly thingies and oxygenized sexiness could help the brain heal? I can't even imagine, but for now, let's just say: Anything is possible. The key here is no proof exists of such a miracle. It says something that even Wilson's agent was trying to get him to slow down and admitted there is no proof bubble water cures concussions. (Well, yeah.)
Wilson, likely aware of the criticism, tried to walk back his words Thursday to reporters. But it only added to the confusion. It made things worse:
What I was trying to say was that I think it helped prevent it. I think your brain is consisted of like 75 to 80 percent water. I think that just being hydrated, drinking the Recovery Water really does help.
But no, I did not have a concussion. I was saying that I had been consistently drinking the water for a month, month-and-a-half, five to seven times a day, and I was like, "Man, maybe this stuff is helping me out." So it's one of those things that I truly do believe it helps with recovery.
So, after confirming twice that he suffered a head injury, he's saying the water kept that head injury from being a concussion. You can see why his agent was trying to slow him down.
The company seems to be pumping the brakes, too. I asked it about Wilson's words. Here's the first statement it sent me:
Developed as a result of more than a decade of scientific research, Reliant Recovery Water was created to provide a more functional hydration process. Reliant Recovery Water uses a unique electro-kinetic modification process that may help to accelerate your body's natural recovery. Reliant Recovery Water redefines hydration and, when paired with an active lifestyle, may aid in physical recovery from injury, helping people to feel their best. For more information, including published research, please reference www.recoverywater.com.
Later, it sent another statement, conspicuously losing the whole part about healing and aiding in injury-recovery:
Developed as a result of more than a decade of scientific research, Reliant Recovery Water was created to provide a more functional hydration process. Reliant Recovery Water uses a unique electro-kinetic modification process. For more information, including published research, please reference www.recoverywater.com.
Is this story really a major scandal? No, of course not. There are far worse things going on in the NFL and, unfortunately, our country. But it's a PR disaster for Wilson.
This is one of the most popular players in the sport using his fame to sell false hope. There is a charlatan aspect to all of this, unbecoming of Wilson's character.
There's a reason the FDA bans assertions from supplement companies not proved in clinical trials. Unless Wilson's water contains the sweat of unicorns and saliva from Rainbow Dash, there's no possible way what Wilson is claiming can be true. There's also no possible way someone as smart as Wilson believes what he said is even remotely accurate—and that, in and of itself, is a little scary.
(There is also this interesting little side issue: Wilson says he had a head injury. If he did, it was never listed on any Super Bowl injury report. And if he did, since he returned to the game so quickly after the initial hit, there was no time for the team to thoroughly run Wilson through the NFL's concussion protocols.)
It's also not like Wilson needs the money. Check out the details on his new contract on Spotrac. Yes, that's a $31 million signing bonus it calls for. But greed, I guess, is a powerful motivator. Wilson is not the only top NFL quarterback proving that:
As Michael David Smith wrote on Pro Football Talk, the product Tom Brady endorsed appears to have gone out of business, one presumes because its claims were, well, total nonsense.
Brady may deserve more of a break, though. That ad was made years ago, before we fully realized the dire, potentially deadly effects of concussive hits.
What's happening now is the more Wilson says, the more people shake their heads and wonder what exactly is underneath that carefully crafted, meticulously maintained exterior. This is a guy who Deadspin called (in a headline) "a synthetic lifeform." I don't know what he is. I'm not sure many people do.
I heard from a good half-dozen NFL players in the hours after this bizarre story broke, and the reaction ranged from disbelief to genuine confusion on why Wilson would risk his reputation over a claim like that. One player simply texted: "What the f--k?"
Former NFL player Alonzo Highsmith, now in the Packers front office, tweeted:
Colts punter Pat McAfee followed with more trolling:
Before you think I'm a Wilson hater, despite what I've written on him in the past, I'm not. I spend exorbitant amounts of time, particularly on social media, defending Wilson. I think he's a top-three-to-five quarterback in the league. I do. So go ahead and photon torpedo the message boards.
No, not a Wilson hater, but this is a pretty serious deal—borderline snake oil salesman and Creflo Dollar-ish. There are two reasons why.
First, it feeds into a persistent notion that Wilson is a bit of a phony. The Rolling Stone story hints at some of this a bit, but sometimes, when Wilson talks, he reminds me of that car salesman guy in Fargo. Yeah but that Trucoat.
Second, and by far most importantly, at a time when much of the football world—from Pop Warner to Kurt Warner—is worrying over the effects of concussions, he's peddling false hope in a bottle. A Super Bowl-winning quarterback, with a sweet smile and kind disposition, is selling an unproven concoction as a cure to a proven plague.
What Wilson did shows a startling lack of respect for his fellow players, past and present, who suffer from or have endured chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's an affront to guys like Junior Seau or Dave Duerson, who in some ways literally gave their lives to football, playing through brutal head injuries.
Wilson understands what power he has or else he wouldn't be a pitchman to begin with. Because of that influence, someone—maybe a lot of someones, maybe some middle or high school someones—will believe what he says.
What Wilson is doing isn't just greedy or nonsensical.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.