The New York Times just flashed a blinding spotlight on the NFL — a front-page dissection of the league’s concussion study between 1996 and 2001. According to the article, published on Friday, the NFL failed to include at least 100 concussions. Not surprisingly, many of them were suffered by stars like Troy Aikman and Steve Young. It fits a false narrative the NFL has stood on for decades: Stars don’t die.
It’s troubling, for sure. The NFL insists there’s still no direct link between pro football and brain damage, when all the mushrooming evidence is saying there is. But no matter how loud you scream, how indignant you become, you will run up against several cultural walls too tall to climb.
The NFL’s marketing genius is one. They relentlessly plug the sport’s messiahs, like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers, who either haven’t suffered similar head trauma or are less likely to because of all the rules designed to protect quarterbacks. But they are one-percenters in a sport of one-percenters.
The truth is the average NFL career lasts around three years. For every Brady or Rodgers, there’s an army of young men pining on practice squads, attending tryouts or hanging onto secondary gigs by their fingernails. There are many more former stars hobbling with fake hips, replaced knees and rattled skulls.
Mike Webster anchored the iconic, Pittsburgh Steelers offenses of the 1970s, though his life after football was far less celebrated. Sleeping in cars, living under bridges, Webster died absurdly young and obscenely tormented. Then Webster’s brain doubled as a gateway into the new world of CTE — the most toxic acronym ever to face pro football.
Junior Seau was in such soul-snatching pain, he not only took his own life but was also sure to preserve his brain so that doctors could frame it for us. Not surprisingly, he suffered from CTE.
Yet the NFL hires a kangaroo court of yes-men and medical sycophants who rubber-stamp whatever results the league likes; team doctors who stood over prostrate players, motionless for minutes, then declared them fit for play an hour later.
And no matter how many retired players die demented, broke or both, we only care about today’s talent. The NFL is an industry, where the military ethic endures — next man up.
Then there’s another glitch, more by design than deception. Young men just don’t think head trauma will happen to them. The allure of money and celebrity is far too great for a 21-year-old to resist. As long as life is seen as music video, the idealized emblem of a champagne-drenched yacht, nightly passes beyond the velvet rope, and seven-figure paychecks will continue to eclipse the more sordid realities of pro football. And young men will chase them.
We always hear that the mothers of America can shut this down with one, sweeping move — keep their kids off the gridiron. But there’s no consortium of moms guarding some black box, about to jam that red button draining the nation of football prospects. That’s far more folly than reality. How many moms will reject a full, four-year ride through college? How many will object to the mansion their son will buy them with his first contract? Even moms, programmed by prudence, are human.
But maybe we are bothered less by the dim realities of the sport than we are by its deception. Put a label on the game. Show the very candor and nobility you demand from your players. If you say the sport is hazardous to an athlete’s health, at least we can all say we were warned.
The Times also reported on the cross-pollination between the NFL and another industry titan, seeking trade secrets from lawyers and lobbyists of big tobacco. Yup. Nothing like snuggling next to big tobacco to get that PR mojo going.
In a much smaller sense, we are all complicit. I grew up worshiping those Steelers, and the memory of that dynasty has fueled my fandom for decades. Even knowing what these men endure, we look with haunting indifference toward the next draft to replace the very players we idolized.
For better or worse, these are America’s gladiators. We sit at home, twisting a thumb up or down from the comfort of the couch. But the brutality clearly doesn’t bother us as much as it should, or else a conscience would grow like moss around our souls.
All of this doesn’t exonerate the NFL, which, it seems, went out of its way to deceive the players and the public.
It should get what comes next. All manner of commerce is regulated, forced to slap a signpost down the road. Danger coming. If baseball is slowly squeezing chewing tobacco out of the sport, then the NFL should quickly get in front of this, especially after lagging for 15 years behind this specious study.
If the NFL shield wants to keep its epic teflon, it’s time to live by the very standards they espouse every time the commissioner speaks. You don’t need another study to see that.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.