Why I’m done with football

No one can say that the NFL doesn’t take its corporate responsibility seriously.

NFL teams are putting solar panels on their stadiums.

The NFL supports the fight against breast cancer.

The league’s Play 60 campaign encourages kids to get active.

But the first obligation of a responsible business is to keep its workers safe.

The NFL hasn’t done that. The NFL won’t do that. The NFL can’t do that.

So I’m done with football.* I can’t and won’t watch it anymore.

Partly, this is personal. This summer, I’ve spent lots of time with baseball–my Washington Nationals have had an amazing year–and I need a break from sports. The choice between baseball and football is easy for me. As the late George Carlin said, famously (and you can read the whole routine here):

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.

…In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!

But it’s more than that. Even the casual football fan now knows that he or she is watching a very dangerous game, and not just because of the bone-jangling hits that bring cheering fans to their feet. Evidence is accumulating that extended careers in football, and the repeated blows to the head that they entail, make people sick. Players who sustain concussions are susceptible to long-term brain damage, in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. Their suffering has evidently  led several ex-players to commit suicides.

[To be sure, more study is needed--for a skeptical view of the football-brain trauma connection, see this, as well as a detailed but informal analysis by Grantland found that football players live longer than baseball players. But I've seen enough to persuade me that football is unavoidably violent and dangerous.]

I wrote about the NFL and brain injury in 2007 and again in 2009 [See The NFL's tobacco moment]. But I remained a fan. I’m not sure why. I think it’s partly because of the way we experience football on TV. The players are hidden under their helmets. They move around on screen like performers in a video game, not flesh-and-blood human beings who are inflicting long-term damage on one another. We don’t think of them as sons and fathers, with wives, children and parents.

But anyone who pays  even casual attention now knows about the pain and suffering that often come after the NFL. Consider: [click to continue...]

The NFL’s tobacco moment

image001 If you are looking for a case study on how not to manage a corporate crisis, you could do worse than consider the way the National Football League is dealing with the mounting controversy over head injuries and their long-term impact on the health of its  players.

The league has denied the problem. It has stonewalled the press. It has ducked responsibility. It has acted arrogantly. It has come across as more concerned about the owners’ bottom line that the well-being of its players—likely because it is.

The league, it seems, has learned nothing from corporate America, where companies that are responsible and responsive, transparent and accountable do well in the long run.

I write this as an NFL fan who wrote a book about the league’s preeminent television showcase, Monday Night Football, many years ago. I’ve been following the emerging NFL head-injury scandal since blogging about it back on Super Bowl Sunday in 2007. It was clear by then–actually, long before–that the NFL didn’t take concussions seriously enough, that players were routinely sent back into games after being knocked out and, more generally, encouraged to suck it up and play hurt. My brother Noel Gunther has followed the story for years on the excellent Brainline.org website, about preventing, treating and living with traumatic brain injuries, that he runs for the public television station WETA. In fact, he tried years ago to film a story about concussions in the NFL, got permission from the Chicago Bears and its sympathetic team doctor but was then stymied by the league office–which appears to be typical of the way the NFL has responded legitimate inquiries into its conduct.

Even today–after years of accumulated evidence that concussions caused by the hard hits that are part of football have taken a long-term toll on NFL players, in the form of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, suicides and the like– a pamphlet that the league gives to every player about head injuries says: “Research is currently under way to determine if there are any long-term effects of concussion in N.F.L. athletes.” [click to continue...]