The NFL and brain injury: That’s entertainment?

Are you ready for some brain injuries?
Are you ready for some brain damage?

Fifteen years ago, with my friend and co-author Bill Carter, I wrote a book about the TV show Monday Night Football, which helped build the phenomenal popularity of the NFL. I was a big football fan then. So much so that I didn’t notice until last week that the opening sequence of Monday Night Football — ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!!! — featured the helmets of the opposing teams crashing together.

A prescription, in other words, for brain injury.

The image flashed by briefly in the gripping and occasionally horrifying PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial, based on the book of the same name by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. Watch the program if it comes around again, or watch it on the web.

As regular readers of this blog know, I gave up watching the NFL about a year ago. But I decided to revisit the topic in my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Garment workers in Bangladesh and coal miners in India risk injury or death on the job. Their plight evokes outrage from advocacy groups and corporate-responsibility gurus.

Players in the National Football League are at risk, too – at risk of losing their mind, quite literally. Yet professional football remains America’s favorite sport, generating close to $10bn a year, with not much more than an occasional murmur of concern.


Of course, any football fan knows that the game is violent and dangerous, especially at the pro level. Powerful men collide at high speed, and a bone-jarring tackle can break a leg or, occasionally, a neck.

But football is dangerous in another, more insidious way, as we were reminded last week by the publication of League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, an examination of football’s concussion crisis by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Ward and Steve Fainaru. As the book and an accompanying PBS Frontline documentary vividly demonstrate, football also is inherently dangerous to the brain – an inconvenient truth that the NFL went to extraordinary lengths to hide, deny and muddle.

Of course, as I note in the story, NFL players are paid a lot better than garment workers or coal miners. And today’s players surely are aware of the risks they face.  But the price they pay – brain damage that robs them of their very sense of self – is terribly steep. And to what end? To make our Sunday afternoons and Monday nights a little more fun? So corporate sponsors can sell beer and cars?

Frontline is produced by a PBS station in Boston, which sent a reporter out to get reaction from Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and star quarterback Tom Brady.

Belichick said:

First of all, I’m not really familiar with whatever it is you’re referring to, whatever this thing is. But it doesn’t make any difference whether there is or isn’t one going on. We have our protocol with all medical situations, including that one and that’s followed by our medical department, which I’m not a doctor and I don’t think we want me treating patients.

What we do in the medical department, that’s medical procedures that honestly I don’t know enough to talk about. But I can say this, there’s nothing more important to a coach than the health of his team. Without a healthy team, you don’t have a team. We try to do everything we can to have our players healthy, to prepare them, to prevent injuries and then to treat injuries and to have them play as close to 100 percent as we can because without them, you have no team.

Hmm. The Pats do “everything we can to have our players healthy…because without them, you have no team.” And if they lose their minds after they retire, well, you win some and you lose some.This guy has a heart of gold.

In fairness, the NFL is doing a better job these days of treating and preventing concussions. There have been rules changes, medical personnel on the sidelines, better understanding among all of the real risks of contact. Finally. But, remember, football is played in college and high schools, too, where kids model themselves on the hard-hitting pros. Frontline put a spotlight on a college and a high school player who, shockingly, suffered from brain injuries that appeared to be–no, we can’t be sure–related to football.

Do they understand the risks they are taking? Who’s looking out for them? Clearly not the NFL.

The point after: Why I’m done with football

If we, as a society, have chosen to keep sugary sodas out of schools, why not football?

That was one of the reactions to yesterday’s blogpost, Why I’m done with football. In the post, I explained why, as a lifelong football fan (and co-author of a book about ABC’s Monday Night Football), I can no longer watch the game. Being a fan of football is being a fan of violence, and self-destruction.

The timing of the post, sadly, was good. It ran on the day when Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ star rookie quarterback, suffered a mild concussion. “Knocked out, left cold” was the headline atop The Washington Post sports page this morning.

After the blogpost ran, my friend Stuart Kerkhof asked by email:

You made it clear that your decision is personal in that you are simply choosing not to support/watch the sport. Does this mean you are against any government involvement? Does it matter whether it is professional versus amateur? If you think schools shouldn’t sell sugary sodas, certainly they shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor and glorify football?

That’s a tough one. Most people, I think, would be uncomfortable if middle schools and high schools had boxing teams. Is football really all that different?

I had a touching email from a reader named Rob Juneau who stumbled across the blog and suffered his own brain injury, although not from football: [click to continue…]

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 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…]