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.

Strange.

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.

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