Like millions of American men, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s Super Bowl–but I won’t enjoy it as much as usual this year because of what I’ve been reading lately about the NFL. The New York Times had a superb front-page story [registration required] last week about Ted Johnson, a former linebacker for the New England Patriots, who now suffers from what appear to be serious brain injuries. He forgets people’s names, misses appointments and is addicted to amphetamines. Johnson is 34.
This story came just a couple of weeks after an equally disturbing look at the suicide of former NFL star Andre Waters. Reporter Alan Schwarz found a neuropathologist who, after examining Waters’ brain, concluded that the 44-year-old suffered brain damage from concussions as a player that led to his depression and death. Schwarz writes:
The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.
Schwarz’s dispassionate reporting strongly suggests that Johnson’s injuries and Waters’ death were avoidable. Johnson, in particular, was urged by the Patriots’ trainer and coach to resume hitting in practice just days after suffering a concussion–a time when the brain is especially vulnerable. Both of these sad stories are evidence of the fact that the NFL doesn’t take concussions seriously enough. Players are routinely sent back into games after being knocked out. More generally, football players are admired for “playing hurt.”
So I am unimpressed by the announcement that the NFL has come up with “a series of initiatives to keep Super Bowl cleaner and greener.” Extra food from Super Bowl events will be donated to soup kitchens. Greenhouse gas emissions at Dolphin Stadium will be offset by renewable energy credits. Trees will be planted to make Super Bowl XXXIX “carbon-neutral.”
That’s all well and good but the first obligation of any business to protect the health and well-being of its own workers. The NFL is failing to do so.