This Fan’s Notes: A Football Elegy




This Fan’s Notes: A Football Elegy by Sebastian Stockman

A lifetime fan confronts the NFL’s history of concussion denial and cover-ups

January 31st, 2014 reset - +

Len Dawson, during halftime of the first Super Bowl; January 15, 1967 (credit: Bill Ray)

MY FIRST AND ONLY football injury left me unable to breathe. It was a late October Sunday and we had to stay after church to bus the tables at my parochial school’s annual chicken soup fundraising dinner. As we climbed in Dad’s car for the drive home the game was just getting underway. The Kansas City Chiefs were hosting John Elway’s Denver Broncos, our perennially more-successful division rivals, and I could barely sit still. By the time we pulled up at the house, we’d forced the Broncos and their horse-faced quarterback to punt — an auspicious start. I burst out of the passenger-side door, sprinting up the concrete steps of the porch. As I reached the second step, my dress shoes slipped out from under me and I landed, hard, the edge of the porch catching me just under the sternum. Air whooshed from my lungs. 

A hypochondriacal little boy, I was certain I’d broken off the little arrowhead-shaped bone that dangles where the rib cage comes together. But my team needed me. Creakily sucking wind, certain that a dangerously sharp bone shard was floating around inside me, slicing up my internal organs, I crawled into the house on all fours. I reached up to turn on the TV and pulled myself onto the couch.

I was fine. The Chiefs lost.

¤

Concussions are the injury in professional football this year. League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth, by brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, along with the Frontline PBS documentary of the same name, investigate the question of what NFL officials knew about the long-term effects of concussions and when they knew it. In short, the league knew a lot more a lot sooner than it let on, and even worked to conceal what it knew. 

The NFL lied for a long time, but it never pretended its players didn’t sustain concussions. It just dismissed them. In 1995, after severe concussions forced a few high-profile players into retirement, long time NFL spokesman Greg Aiello called “the number of concussions […] relatively small […] But hey, they do occur. And maybe there’s more we can do.”

But hey, as League of Denial’s authors point out, “it depended on how you counted concussions.” The league “was counting head injuries as concussions only when a player lost consciousness or was seriously dazed.” Using those criteria, the NFL estimated that one concussion occurred every three or four games.

In Instant Replay: The Green Bay Packers Diary of Jerry Kramer, the veteran left guard’s account of the Packers’ 1967 championship season, written with Dick Schaap, I count five surefire concussions — including at least two sustained by the author himself. Kramer’s attitude shows the indifference with which concussions were regarded. He mentions a fullback who came back to the huddle in a preseason game “wobbly-legged and weak-kneed”: 

“[S]omebody said, ‘You all right, Ben?’ He said, ‘Yep,’ turned around and promptly fell on his back. Passed out. He didn’t know where he was or anything, but he was all right later.”

When Kramer sustains his own concussion, he has “a vague recollection of half-time (sic) […]” but didn’t “even know how long I played today. I don’t have any idea and I won’t till I see the movies.” The next day, his “headache wouldn’t go away, but I guess I’m going to be all right.” Besides, he said, “[b]etween college and the pros, I’ve had four or five concussions now, and I suppose I’m getting used to them.” 

This attitude — that a concussion had occurred only when a player was rendered woozy or unconscious, and that the remedy was to walk it off — was still prevalent in 1995, when linebacker Gary Plummer yelled at a scientist. As Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada tell it, Plummer considered concussions “minor nuisances” and wide receiver Al Toon and running back Merrill Hoge were “pussies” for retiring after suffering repeat concussions. Even so, Plummer’s agent Leigh Steinberg convinced him to attend a concussion symposium Steinberg had convened. Among other things, the symposium revealed the gaping disconnect between what brain scientists considered responsible harm-reduction and injury-management techniques and what the professionals practiced.

As Plummer told the League of Denial authors, the presenters were “up there giving their spiel, and I wasn’t even paying attention because I’m like, ‘You know, this is my job: to freaking smash people. I really don’t care that these quarterbacks get hurt.’[1]

But then something catches Plummer’s ear: 

“I don’t know who he was,” Plummer said. “Some doctor — he says: ‘Many of you don’t understand that there are three grades of concussions. A Grade I concussion is seeing stars, being slightly disoriented. If you had one of those, you need to get evaluated on the sideline.”

Plummer sprang into action, confronting the speaker:

If I didn’t have five of your so-called Grade I concussions a game, that meant I was basically inactive. And by the way, there are some plays when you get two of these on the same play. … You try putting your forehead underneath a 330-pound offensive guard and then get off of him to take on a 220-pound running back […] I’m in my 13th year of professional football, and I have five of these a game. So according to your theory I’ve had over 750 concussions, and you know what? I’m pretty lucid.

¤

“You don’t remember when Lenny Dawson won the Super Bowl?”

I’m in elementary school or maybe junior high, watching TV with Grandpa, who asks this question not infrequently. Dawson has probably just popped across the screen, teasing his upcoming sportscast on Channel 9.

Len Dawson was the inaugural quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. He came to town with the Dallas Texans, who became the Chiefs in 1963, and spent 13 years as the starter. He led the Chiefs to Super Bowls I and IV. They lost the former to the Packers but won the latter, upsetting Minnesota 23-7 in New Orleans in 1970. Dawson, the game’s MVP, retired in 1975. I was born in 1978.

“No, Grandpa, I really don’t.”

With his tongue, Grandpa probed the lump of Skoal he thought he kept hidden from my brother and me, and turned back to the television, possibly wondering where the time went. The question seemed preposterous then — Dawson’s reddish hair was graying, his face full and jowly — but 25 additional years of fandom has given me another perspective: the seasons all run together. In hindsight, it’s easier to see why Grandpa was unable to keep track of whether his first grandchild came before the Chiefs’ only Super Bowl title or vice versa.

Besides, Dawson was a Kansas City fixture. Back when I watched him in Grandpa’s living room in the rural Missouri farmhouse 60 miles east of Kansas City, the old quarterback had been on local TV for more than 20 years. Get this: Dawson became the sports director at Channel 9 (KMBC-TV, Kansas City’s ABC affiliate) in 1966, nine years before he retired, an arrangement unimaginable today. Dawson was ubiquitous: he was the color analyst for Chiefs radio broadcasts, as well as the host of HBO’s “Inside the NFL.” 

Cementing Grandpa’s confusion, I could talk passably about the events of that game that predated me by almost nine years. I’d seen the film in Mr. Buchholz’s fifth-grade class. For Super Bowl IV, the innovators at NFL Films put a microphone on a coach for the first time — the Chiefs’ Hank Stram. His sideline patter became part of league lore, especially his ungrammatical injunction to the Chiefs to “keep matriculatin’ the ball down the field, boys!” which sufficed to fix him in the collective imagination of this no-nonsense league as both comedian and intellectual. NFL Films’ Steve Sabol told the Daily News “It was like having Henny Youngman coach a football team. Everything was a one-liner.”[2 

In those early 1990s, as the Chiefs had a string of modest, unexciting teams with strong running games and stout defenses, I took a provincial’s pride in my hometown franchise’s role in the history of the league. We’d been in Super Bowl I! The first one ever! We won Super Bowl IV! The last one before the AFL-NFL merger! The Chiefs mattered! So what if we were mired in a seemingly endless run of 9-7 or 10-6 records. So what if that meant I retreated to the bathroom six or seven times a season to wipe away tears. The conference championship trophy was named after our owner, Lamar Hunt, one of the original members of the upstart American Football League, who’d also coined the term “Super Bowl,” for heaven’s sake! You couldn’t take that away from us. 

Had I read Instant Replay in, say, 1989, I’d have repeatedly thrown the book across the room. It’s just the kind of book this sports fanatic/bookworm would have devoured, a day-by-day account of one of the NFL’s all-time teams, in the final season of the all-time coach, Vince Lombardi. But this Lombardi speech as quoted by Kramer would have gone down sideways:

“Nobody knows the tortures you go through, trying to stay on top as champions,” he said. “ […] Kansas City is getting a little taste of what it’s like in the American Football League this year […] They’ve been getting the hell beat out of them.” 

Vince smiled a bit. I think he’s glad that their loud-mouthed coach — who said he’d whip us the next time he played us — may have to wait a long time to get in the Super Bowl again.

Reading this passage recently, my inner nine-year-old’s cheeks burned with embarrassment, then rage. What did old Lombardi know, anyway? Certainly not that the Chiefs would be in the Super Bowl just two years later, while he was washed up in Washington. While nine-year-old me seethed, I used the maturity of 25 additional years to restrict myself to a single soft toss of frustration.

Football is a faster game than it was in Kramer’s time. Bigger, too. Kramer said he liked “to play somewhere between 245 and 250” pounds, which is the weight of a mid-sized linebacker today. But Instant Replay demonstrates that concerns about football’s brutality have long been with us. Kramer was resentful of the gladiator comparison even in 1967: “Nothing irritates me more than the implication that we’re some sort of subhuman beasts, trained animals clawing at each other for the amusement of modern Romans.” And yet, he embraces another worn metaphor for football, as he (or maybe it was Schaap, who knows?) titles the sections of his book “Basic Training,” “Mock Warfare,” and “Armed Combat.” Of course football players aren’t “subhuman beasts,” but they’re not soldiers, either.

In any case, Instant Replay makes it clear that, despite the smaller, slower players, the game was plenty brutal 45 years ago. “I’m amazed by how violent the game is,” Kramer wrote. “[A]nd I wonder about playing it myself.” 

¤

Fall 1996: I had the Cary Grant role in my high school’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a single-weekend engagement, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon (fall Fridays were for the football team, on which my little brother was a star lineman, and which I had quit after three years of bench-riding). 

Grandpa died that week. There must have been some discussion about my missing the performances or about postponing them altogether. But in the end someone — Mom? Grandma? — decided that it was just as easy to postpone the funeral until the following Tuesday.

Despite the swirling emotions — of loss, of performance anxiety, of lingering guilt about my schedule’s inconveniencing everyone — my enduring memory of that weekend is the Chiefs’ 27-20 victory over Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, who would go on to win the Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ running back Greg Hill scored three touchdowns in that game. I listened on a tiny radio backstage. I became so engrossed in the game that, at one point, I missed an entrance cue, causing one of my co-stars to improvise, anachronistically: “Mortimer must be watching the Chiefs.”

¤

Thirty-five years after Kramer’s book, another Hall-of-Fame interior lineman kept a kind of diary. This one was neither published nor lucid, and it often took the form of rambling 20- to 30-page letters to friends and supporters. Instead of recording his thoughts into a tape recorder, as Kramer had, Mike Webster — former center for the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s — lashed a pen to his arthritic fingers with duct tape and scrawled on page after page of legal pads: 

No Money Poverty Worse Every day. No money many weekends almost everyone sit can not do anything or Go anywhere. No source of Help and Where to Turn So I do not know when last time any Fun & Enjoyment and Cost of Medical and other Costs has been staggering. 

My goddamn writing and mind are going to shit. Wow. 

After a long career with the Steelers, Webster spent his final two seasons with the Chiefs before retiring. His marriage quickly fell apart, and he spent a year as the Chiefs’ assistant strength coach — the hiring a favor from the Chiefs’ General Manager — and he lived for part of that time in a storage room in the team’s training facilities. The owner of four Super Bowl rings from his days with Pittsburgh, and a Hall of Famer, Mike Webster is League of Denial’s Patient Zero. His post-retirement deterioration, autopsy, and the study of his brain provide much of the book’s narrative drive. Webster is also a major character in Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is the same team and some of the same ground covered by Roy Blount, Jr., in his classic About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which fixed the Steel Curtain Defense[3] and those blue collar Steelers as a group of rollicking and rowdy but lovable ruffians.

Pomerantz’s book is necessarily more elegiac. For instance, the carnage of Webster’s post-football life finds an order — alphabetical — in Pomerantz’s index, that the man himself could never give it:

Webster Mike …

aging and physical decline of, …
angry outbursts of, … 
autopsy performed on, …
blocking technique of, …
brain damage of, …
cognitive issues of, …
death and funeral of, …
depression of, …
divorce of, …
final seasons of, …
financial problems of, …
growing supsicion and paranoia of, …
grueling workout regimens of, …
Hall of Fame induction of,…
injuries and surgeries of,…
intense approach to game of, …

marital issues of,…
NFL disability claim filed by,…
permanent physical ailments of,…

post-football troubles of,…
prescription drug use of,…

steroid use of,…
as student athlete,…
… 

“In those days,” Pomerantz writes of the 1970s, “[C]oncussions were of little concern. Smelling salts did the trick.” 

The NFL lied for a long time. As much as I strenuously resist pro football’s omnipresent military metaphors — the risks are lower, the rewards (much, much) greater — there is one instance in which the conceit really works, and not only because it was employed by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam.

In the 1994 season — which the League of Denial authors refer to as the “Season of the Concussion” due to its high-profile injuries and retirements  — Halberstam interviewed the commissioners of the NHL, NBA, and NFL onstage at New York’s 92nd-Street Y. Eventually, Halberstam broached the topic of concussions. According to League of Denial, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue “quickly dismissed the matter as a ‘pack journalism issue’ and then used the league’s dubious statistics to try to deflect concern.” He repeated the League’s often-deployed line that there were “2.5 concussions for every ’22,000 players engaged.’” Halberstam was skeptical, at best. Playing to the crowd, he invoked the hallmark figure of Vietnam-era befoggery: “I feel I’m back in Vietnam hearing McNamara give statistics.” And the crowd went wild.

The comparison, this time, was apt: the NFL’s tight-lipped answers on the topic of concussions resembled nothing so much as the obfuscatory language of military officialdom. The Army had its “collateral damage,” and the NFL, shortly after Tagliabue’s tango with Halberstam, had its committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (emphasis mine).

As far as tales of ass-covering bureaucracy go, League of Denial’s account of the MTBI committee is basically Catch-22. Tagliabue appointed Elliott Pellman — team doctor of the New York Jets and, coincidentally, Tagliabue’s personal physician — to head the committee, which the authors call the commissioner’s “most perplexing choice.” Perplexing indeed: Pellmann’s area of expertise was in rheumatology[4]. More perplexity: not only had Pellman, as team doctor, overseen the concussion-forced retirement of wide receiver Al Toon, the authors uncover just how serious Pellman considered brain injuries to be. A “running joke” among the Jets was the code phrase “Red Brick Broadway.” Those were the three words — always the same three words — Pellman asked a dazed player to remember. “He would leave you and come back before the next series, and you’d go, ‘Red Brick Broadway. I’m ready to go,’” long-time Jets center Kevin Mawae told the Fainarus. Furthermore, when wide receiver Wayne Chrebet was “knocked out for several minutes” in a 2003 game against the Giants, Pellman reportedly said “This is very important for your career,” before sending the severely injured player back into the close game. According to League of Denial, “Chrebet was never the same and retired in 2005.”

And yet, “[w]ith the endorsement of the powerful commissioner,” the authors write, “Pellman had instantly become one of the most influential concussion researchers in the country.” Pellman gained this instant influence because, at least at first, the broader community of scientists studying brain injury and head trauma made the mistake of believing that the NFL would operate in good faith. The committee’s first publications in the journal Neurosurgery were welcomed, including one deemed “the most extensive study to date on the biomechanics of athletic concussion in football.” But as its claims became more preposterous, Neurosurgery’s reviewers began to reject the papers. In a highly unusual move, the journal’s editor insisted on running the papers anyway, with the reviewers’ scathing rejections appended as commentary. The editor, Michael Apuzzo, was a respected doctor who had literally written the book on brain surgery (Brain Surgery: Complication Avoidance and Management). He also happened to be a consulting physician for the New York Giants. Under Apuzzo’s aegis, Neurosurgery published 16 papers from the MTBI committee and quickly became known as the “Journal of no NFL Concussions.”

In what may have been part and parcel of its cynical raison d’etre, the MTBI group used a tautology to determine whether or not a concussion was serious. It found that 92 percent of players didn’t miss a game. The committee, League of Denial’s authors write, “interpreted this as an indication not that players were being rushed back on the field or hiding their injuries but that concussions were minor events whose symptoms went away quickly with few, if any, long-term consequences.” That is, as the authors put it elsewhere, “the fact that players went back on the field was an indication that they were fine; otherwise team personnel wouldn’t have cleared them.” The committee also found, essentially, that NFL players did not sustain brain damage, full stop. All of these findings were published in Neurosurgery, to the increasing incredulity of concussion researchers.

Apuzzo’s journal wasn’t completely in the tank for the League: it did publish the ground-breaking paper on Mike Webster. Bennet Omalu, an African immigrant with many degrees, a delightful use of profanity, and no real knowledge of American football, was the primary investigator of Webster’s brain. He found huge amounts of the tau protein, which “enables the brain’s ability to function, but can also strangle it.” The amount of tau in Webster’s brain was more suited to a patient with severe Alzheimer’s disease, not a 50-year-old former athlete. The amount was similar, but the distribution was not. It was more akin to the distribution found in boxers who had Punch-Drunk Syndrome.

Naively, Omalu expected the NFL to welcome his groundbreaking finding: “I thought they were gonna call me and embrace me and say, ‘Motherfucker, you’re such a hero.’” 

¤ 

December 15, 1996: A month after I missed my cue on account of our win over the Packers, I wrecked my car — or, rather, my mom’s car — in my haste to get to the Chiefs’ game against the Colts. I lucked into the ticket that Sunday morning. It was cold that day, and I needed to stop by my dad’s house to get my gloves before making the hour’s drive to Arrowhead Stadium.

My dad lives about five miles outside of town, on gravel roads. I steered Mom’s Pontiac down the route I’d known for literally my entire life, juiced on adrenaline and probably Tom Petty. This game had playoff implications. We couldn’t catch the Broncos but we were still in the playoff hunt, when I’d failed to slow down for a T-intersection (again, one that I’d navigated my whole life), locked up the brakes, and skidded mom’s Pontiac straight into the ditch. First thought: “I guess I’m not going to the game.” Second thought: “This is the second car of Mom’s I’ve wrecked in two years, she’s going to be angry.” She was.

So was I: Jim Harbaugh threw three touchdowns to beat the Chiefs, 24-19.

¤ 

There is a wide chasm between the NFL’s marketing of its players — its celebration of those who “leave it all on the field” — on the one hand and its disposal of them — the way it treats those players when there’s nothing left to leave — on the other. One sterling example of the hypocrisy and self-congratulation at which the league is so adept is embedded in Pomerantz’s title. As a title about a team, its time, and the subsequent decades, Their Life’s Work fits nicely — the members of the 1970s Steelers teams were in many ways defined by the Super Bowl titles they amassed 40 years ago. But the phrase is derived from Chuck Noll, the coach of those teams, who got it from his mentor, Paul Brown, who used it when he cut players from the Cleveland Browns, like so: “If you were my son, I’d tell you to get on with your life’s work.” 

As Pomerantz tells it, Noll adopted that same tone of bogus avuncularity when he took over his own team. On this point, Pomerantz appears to have taken a hefty swig of the Black and Gold Kool-Aid: “To Noll, football wasn’t a player’s life’s work. That work came later. When Noll told his Steelers, ‘Maybe it’s time to get on with your life’s work,’ some players took it as a coldhearted threat, or worse, their football career death knell.” Pomerantz treats this phrase as some nugget of coaching wisdom, a zen-like pronouncement from someone with the player’s best interest at heart, when in fact encouraging a player to get on with his life’s work means never having to say “You’re fired.”

Pomerantz doesn’t tell us whether or not Noll used the “life’s work” line on Mike Webster, who’d spent 13 years as the leader of the Pittsburgh offensive line. He does tell us that Webster “burned in silence” when he was not re-signed in 1988. Webster spent two years with the Chiefs, but had probably already commenced on his downward spiral.

At his Hall of Fame induction in 1997, rumors about Webster were swirling. He lived out of his truck. He subsisted on “Little Debbie pecan swirls and Pringles potato chips from vending machines.” Newspaper feature stories and an ESPN segment described the Hall of Famer down on his luck. Terry Bradshaw, that dadgum back-slapper on Fox’s NFL Sunday pregame show, was already in the Hall. He’d quarterbacked the Steelers to those Super Bowl wins, and was set to introduce Webster. The League of Denial authors report that he tried to give Webster a check for $175,000, which Webster — out of misplaced pride or outright delusion — promptly ripped into pieces. At this point, Webster was living out of his truck. But it was worse than that. His self-medication included enormous amounts of Vicodin and Ritalin — he’d take 80 mg just to get through his rambling 25-minute acceptance speech (the limit was 10 minutes). His teeth were rotting out of his head, and he used super glue to replace them. He asked friends and family members to tase him to sleep. That is, use a stun gun to knock him out.

We learn all this in League of Denial. We also learn that Webster had “no history of concussions,” and he never “left a game because of a blow to the head.”

It’s true that the broadcast vernacular around concussions lags behind — announcers still talk of getting your “bell rung” or needing to “shake the cobwebs” out, idioms that in 40 years will seem as naively cavalier as “more doctors choose Lucky Strikes.” But the NFL has largely moved on from thinking of a concussion as just another injury to be shaken off, a brain sprain. (e.g. When Kramer wrote that quarterback Bart Starr “shook off the head injury he got last week. He still can’t remember what happened, which is probably just as well.”) The league has instituted protocols — administered by “impartial” officials — under which a player may return to the field only when he’s able to meet the baseline scores on a test administered before the season began. There are rules to penalize hits on “defenseless” receivers and on quarterbacks, all of which have been derided as attempts to “sissify” the game.

“I hate my helmet,” Jerry Kramer wrote in Instant Replay. “I’m not going to throw away my helmet, though, because it’s a good weapon, probably the best weapon I’ve got. When I get mad at somebody — maybe the defensive tackle’s been clubbing me with his forearm — I use my helmet on him. I hit him with the helmet high on his chest, then slide up into his chin […]”

The helmet — the head — wasn’t always a weapon. In the old leather-helmeted days only a maniac would think of leading with his head. The “advent of the plastic helmet,” League of Denial’s authors tell us, “significantly cut down on catastrophic head injuries such as skull fractures and hemorrhages, but the flip side was that the human head was suddenly turned into a projectile.”

Unwittingly, and in the name of safety, equipment designers traded the risk of sudden death on the field for a more insidious set of long-term risks. The very piece of equipment designed to protect players’ heads has led directly to the increased involvement of those heads on every single play. 

“One of Webster’s greatest assets was his head,” Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada write. “He used it as a battering ram, smashing it into his opponent as he exploded off the line.” One teammate was “jealous” of the “thick layer of scar tissue” on Webster’s “forehead at the exact spot where he thrust his helmet into opposing linemen. It was a sign Webster was executing his block — play after play.”

Kramer and Webster played “in the trenches,” as the inescapable warfare conceit goes, and endured at least one head-on collision almost every time the ball was snapped. In 2013’s Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, which may be the best football memoir ever written, former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson described his transition from wide receiver to tight end. That is, he moved from the outside — where he sometimes endured head shots, on tackles and certain blocks — to the inside, on the line, where inflicting and receiving head shots was the essence of his job.

“No time to be scared,” Jackson writes of learning line play. “Over and over, I throw my head into the car crash.”

Funny, that car crash metaphor. Once asked by a doctor if he’d ever been involved in a car crash, Webster — who, recall, had never been diagnosed with a concussion or left a game with a head injury — said “Oh, probably about 25,000 times or so.” Watching on TV, it’s easy to dissociate yourself from the violence. The players are, after all, heavily armored. The pain endured on every play doesn’t easily register.

“I aim for the tonsils with the crown of my forehead,” writes Jackson, still in his tight-end tutelage. “Frontal lobotomy. That’s my only chance […] If it feels like a firecracker exploding in my helmet I know I’m on the right track.” As he gains experience at the position, that “firecracker explosion” becomes “a familiar friend. The ‘Oh shit’ moment is an ‘Oh well’ moment. I’m comfortable in hell.”

Line play has long been thankless, the province of large men with remarkable relative agility but little grace. Six or seven men work in concert to “open holes” for a running back or “build a pocket” of protection for a quarterback. These men do not score touchdowns and are usually only noticed when they’re flagged for holding. They’re overlooked in the NFL’s “concussion crisis,” too. 

The increased attention on concussions is not unwelcome. But the focus on open-field head shots and hits on quarterbacks is misleading: the real crisis is not in a wide receiver’s or quarterback’s three, four, or five high-profile concussions — those are serious injuries finally being treated with some seriousness — but the repeated, subconcussive blows interior linemen, linebackers and others endure on every single play. The anonymous grunts of pro football, the ones who get the lucrative but not astronomical sums, the ones who are seldom interviewed, the ones who for the Denver Broncos have allowed a 37-year-old quarterback and veteran of four neck surgeries Peyton Manning to set all manner of passing records and lead his team to the Super Bowl — those no-names are also the largely anonymous victims of the sport’s repeated wrecks. “This wasn’t a disease caused by a single blow or even a few,” is the way League of Denial sums up the findings of Boston University’s researchers. “The brain was deteriorating from the inside as a result of repetitive, consistent pounding.” 

This rotting from the inside is an especially pernicious aspect of what has come to be called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. The NFL’s committee was — by definition, by name — looking for Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries, brain bruises, evidence that the brain had been hit, the player concussed. As the Fainaru brothers put the league’s position, “[i]f there was no contusion, there was no trauma.” But defensive stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson both shot themselves in the chest, almost certainly because they wanted to allow researchers to look in their brains for evidence of trauma. Both had CTE. Justin Strzelczyk died in 2002, in a head-on collision, having led police on a high-speed chase on New York’s I-90. Terry Long killed himself in 2005 by drinking antifreeze. Both had been interior linemen on the Steelers. Both had CTE.

¤

By the time I did The Worm — Chiefs wide receiver Johnnie Morton’s touchdown-celebration dance — on the floor of The Blarney Stone, a grimy college bar in West Philadelphia, my friends and acquaintances were nonplussed. I’d been around long enough to become known as the biggest Chiefs fan on the Penn campus (not a hotly-contested title) and, at the beginning of the 2003 season, the Chiefs won their first nine games. I made sure to occupy the same barstool at Blarney for each one, wearing the same outfit. I missed the 10th game — I was in Concord, Mass., meeting my new girlfriend’s parents — and the Chiefs lost. I haven’t let my wife forget it. She often jokes that, had the Chiefs not gone 9-0 for the first two months of that season, we would not have stayed together, as she would’ve been exposed earlier to my mood after a loss.

A few years after I moved to Massachusetts, a friend passing through town dropped off a box, a gift from one of the Blarney Stone’s co-owners. Inside was a red jersey from Mitchell and Ness, the Philadelphia-based purveyors of high-end throwback uniforms. On the back:

Dawson
16

¤

“That’s the thing about football,” Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada write. “[W]hy it’s different from cigarettes and coal dust and not wearing your seat belt and a whole range of other things that have been proved bad for us. We love football. Americans by the millions are complicit in making the sport what it has become, for better or worse.” Here, at the end of their book, The League of Denial authors hit on an unlikely point of agreement with the NFL. The league’s latest marketing slogan unwittingly makes that complicity explicit: “Together We Make Football.”

Together, we make football, and we soothe ourselves with the knowledge that the NFL is spending “tens of millions of dollars” on concussion research. 

On the other hand, those millions, as the Fainarus point out, make the NFL “the main sponsor of research that holds the potential of its own undoing.”

Together, we make football, and we begrudgingly accept the rules changes that some of us worry will “sissify” the sport. One of those rules meant that Kansas City’s star running back, Jamaal Charles, had to sit out the rest of the Chiefs’ playoff game this year after suffering a concussion on the sixth play of the game. This opened the door for an improbable Indianapolis comeback and left the Chiefs winless in the playoffs for the last 20 years. But the enforcement of that rule was an indicator of the NFL’s efforts to “take the head out of the game,” and should be applauded, even if it meant yet another disappointment for my team.

On the other hand, the same league that claims to want to “take the head out of the game” once, through NFL Films, its extremely effective propaganda arm, put out a video called “Crunch Course” which included the line “In the NFL’s war zones, the most explosive weapon that can be deployed is a man’s body.” The same league that wants to “take brain injuries out of play” published — through its now-disbanded MTBI committee — this transparent falsehood: “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.” 

Together, we make football, and we ease our consciences with the fact that football players know the tradeoffs: “We signed up to compete at a high level and be rewarded with lots of money,” retired quarterback Donovan McNabb told Sports Illustrated last year. “It’s tough, but that’s what the game is all about. It’s a brutal game.”

On the other hand, one might say that the terms of the contract have changed. Yes, professional football players signed up to play for the prospect of untold riches. Nate Jackson said that the year he made the Broncos was “the year that the meaning of money change[d] for me, forever.” When they signed, they knew they were risking possible catastrophic injury. But they didn’t know, because none of us knew until recently, that they were signing up for certain dementia or at least significant cognitive defects. One of the NFL’s own studies found that “former players between 30 and 49 years old were 19 times more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease and other mental disorders than the normal rate among men that age.”

The nature of the deal has changed. For whom is this an acceptable risk? And at what point is it no longer ethical to enable people to take that risk? 

There’s an uncomfortable paternalism at work in this question. (And “paternalism” seems to me just the right word: my son won’t play football, if I can help it.) Who am I to deny certain gifted athletes — or extraordinarily dedicated ones — the chance at heretofore unimaginable, life-changing wealth? In Collision Low Crossers, Nicholas Dawidoff’s chronicle of the 2011 season, which he spent embedded with the New York Jets, we learn of any number of players — Bart Scott, Antonio Cromartie, Darrelle Revis — for whom football was the proverbial ticket out of a life of, at best, dead-end jobs and, at worst, an early death.

Then there’s Mike Webster. As in so many aspects of this story, Webster is a sort of super-archetype. According to the Fainarus, “rarely has the urge to escape […] so completely shaped an athlete as it did Mike Webster […] the reality of Webster’s early life was chaos, poverty, and shame.” The son of a poor potato-farmer with abusive tendencies, Webster added 50 pounds to his six-foot, 200-pound body and worked at his blocking techniques to earn a scholarship to Wisconsin and then a spot on the Steelers. It’s just that the ticket out of his “gothic childhood” was also the means to his gothic end: broke, homeless, and out of his mind.

Then, again, there’s Jackson, who seems to have come from a stable, middle-class home in California. He snagged a spot on the Broncos’ practice squad, then its active roster, despite having come out of tiny Menlo College. He’s not naive to the dangers of the game. He calls the sounds of one practice “a frightening symphony of future early-onset dementia,” and he thinks later that his frequent injuries might be “sparing my brain the extra punishment.” Why does Jackson, not fleeing anything in particular, put his brain at risk? It’s not just the money. After he’s cut from the Broncos, Jackson fails to catch on with any other teams, and signs up with the Las Vegas Locos, of the short-lived and ill-fated UFL. Even though he is to be paid $35,000 a year, less than he’d make in a month with the Broncos, he lines up and looks for that familiar firecracker pop at the front of his helmet. I doubt he felt relief when his hamstring snapped, but I did.

Together we make football. The NFL’s campaign features any number of videos from former players, Average Joes, and celebrities — Condi Rice! Rob Lowe! Dr. Oz! — telling their “football stories,” of family bonding or favorite games. Meanwhile, USA Football, the “national governing body for amateur American football […]” — an “independent non-profit[5]” that is nevertheless endowed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association — promotes “head-up tackling,” and hosts all manner of stories about concussion research on its website. The headlines include:

“Bikes remain leading cause of kids concussion, Study Says”
“Concussion is a manageable injury”
“Goodell: Concussions are an all-sport issue demanding global solutions”
“From the Field: Field hardness impacts head injury risk” 

All presumably true, as far as they go. But they ignore the elephant in the room, which is that the basic interactions of the game itself are destructive to the brain. What else are they going to do? 

Listen. I was in five fantasy football leagues last year. Seven years in a row, I’ve spent 300 bucks a year on DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, just so I can watch the Chiefs in Cambridge, Mass. My brother is a high school football coach who, I’m sure, stopped reading well before this point. Even with all I know now, I can be moved by Nate Jackson’s waxing rhapsodic: “The grass is still green, the hits still hurt and the ball in flight is still the most beautiful sight I know. I will chase it to the ends of the earth.”

The NFL has a poster: “CONCUSSION—A Must Read for NFL Players…Let’s Take Brain Injuries Out of Play.” The poster includes this warning “Repetitive brain injury, when not treated promptly and properly, may cause permanent damage to your brain.” In addition to getting rid of that “may,” I’d suggest adding a testimonial from another player who chased football to the ends of the earth: 

“These Guys,” Mike Webster wrote. “Gave Me The privilege of working For Them and Getting the shit Beat out of myself and Despite Helping Them and The Coaches have High Percentage of winning records and multiple championship that sell out every Game excess profits etc and can always get Jobs, They Want Just a Little Free Liability To Keep Taking from Us!”




[1] This might have been an oblique reference to the principal reason for the Steinberg symposium: one of Steinberg’s premier clients was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who had recently led his team to the NFC Championship, but had no recollection of doing so. Three times after the game, Steinberg told Aikman he was going to the Super Bowl, and Aikman forgot each time.

[2] You can grant Sabol this, as long as you also grant that Henny Youngman wasn’t funny.

[3] Originally the collective nickname of Pittsburgh’s four impressive defensive linemen — “Mean Joe” Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White, the “Steel Curtain” has come to refer to the Steelers’ 1970s defenses generally.

[4] Another committee member “was struck by how ignorant Pellman seemed of all previous [brain trauma] research.”

[5] And whose Chairman is former Kansas City General Manager Carl Peterson, the very man who signed Mike Webster at the end of his career.

¤

Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University. His reporting and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, The Kansas City Star, and TheAtlantic.com, among other places. 

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