What The Money's For: Concussions, Liability And The Negligent Present Of The NFL

The future never makes sense until you're standing in the middle of it, something the NFL will understand soon enough.

I used to love it back there. It was warm, warm like a lizard's glass tank. On a cold day you could lie down in it and feel the sun beaming down on you like the twin red lines of a cheap heat lamp. Cars flew by not towering above you, but right at eye level. I saw my first Stingray Corvette from my private aquarium, so low to the ground it appeared to be running headlong towards disaster. An older me would have said it looked like Christina Hendricks racing skeleton. A younger me just sat in awe, and wondered where the luggage went.

The speakers were up there, too, so I could listen to my grandfather's music. It was different when you were laying prostrate over the speakers: the bass knocked through your stomach, the high hat was somewhere over your ear, and the vocals on really fancy recordings switched from speaker to speaker. Ronnie Milsap and Alabama to this day do not sound right unless I sit very close to the speaker.

No one noticed this. No other drivers said anything, or pointed, or honked. I was five years old, and riding in the tiny bit of space between the back seat and the edge of the back windshield without a care in the world. A trucker pointed, and sounded his horn once. He was laughing.

Star-divide

Mad Men debuted its fifth season this week, and you probably did not watch it. Not many people do. It is one of those things that you will likely fix one day, and then go back and say, "Why didn't I watch that while it was on?" Unlike a lot of mistakes, it is a temporary one, and probably better because you do not have to read all the stupid things people write about the show. (You did this with The Wire, too. That's fine. Everyone else did, too.)

And people do love to write about Mad Men. This is because people who like to write love the show, and also because the show itself is a vague, broad beast of a story. Do you want to say it's about sex? Great, you can say that. Do you want to insist the show is about gender roles and office politics? Huzzah, that is all there, too. It is big enough that any of your pet remoras can happily suck to the side of its immense hide with plenty of room for more passengers.

This makes it kind of hard to be really wrong about what you think about the show. My remora stuck to the side of the Don Draper Meaning-Shark is the weird realization that you have lived through things and done things casually for reasons you do not at present understand, and in the past did not question at all.

A short list of these things follow:

  • Never, ever, ever rode a bicycle with a helmet. Like, ever.
  • Sat in a car with the windows up and Dad smoking.
  • No seat belts. Everyone started wearing them sometime around 1985. My grandparents never wore them.
  • Playing with the mercury from a thermometer.
  • Walking more than a half-mile to go to a friend's house.
  • The aforementioned riding in the little space between the back windshield and the backseat.
  • Riding in the back of a pickup truck.

Mad Men is rife with these moments. Pregnant mothers smoke without anyone slapping the cigarette out of their mouths. Alcohol is everywhere. There is a scene in season three where Don Draper, driving with a tumbler of scotch in his hand, accepts a mysterious pill from a pair of hitchhikers. I remember watching it and cheering out loud at how utterly wrong and enviable it looked. It really would have been incredible to drive a gigantic Cadillac rocked off your ass on a billion scotches late at night in 1964 -- as long as you didn't kill anyone, of course, or wind up getting rolled by two hitchhikers you picked up because hey, this was 1964, and you just didn't think about those things until someone else did.

Sports had their own drunken driving with a glass of scotch-in-hand scenes. F1 drivers used to have no safety barriers whatsoever. Smoking in the dugout in baseball was common. Hockey players without helmets existed until Craig McTavish retired in 1996, and boxers went 15 rounds for championships, brains and sense be damned.

Pistol Pete Reiser of the Brooklyn Dodgers ran into 11 unpadded outfield walls, suffered five skull fractures and seven concussions, and was once administered last rites on the field. That's in baseball, the genteel sport of our national popular imagination as conceived by George Will's favorite cummerbund, Steven. Steven says even baseball had its moments of astonishing and present ignorance in the face of obvious danger. Steven probably also would have done nothing to eliminate the hazard.

There are three million or so people who watch Mad Men. There's probably fewer who would admit football has to change in order to survive its moment of happy historical ignorance. The audiences for the good and honest are always small but dedicated in their fandom.

Star-divide

Changing football does not mean eliminating the violence from football. That is where Bob Costas, who has lived through several hundred years of sporting history*, fails badly in talking about the sport.

*Because he is a magical dwarf. A pompous, baseball-loving magical dwarf.

To paraphrase, he says he appreciates football as much as he can in spite of its violence. This is saying that you appreciate the taste of crab without ripping the shell apart, or that you like to have sex, but hate the mess it makes. Part of football's allure is strategy, and breathtaking execution and the athleticism to spear a ball from the air with one hand like a heron on the wing beaking a leaping fish. That's all there, and it probably constitutes the part of the game he enjoys.

There is also the violence -- the delicious, bone-breaking, eyeball-searing violence. Like most people, I watch football for a very specific kind of violence. The violence in football is real within certain artificial parameters, and with certain rules designed to rein in the uncontrollable and random side effects of force applied to human flesh with speed and power. Like all rules and precautions, they are incomplete, fallible, and in need of improvement.

The moral tone annoys the shit out of me because it is Bob Costas, who is high-handed enough as a baseball fan critiquing football, and worse still because the violence-free sport he likes is boring. He is right in this respect: if the correlation between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and football is made in a court of law, the NFL may have to write some very, very large checks to former players with brain injuries. (Some of those players just filed suit this week for this very thing, one of many lawsuits currently in process against the NFL regarding head trauma.)

Only when things cost someone real money will something happen. This is because we are not talking about people, but organizations, by definition large, stupid things that only change course after glancing off an iceberg or two. The modifications to the rules and protection are not the topic here. (Leather helmets, anyone?) What is the subject is being the honest football fan on the right side of history, the one who would like to see the game endure and thrive as a contact sport while negotiating away as much of the real negligent risk as possible.

It is a tricky stance to take. It requires admitting some uncomfortable things: that you need violence in football, and are willing to reduce it in order to continue forward. It requires risking ridicule for suggesting these things, since they universal defense of the present and dangerous is the default setting for humanity. Throughout history, someplace, somewhere, someone has been yelling out "PUSSSSSYYYYYYY" at people petitioning the King. This person should be ignored, and preferably thrown in a sewage ditch if possible. (Put a helmet on them first if it makes you feel better about such an act of violence.)

That is the simple part, however. The most difficult part is recognizing risk is inherent in football, no matter how marginal it may be, and will never, ever be totally eliminated. At the NFL level, that means acknowledging the possibility of head trauma, but also the risks that fall under "occupational hazards." Then, as fully educated consumers, we decide whether we still want to watch and play a game that is violent and potentially dangerous for its participants. Whether you like that is not a matter of aesthetics, but of morality: do you feel comfortable subsidizing not only violence, but the inevitable injury of people? (Full disclosure: I have no idea if I do.)

The rest is money. Contrary to what you may want to think, you do not just get paid for just your skills. You are paid for time out of your finite life, for days spent away from family, and for the exchange of valuable breaths. You sell yourself to employers and contractors all the time.

At one point in Mad Men last season, Peggy exploded at Don. "You never say thank you." Don's response: "That's what the money is for." It is a heartless response, but an honest one. Football players should be made aware of the dangers frankly and in full, and then left to make their own decisions. Football may end up like boxing: fractured, desperate, and played only by a small number of participants with very skewed economic incentives for doing so.

We'll look back at a lot of this and wonder how we ever found this strange or objectionable. The gap between the preventable and the inherently dangerous in football needs to be narrowed. The rest can be bridged with a solution that hasn't changed since the days of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That, as Don would say, is what the money's for.

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