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Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky is taking the NFL to war over player health

She's spent her career championing underdog causes. Now Schakowsky is taking on the biggest bully in sports.

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WASHINGTON — It was a late afternoon last March in the busy halls of The Capitol when Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shattered the football world's biggest lie.

Schakowsky sat in a corner of a small room crammed with scientists and lawmakers all collected there by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to discuss concussion research and treatment. She read over notes in a patterned jacket and high-collared blouse, but quickly grew impatient waiting to attack.

“The NFL is peddling a false sense of security. Football is a high-risk sport because of the routine hits, not just diagnosable concussions,” she said. “What the American public needs now is honesty about the health risks.”

No one bit. The rest of the gallery barely paid her any attention. Schakowsky sighed before circling back.

“I just want to ask what I think is a yes or no question,” she continued. “Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)?”

Dr. Ann McKee, a leading researcher in Boston who tested the brains of former players for CTE answered first. Ninety out of 94 NFL brains she’d examined had the disease. Forty-five out of 55 college players, too. McKee didn’t balk at the chance to drive her findings home.

“The fact that over five years I’ve been able to accumulate this number of cases in football players, it cannot be rare. In fact, we are going to be surprised at how common it is,” McKee says. She repeats that this is not just about concussions. It’s about the hits, sub-concussive, players take at every level of the game.

“It’s devastating when you see this in a 25-year old,” she said. “What our job is, as American citizens, is to maintain the health of these young athletes for the entirety of their life. If there’s something we can do to limit this risk, it needs to be done immediately.”

With that, it was the NFL’s turn. Generally, the league, to that point, had denied McKee’s research and argued that science doesn’t point to a link between CTE and football. Except Schakowsky’s question to Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, melted the football empire’s stone wall.

“The answer to that question is certainly yes …,” Miller said.

“Is there a link?,” Schakowsky asked again.

“Yeah ... Sure,” Miller said.

“We think, or I feel, that was not the unequivocal answer three days before the Super Bowl by (the NFL),” Schakowsky responded.

“Well I’m not going to speak for …,” Miller said.

“Well, you’re speaking for the NFL, right?” Schakowsky asked, sitting up in her seat.

“You asked a question as to whether I thought there was a link. And I think, certainly based on Dr. McKee’s research, there is a link,” Miller said.

“We sat around thinking ‘oh, that was good.’ But that was it,” one staffer says now, remembering a landmark moment in the fight for player safety. At the time, though, no one in Schakowsky’s office, or the Congresswoman herself, had any idea what had just happened.

“She didn't know what she was doing,” another staffer says. “She accidentally got this admission and picked up the torch from there and ran with it. I don’t think she understood the groundswell of what was going to happen with the NFL afterward.”

This day wasn’t billed as congressional testimony. It was instead a Republican box-check: By getting every party into one room, the majority could say they did something about a buzz-worthy public concern. But 90 seconds into Schakowsky’s questioning and everything fell apart.

“The fact that this explosion came out of that, was one: not the outcome that Republicans wanted; and two: not even close to what Jan expected,” an aide to a Democratic lawmaker says.

Since the day she got the NFL to publicly acknowledge the connection between CTE and their sport, Schakowsky has spent the past year leading the legislative fight to protect player health. This despite the fact that she counts herself as nominal NFL fan, a U.S. Representative who had no real interest in the topic of CTE until being confronted with the facts that day last March.

“Time and again, Jan didn’t have to put her finger in the wind to understand what was right,” Jon Samuels, one of Schakowsky’s top staffers from 1999 to 2007, says. “She just knows and goes off running.”

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin has known Schakowsky for decades. They usually speak weekly. But the day Schakowsky confronted the NFL, Durbin was in the Senate and hadn’t heard from his longtime colleague. When he found out what she did, however, it made sense.

The NFL were the only ones who didn’t see this coming, he says. Everyone knows that when Schakowsky gets hold of an issue, she has the “tenacity of a bulldog.” She never lets go.

“Let me tell ya, there are those moments,” Durbin says now. “The public is used to political figures and lawyers dancing around issues. But there come those moments in congressional history when the truth prevails.

“Maybe (the NFL) was waiting for that moment or chance to do it. But,” he pauses. “When Jan Schakowsky asks you a question, you take it seriously.”

For a woman who has spent most of her life fighting for marginalized groups — women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and now athletes — Schakowsky’s office is a window into her beliefs.

It’s a catalogue to her decades in public service, 10 terms in Congress: portraits with Muhammad Ali from the 90s (“His generosity of spirit was so inspiring”); a quilt made by women in her district that represents several states with women legislators elected; pictures with former president Barack Obama before they both went so grey; an autographed photo from John Lewis from the day House Dems had a gun control sit-in on the congressional floor; portraits with Nancy Pelosi and the Dalai Lama; encyclopedias filled with every speech from Abe Lincoln’s political career.

Muhammad Ali and Jan Schakowsky
Office of Jan Schakowsky

We sit in her office on a warm day in April as she sneaks Coke from a mini-fridge behind a door. She swears she’s kicking the habit because “sweetener causes dementia.”

Schakowsky plops back on the couch in the middle of the decadent room and looks over a response letter the NFL sent her and three other House members after the reps inquired about a federal lawsuit which alleged that teams facilitated prescription painkiller abuse in locker rooms. The league stated that it had been compliant with federal drug law.

It’s apparent between sips that she’s getting more and more incensed.

“When you get a 15-page letter,” she scoffs. “You touched a nerve.”

She reads line by line then throws it on the coffee table.

“If they think that by writing a long letter with footnotes means we’re going away, that’s absolutely not true,” she said. “There’s a lot of room for us to continue to press and press.”

Schakowsky is a relatively short woman. If she said she’s over five feet tall, you’d probably debate her on it. Often seen in lime-green blazers or pink accoutrements on The Hill, she’s lively and energetic for a woman over 70-years old.

During a recent Congressional recess, she wore out the twenty-somethings in her office with 14 speaking events, 20 meetings, and six press conferences back home. She had to set aside three hours just to hit the grocery store because of all the fanfare she gets in the aisles.

“I come back at the end of some days gasping for air with my hands on my knees. She’s non-stop,” one of her aides says.

It takes the energy and the meticulousness of someone like this to think they can make an impact. It has to be hardwired into your being to believe that the NFL and other sports leagues that may endanger player health are worth starting a public war with.

“You put on your uniform. You take your helmet. You eat your pills. There’s this gladiator aspect, a bloodlust to the game of putting these brawny, mostly black men out on the field for a mostly white audience to, ya know,” Schakowsky says, making a crashing noise to finish her thought.

Speaking of football: she’s a fair-weather fan. She likes the Bears, but she hates Jay Cutler. Well, maybe, not hate. But she sure as hell doesn’t like him.

“Thank goodness he’s gone!” she says. Cutler crossed her after announcing his open support for Donald Trump, a man she definitely loathes. “I don’t think anyone in Chicago misses him. I’m sorry.”

She’s not, not really.

Siding with Trump puts anyone at odds with Schakowsky, especially when it comes to player health and safety. In October, Trump described concussions as “a little ding on the head.” In March 2013, he said the sport was ending because the NFL discontinued using a helmet to initiate contact. Last year in Nevada, he said football has become soft like how America has for the increased safety measures.

To put it lightly, Schakowsky thinks he’s full of shit.

“This is a man where winning and being on top is everything. So, a ‘little ding on the head’ a lifelong disability, a shortened life? Go for it. Be tough. Be a winner. Don’t be a loser. Complaining must make you a loser,” she said, sarcastically. “That’s who he is. That’s what he does for everything. This absence of empathy, I think he has a disability in that sense, an inability to connect with people’s problems.”

At the time Schakowsky got Miller to connect football and CTE publicly, she just didn’t understand everything. She had never even seen the movie Concussion. But when she went back to her office in the Rayburn House Office Building, her name blared on SportsCenter and her email inbox was full of kudos from friends.

“There was, like, this,” she stops to open her arms, puts her lips together and makes a sound similar to dropping a cannonball into a body of water.

It took Schakowsky time to grasp the full scope of the need for players’ health advocates, even as she took up the banner. She talked with constituents who blew up her phone that March after the roundtable and realized the enormous hold football has on American culture. She met with retired NHL players in October and watched middle-aged men cry because they couldn’t remember things.

“So, that was part of my lack of understanding what had just happened. I didn’t get the whole gestalt,” she admits. “It really started to dawn on me. I realized what a huge issue this was. It was right up my bailiwick.”

Schakowsky was born in a quiet Northside neighborhood in Chicago to two eastern European Jews who came to America at the height of the Nazi occupation across the ocean. By 1969, she was a young mother, who had grown annoyed by not knowing what basic items were fresh at local supermarkets and so organized the National Consumers Union (eventually changed later to National Consumers United) which, she jokes, was a “modest name for a group with six people.”

Jan Schakowsky, Illinois State House
Office of Jan Schakowsky

They researched coded numbers on the backs of products — the only way to determine when an item was made. The group published 25,000 “code books” to help shoppers tell whether they were buying fresh or withering bread. NBC picked up the pamphlets and ran a special on the nightly news.

Manufacturers quickly went on damage-control and stapled “use-by” labels on their products. Schakowsky was an overnight, local success.

“Changing the date on cottage cheese may not have saved the world, but it did change my life,” Schakowsky told Kurt Stone for his book The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members.

“It’s what I sort of love about her,” Dan Biss, an Illinois state senator who could be the state’s next governor, says. “From Day 1, she was figuring out a way to fight against powerful forces on behalf of people who needed help that lacks power. That’s what she’s done her whole career. You’re just seeing an example of it (with CTE).”

Since that first action, Schakowsky has made advocating for marginalized voices her life’s work. She worked at the state level until 1989, when she took on Washington, in a typically splashy way.

A powerful congressman from Illinois was chairman of a committee with jurisdiction over healthcare legislation and had backed a provision that reduced support for costly medicine, leaving the most vulnerable seniors to the whims of their insurers. Schakowsky did the only thing she knew: she raised a ruckus. She organized a protest. Lawmakers still remember the protest she organized.

“Oh my God. It’s like going back 30 years now,” Frank Pallone (D-NJ) says.

The congressman was slated to speak that day to community leaders about his stance. But he wavered at seeing the horde of protesters. So, the lawmaker hit the door, dashing to his car.

“They were chasing Dan down the street,” Pallone remembers. Many elderly people were screaming down the sidewalk “Liar!” “Impeach!” “Recall!”

The group surrounded the black car. They pounded on different parts of the vehicle with picket signs. They shouted into the windows. One woman wearing bright pink sunglasses and a matching dress stood in front of the car. The driver tried to nudge her out of the way by inching forward, but she ended up on the hood of the car, with onlookers and cameramen snapping photos.

Every major network broadcasted the skirmish. Newsweek and The Chicago Sun-Times captured the image. And months later, because of Schakowsky, the law was repealed.

“I don’t see any change in Jan,” Pallone chuckled. “That’s her. That’s her whole M.O. She’s always been aggressive and out front on issues that impact people directly.”

She built momentum from her protest and turned it into an eight-year stint in the Illinois statehouse. Her first campaign pledged to fight for consumer rights and healthcare. Schakowsky backed laws for seniors, increased support for day-cares and libraries and advocated for the marginalized in her district.

So when she found herself at a nearly silent roundtable with the NFL, armed with research that indicated that players weren’t being protected by their employers, Schakowsky did what she always does: she kept asking questions.

Only, the answers she got once she started prodding enraged her.

“You start to find out some of the internal research they do is bullshit,” she said. “It’s inaccurate. It isn’t well done. It’s not true. Then, I feel even more driven to get at the truth of this.”

There have been letters to the NFL, Pop Warner, USA Football, a national body overlooking high school sports and the NHL. But the reality is: Schakowsky can’t really force the NFL to do anything.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the NFL has to take responsibility. That’s first level,” Schakowsky said. “Accountability either has to be seriously accepted or imposed. But we just aren’t there yet.”

Nonetheless, she has her part to play. They can change laws, but they need their Republican colleagues’ help, something that in the last year has seem far-fetched. As it stands, the only people in Congress who can do anything about sports don’t care enough to, and that’s even inter-party.

“You can get 175 out of 190 Dems on a letter about Planned Parenthood,” one staffer said. “But this is not one of those issues where you’re going to have that.”

Office of Jan Schakowsky

So Schakowsky is banking on public pressure that she and other lawmakers can bring to force parents and other football consumers to steer clear of the sport. That means once again taking on a bully.

“It’s been exhilarating times, getting to make the changes I had dreamed about,” she said. “As old as I am, I was made for this moment. I’ve been an organizer all my life.”

As our conversation begins to close, a junior high-schooler who had been shadowing Schakowsky all day, decided to finally interject. Elena, bold and full of adolescent firepower, took up the same argument that many have about Schakowsky’s yearlong tirade against football.

“You’re never going to be able to stop it,” she told Schakowsky. “They really play it in high school. They announce it over the speakers in the classrooms. They even sell tickets at my school!”

Schakowsky, known for her piercing rebuttals, wasn’t going to argue with her guest. She smiled at the girl and offered a compromise.

“You know, you might be right” Schakowsky said. “But, it really is important to at least try and think about it.”