If the NFL should fall, it will be because it shielded itself in arrogance, not because of external forces. It's the same with all great empires and corporations. Rather than listening and examining the problems festering inside, it spends its time boasting of its strength and attacking the ghosts of its imagined enemies.
Chris Borland, a promising second-year linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers retired because he feared for his health going forward. The man that he was touted to replace, Patrick Willis, retired earlier that week because he had nothing else left to give from his body. These type of situations are becoming more frequent. Sidney Rice, who was notorious for his many concussions, retired at the age of 27 after the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl. He reasoned that he wanted to be able to function in life:
"You have these guys that have been going to the same house for 25 years. And all of the sudden they get to a certain point on their way home and they have to call their wives to get the directions home. So that is something that really hit home for me after having experienced so many concussions."
Borland understandably became the topic of debate. Health issues, especially concerns about brain damage -- CTE -- have been knocking fervently at the NFL's doors for quite some time now. But until recently, the NFL confusedly spent more time denying the problem than trying to find solutions.
Even today, the willful blindness lives on. Dr. Joseph C. Maroon, the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee stated on the NFL's official network that the brain damage suffered by the players has been over-exaggerated. Sure, let's take a look at some of the cases then.
Mike Webster, a former Steelers lineman, as the doctor admits, was "one of the hardest players in the history of the sport, and he obviously had many traumatic episodes through his head." Webster had his son taser him to sleep routinely because the pain was unbearable. He suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression and acute bone and muscle pain. He died of a heart attack at age of 50.
That was the case that ignited a study that found that 76 out of 79 brains of dead NFL players showed signs of CTE. But it's important to look at a few more individual cases for exaggeration sake.
Everyone's favorite gunslinger, Brett Favre, who was hailed throughout his entire career for playing through injuries puts the total number of concussions that he's suffered at "a lot." In Favre's own words, "I don't remember my daughter playing soccer, youth soccer, one summer. I don't remember that." Not unlike when he suffered a concussion against the New York Giants in 2004, before re-entering into the game and throwing a touchdown to Javon Walker. A play that he reportedly didn't remember after the game.
Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend before killing himself in 2012 at the age of 25, had tau proteins in parts of his brain consistent with players with CTE.
So when Maroon appears on the NFL network saying that damage is over-exaggerated, it's insulting to the intelligence of the public and the lives of the sufferers. Dementia, depression, amnesia and death are not exaggerations. Junior Seau shooting himself in the heart to escape the constant head pain is not an exaggeration. The erosion of the human brain is nothing to be flippant about.
The 4,500 former players who were listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the NFL for concussion-related injuries while playing wasn't an exaggeration either.
The counterargument being made in circles now is so cynical that it boils down to "people risk their bodies all the time for money." As if it's actual rationale for the dangers of the game. Take, for example, this article from ProFootballTalk about the aforementioned doctor and the CTE issue. Immediately it starts with the tone-deaf paragraph that suggests "From time to time, CTE takes center stage. And then it fades into the background again." As if an issue as serious as this is merely a fad.
Deeper into the article, the article's author writes:
For some, the popular consensus has become that playing football at any level means that the person who has played football at any level already has CTE, and that CTE is a time bomb that eventually will trigger the implosion of normal brain function. In the wake of the Chris Borland retirement, some in the media who don't particularly like football and/or who would prefer that other sports overtake football in popularity and profitability and/or who believe that they can tie their own personal legacies in some way to the death of this American Goliath have trotted out the notion that football is inherently unsafe because in the normal course of playing football, head contact occurs, all football head contact results in CTE, and all CTE results in brain damage.
For one, The Boston University CTE research center describes the progression of the disease as: "These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia."
Sounds very much like a time bomb.
It's not about wanting to see the death of "this American Goliath." Football is more popular than ever, and writers who owe their careers to the league and who defend it staunchly against the indefensible should remember that. It's about the fact that players are in constant trauma during and after their careers have ended. It's about the fact that the NFL spent so much touting faux-science as proof of no correlation between the sport and head trauma, while washing the blood off their hands Lady MacBeth style. Time that could have been put to better use in making the game safer.
Making the argument that people will generally risk their health for money, he tweeted:
Florio pic.twitter.com/MButrQFLzz— Bobby Big Wheel (@BobbyBigWheel) March 17, 2015
There's a legitimate point here within the idiocy of using the dead as leverage. Americans and people in general do take great risks for immediate reward. Fear Factor, the television show, made its name in asking people to do, eat and attempt ridiculous challenges with the promise of a large sum of money if they win. The concept works because there will always be people who need money. It's exploitation of poverty.
And there lies another piece to the puzzle. The NFL and this argument is banking on the sufferings of the lower classes. When LeBron James publicly stated that his kids will not play football or hockey, his reasoning was very clear. It was a safety issue.
When questioned further on why he played the sport but his children aren't allowed to, LeBron was insightful: "I needed a way out, my kids don't need a way out. They're all right. I needed a way out when I was a kid. I tried to do whatever it took to get out. That's my excuse."
The difference between Borland and many other players is that Borland has a way out. While he only spent one season at the highest level, he was already planning on retirement before he became the future of the 49ers defense. Borland had told his parents by preseason that he was planning on retiring. But how many players in the NFL have the family support, the structure and finances to make such a decision? Not everyone has a father who is head of his own financial firm.
Many players, in fact, are the lifeblood of their families. Football is an escape from poverty and the harsh realities of it. Immediate and extended families cling to these individuals, they're the ones that made it, the beacon of light and endless supply of cash that whole ecosystems depend on. They can't simply walk away from the game. It's not just their lives that they're playing for, the future and well-being of their bloodline is being mortgaged on the expectation of them being out there any given Sunday.
It brings the mind the rhetoric of Steve Jobs dropping out of college. It's utterly idealistic on the surface and upon further examination, it becomes impossible and damaging. Not everyone has the luxury, financial backing and freedom to do what he did. And not everyone has the support to walk away like Chris Borland.
Still, to pretend that the concern by players and fans about CTE and its effects are nullified because people risk their lives everyday for money is demeaning. It's insulting to the intelligence of the players to pretend as if they don't do research themselves. And downright cruel to belittle their suffering. It's also an attempt to deflect and distract. Pointing out the risks in other sports and aspects of life doesn't change the fact that the NFL has a problem. It makes you look like a coward.
Jeff Astle, a former soccer player, died from head trauma. Chris Benoit, the former wrestler who murdered his wife and his son before committing suicide, was confirmed to have had pathognomonic CTE tissue changes. Former baseball player Ryan Freel was confirmed to have had Stage 2 CTE. The studies are advancing in rugby and are revealing that, as expected, many players suffer from it. Hockey as well.
These are all true and you can entertain the existence of a problem in all of these sports without being flippant. Studies have shown that being hit in football is the equivalent of being in a 20 mph-30 mph car crash, and that was for high school participants. Factor in the fact that they suffer up to a thousand hits a season, for four years before moving up to College and then hopefully the NFL, and that's a huge problem. These kids don't even get compensated till they become professionals. That's a staggering amount of punishment for the human body.
Because your uncle was decapitated in a coal mine doesn't change this reality. It just makes it more sad that people have to endure such things in order to survive.
Big hits are one of the biggest attractions of the NFL. It's always been. Kam Chancellor leveling Julian Edelman in the last Super Bowl was just as exciting as Malcolm Butler's pick. Hard hitters are glamorized and have been idolized throughout the history of the sport and regardless of how much the NFL tries to pretend that this is not the case, it's what a lot of people tune in for. Making it safer won't necessarily change the nature of the beast.
Pretending that there's not even a problem in the first place helps even less. It's a blood sport just as boxing, cage-fighting and any other gladiatorial spectacle is, and these are the risk and consequences that the NFL has to deal with.
Chris Borland may not be the harbinger of an exodus because parents have taken notice before him. As reported in 2013, Pop Warner participation numbers are dropping. Parents are taking the decision out of the hands of the kids are are doing what's best for them. If these families and future stars can find other avenues to escape, the NFL is going to be in trouble. You can't bank on the reasoning that people will harm themselves for money forever. Either accept the reality and try to make the game as safe as possible or watch the world around you crumble.
Yes, the NFL seems more popular than ever and each season brings in millions. But the seeds of doubt are growing, and the powers that be seem much more concerned with preening themselves than acknowledging the despair of their own employees.
The human body and the brain are fragile, malleable things and no amount of posturing by the NFL can change that.