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How a Sport Dies

The NFL has a lot to answer for these days, but it’s not too big to take down

Howard Chai
Sep 4, 2018 · 10 min read
Photo: Adrian Curiel/Unsplash

Imagine a sport where head-to-head collisions occur each time the game clock ticks. Imagine a sport where any player on the field could suffer a life-changing, life-threatening injury at any given moment. Imagine that, and you’d be imagining something pretty close to U.S. football.

Kyle Turley is a former offensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs. He earned first-team All-Pro honors — which means he was one of the best players at his position during a season — twice. He’s 6 feet, 5 inches tall, 300 lbs., and this is how he describes his time playing in the NFL:

I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. … You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field — fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions — boom, boom, boom — lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.

These aren’t just in-the-moment injuries either. They stayed with Turley even after he retired at age 32 in 2007. In a 2009 New Yorker story, the former player recounted an incident to Malcolm Gladwell when he was at a Nashville bar with his wife and some friends. For the previous year, he had been having increasingly frequent episodes including headaches, nausea, and vertigo. After feeling light-headed and sweaty, he passed out on the floor, eventually waking up and puking in the parking lot. “My wife, she was really scared, because I had never passed out like that before, and I started becoming really paranoid. I went into a panic,” Turley recalled. “We get to the emergency room. I started to lose control. My limbs were shaking, and I couldn’t speak. I was conscious, but I couldn’t speak the words I wanted to say.”

When you play sports, you get injured — it comes with the territory. This is different. While playing basketball for the Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose tore the ACL on his left knee and the meniscus on his right knee twice. It’s still not the same. We commonly say that injuries are a part of sports, but that’s really not accurate. What we really mean when we say that is that injuries happen in sports. What makes football different, though, is that injuries really are a part of the sport.

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Photos (Clockwise, from top left): Ronald Martinez/Getty; John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty; Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Getty; Stacy Revere/Getty

On every single play, players have the sole objective of stopping an opposing player from moving, and often the most effective way to accomplish that is throwing yourself into the other guy. When players want to stop one another, they often do so running helmet- and head-first. The tragic irony of continuing to improve player helmets is that it creates the illusion that their heads are safe and can therefore be used as a battering ram. That wouldn’t be the case if football was played without helmets; we’d easily realize the dangers then.

“There were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football,” Gladwell points out. “But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.”

Lately, the three letters that come up whenever we discuss NFL player health concerns are “CTE.” Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, as the Brain Injury Research Institute defines it, is “a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries.” Symptoms range from loss of memory and difficulty controlling behavior to impaired judgment and the gradual onset of dementia. A brain with CTE deteriorates over time, with some parts losing mass and atrophying and others accumulating tau protein — a substance that usually stabilizes neurons’ cellular structure but can become defective and interfere with the neurons instead.

In 2017, a neuropathologist named Dr. Ann McKee published a study on the donated brains of deceased football players. In a sample size of 202 players of various positions and ages, 177 had signs of CTE, including a startling 110 of the 111 who had played for the NFL.

As if the problem with concussions and CTE weren’t bad enough on its own, football culture exacerbates the problem with its toxic “be a man” attitudes.

In another instance, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted an NFL-funded phone survey with about 1,000 randomly selected former NFL players. Of the players older than 50, 6.1 percent reported that they had received a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or another memory-related disease. That’s five times higher than the national average for that age group. For players between the ages of 30 and 49, the reported rate was 19 times the national average.

Selection bias aside, there could be no clearer signs there’s a problem here.

According to the data, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head 1,000 times. A 10-year NFL veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could have been hit in the head 18,000 times. As concussion specialist Robert Cantu explained in the New Yorker article, people with CTE “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play — repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.’”

That last part is key: “tolerable for them to continue to play.” As if the problem with concussions and CTE weren’t bad enough on its own, football culture exacerbates the problem with its toxic “be a man” attitudes. Players play hurt unless they’re categorized as injured.

You might be thinking, “Football players are putting themselves in that much danger, but they are getting paid boatloads of money!” Umm, no. Quarterbacks are. Other players aren’t. Of the 20 highest paid players in the NFL for this upcoming season, only one plays a position other than quarterback, the player on the field who linebackers like the aforementioned Kyle Turley are charged with protecting.

The NFL is the most profitable sports league on Earth in terms of revenue, but it does not pay its players like such, in part due to the collective bargaining agreements that dictate how revenue is split. And while most professional athletes who play in a major sports league sign contracts that are guaranteed, it’s a rarity in the NFL, where some contracts can void themselves and “many of the so-called guarantees are not guaranteed.”

It’s here where the inherent problem of football, the one regarding concussions and CTE, returns, because, as Gene Upshaw opined in the Washington Post:

Unfortunately for the NFL player, his ability to negotiate a guaranteed contract is severely undermined by the risk of a career-ending injury. He could be the greatest player who ever played, but he is still potentially one play away from the end of his career each time the ball is snapped. And even if an injury is not career-ending, it can diminish his skills. This fact obviously makes the clubs very reluctant to guarantee salaries in future seasons.

NFL players deserve financial security because of the health risks that come with playing football, but teams are hesitant to guarantee contracts for players because of the potential for them to get seriously injured. Joseph Heller should write a sequel to Catch-22 where the protagonist plays in the NFL.

What also comes to mind is, once again, the culture that has been established in the NFL, specifically the dehumanization of players. Greediness isn’t unique to NFL owners, but it feels different when those owners — almost all of whom are old white men — are making money off of the human equivalent of dog-fighting. So why don’t NFL team owners guarantee contracts? As Deadspin concluded in their exploration of that question, the answer is simply “they didn’t have to.”

But wait, there’s more. As our political climate has grown to become more nuanced, progressive, and justice-driven, the NFL’s politics have gotten progressively worse. There are issues like the Washington Redskins’ problematic team name, the racial bias ingrained in the NFL draft, the commodification of breast cancer awareness, the barbaric work environment for cheerleaders, and last but certainly not least, the league office’s consistent mishandling of domestic violence cases involving its players.

There’s also the NFL’s biggest and most recent controversy: its response to the national anthem protest started by Colin Kaepernick. In August 2016, Kaepernick decided to peacefully protest police brutality against black people by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem that’s now routine before games. Many missed the point of the protest (or intentionally ignored it) and criticized Kaepernick and others who joined in for “disrespecting the flag.” NFL owners (again: rich old white men) turned on Kaepernick and anyone who followed his lead, eventually pushing Kaepernick out of the league.

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Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

What makes this political fuss even more hard to swallow is that players haven’t always even had to be on the field for the anthem. Consider an anecdote from Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers and one of the best players in the NFL:

You have to remember where everything started. I’m one of the older players; we never came out for the anthem back in the day. We were in the locker room; in my first three, four, five years, we only came out a couple of times. We’d be in the locker room, we’d come out, intros, and then the game. Then the DOD [Department of Defense] paid some money for demonstrations and flyovers and whatnot and it became a different policy.

The NFL doesn’t play the national anthem before every game, have military flyovers, and utilize countless methods to create an association between the NFL and the U.S. military out of patriotism; the NFL does all that because of capitalism. And no one likes anything that interferes with a bottom line.

The first person to diagnose CTE in a football player was Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist, who discovered it in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. By the end of his life, Webster pissed in his own oven, applied super-glue to his rotting teeth, and zapped himself with a taser to treat back pain and to fall asleep. After Omalu made his findings public by submitting it to a prestigious medical journal, he was treated to a rude awakening when the NFL responded by attacking his work, eventually shutting him out.

Dr. Julian Bailes, a respected neurosurgeon and former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers eventually reached out to Omalu and presented Omalu’s work at an NFL league-wide “concussion summit” when Omalu was barred from the event.

Bailes remembers how the NFL reacted:

They didn’t say, “Thanks, Doc, that’s great.” They got mad at me. We got into it. And I’m thinking, ‘This is a new disease in America’s most popular sport, and how are its leaders responding? Alienate the scientist who found it? Refuse to accept the science coming from him?”

Dr. Bailes, once more: “Here we have a multi-billion-dollar industry. Where does their responsibility begin?”

Which brings us back to the bottom line: the thing that dictates everything and the thing that businesses exist to endlessly improve. One of the biggest factors in determining that bottom line is viewership, and make no mistake, people are watching football. And many of them know that the health concerns exist. Even if they don’t, it’s hard to watch all the tackles and collisions and not think of the health risks. Yet we watch football.

In a perfect world, football wouldn’t have the support to exist.

But that’s changing, and as the risk of being diagnosed with CTE becomes more well-known, it forces viewers to make a decision that isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be. One work-around that seems increasingly popular is to not abstain from watching football, but ban your child from playing the sport. It remains to be seen if that will bring change, but nonetheless, fans of football are being forced to make a decision. The NFL, with its poor politics and unjust, dehumanizing treatment of its players has helped make that decision less difficult than it once was.

In a perfect world, football wouldn’t have the support to exist. We do not live in a perfect world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for a better world. In our world, this is how football will die: People move on from watching football (we aren’t lacking in other entertainment options), kids start playing other sports, reducing the quality of play in the NFL, which turns away more viewers — and it all creates a cycle.

That cycle starts with you and me. The evidence has been presented to you. Now, it’s up to you to decide how you feel about football.

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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