Donald Trump may be right about boycotting the NFL

My childhood home was once littered with random VHS tapes of my youthful triumphs. There’s that time my friends and I modeled back-to-school clothes on AM Northwest. I was especially proud of our Huckleberry Finn meets MTV Real World book report. And of course, the sports.

I’d tell people I was grabbing the football tape for the hilarious interview of prepubescent Marc and I at the end of the game, but really it was to showoff my exceptional strength. The tape included my 70-yard touchdown run, but the time mark I’d memorized was for a catch and 20-yard run, which was much more visually impressive.

They call it “redshirting” now, but when I was a kid it was just called “being held back.” I daydreamed too much and wasn’t great with my letters in kindergarten. As an October birthday, the school recommended holding me back a year. I’m sure it helped that kindergarten was not offered in public schools and keeping me an extra year meant more money.

The effect of this was that through elementary school I was big and fast. I played center and fullback in Boys Club football as an 11 and 12-year-old.

In this particular play, I came out of the backfield and the QB faked a handoff to me. Then I ran a flood route off to the right hoping nobody noticed as I slipped by. The ball is tossed up and I expertly spin around following the path of the ball and make a tough catch. My knee almost hits the ground, but I reach down with one hand and hold my balance. And then I run.

The first hit comes from the left, his helmet knocking mine to the right — and I knew it was time to hit the slow-motion button on the VCR. I keep going with one kid hanging from my shoulder. A second player plows into me from the right. He also hits me square in the side of the helmet causing my chin strap to drop open. I keep going.

The three of us are struggling as I drive my knees and drag the two players 10 yards with my helmet askew. By the time I fall you can count all the players piled on, seven in total. Awesome.

Ruining the Game

I hadn’t thought of that play in years, but it came to mind as Davante Adams was stood up by the Chicago Bears defense and Danny Trevathan comes across the field for a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit. The Packers receiver’s mouth guard flies out as he drops to the ground. Teammates immediately motioned to the sidelines for help and Adams was carted off the field and taken directly to the hospital.

It happens in this game.

This is exactly the type of hit Donald Trump complained about being penalized at his Alabama rally, seconds before calling any player who kneels a “Son of a bitch.”

Because you know today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.

Donald Trump, the Fucking President of the United States!

The very minor steps taken begrudgingly by the NFL to slightly protect their players from a life of brain damage are “ruining the game!”

It Happens

The hit on Adams certainly looks grotesque in slow-motion and Packers players were not happy. But Trevathan was eager to clarify that he had no malicious intent.

I regret the level I hit him at. But you got to understand, I had momentum, and I was just trying to make a play. … Nothing intentional. It happens in this game.

He’s not wrong. Players are taught to swarm, get to the ball quickly and never assume the play is dead until you hear the whistle. I remember running these drills and practicing choosing the best angles to get your head in front and make the tackle. It’s quite common that players, especially those learning, choose the wrong angle. Even if a player is right on the mark, the ball carrier may fall or innately lower his head with his shoulder to try and break the tackle. The end result is that a shoulder-to-shoulder hit becomes head-to-head in a split-second.

I still remember the head coach yelling at me freshman year of high school after I was substituted out. I just assumed it was a player rotation, so it really stood out when he came across the coaches’ box to chew me out.

Wojo!

— Yeah, coach.

— You know why I pulled you.

— Umm, I don’t.

— You didn’t get in on that tackle. I want my strong safety to come up and make sure the kid is down. Play until the whistle!

— Yes, coach.

Then he slapped me on the pads and said, “Get fired up, get hungry.” I did.

The lesson stuck. Hell, I still remember the details of the conversation and the game. I redeemed myself in the second half when a running back was stood up by three other players and I came charging up from the goal to nail some 14-year-old.

America’s Game

My Global Studies teacher hated inequality, taught us Arabic, led efforts to oppose Oregon’s horrible, pioneering anti-gay ballot measure, Measure 9. She was as left as they come in the Oregon public school system, which is saying something. She also loved football and was on the chain gang of every home game, marking the 10 yards for a first down up and down the field so she could be right on top of the action.

“Who is number 11?” She asked in class the following Monday with a bunch of us frosh football players (she knew, because we wore our jerseys the week before, on game day). “Uh, that’s me.” Was I in trouble?

“You knocked the shi…the snot out of that kid. I loved hearing the crunch. Way to ring his bell!” Then she really shocked me and gave me a high-five. Ms. Allen doesn’t give high-fives, right? She does when it comes to football.

Outrage Machine

There are a lot of reasons the public and NFL players seized on one part of Trump’s attack. Ultimately, it was the most powerful white man in the world telling players of color to sit down and shut up. He was ginning up the hatred of his racist base and minimizing the reality of police violence.

But he was also minimizing the violence football has wrought on these players and across the country. The NFL has followed the playbook of Big Tobacco and Big Pollution when it comes to the growing mountains of evidence that football causes long-term brain damage: muddy the waters, say, “More research is needed,” and never admit what everybody knows. The league and the fans could engage with one part of Trump’s NFL commentary and safely ignore the far more inconvenient other.

The context of Trump’s comments about the damn doctors ruining football should shock and disgust us. His “Son of a bitch” statement completely obscured what is likely the biggest story in the history of football.

One day before Trump took the stage in Alabama, researchers from Boston University released their findings after studying Aaron Hernandez’s brain.

Hernandez’s awful story has mostly revolved around the multiple murder charges he faced. He was convicted of one killing, but acquitted of a double-murder in April. Then, improbably, he hung himself with a bed sheet in his prison cell just days after the acquittal. His family donated his brain to the Boston University study that previously found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 out of 111 former NFL players’ brains.

The Exception or the Rule?

Scan of Aaron Hernandez’s brain released by Boston University

Hernandez, 27 at the time of his death, had stage 3 CTE, with holes in his severely atrophied brain. Stage 4 is the most severe, but stage 3 is normally found in former career football players in their 60s or 70s. The condition causes depression, outbursts of rage, people turn uncharacteristically violent and too often, end their own lives.

As researchers learn more, they are finding that CTE acts much like dementia and other degenerative brain diseases. A protein called Tau clumps and spreads across the brain. Though families looking back do note some changes to CTE sufferers in their 20s and 30s, usually cognitive functions are impacted in a person’s 40s and 50s and only later might it progress to change behavior.

A major caveat is that CTE can only be seen in the brain after death since researchers need to slice into the brain to see the damage. Begging the question: Is Hernandez an anomaly, or is he just the first player in his 20s whose brain researchers have been able to study?

Mike Webster, whose autopsy by pathologist Bennet Omalu kicked off the current wave of research was a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974–1990, and died at age 50 in 2002.

Star linebacker Junior Seau shocked fans when he took his own life at age 43, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest. The manner of death was similar to another former player, Dave Duerson, who left a note next to his body requesting his brain be studied. Doctors and Seau’s family initially rejected that head trauma played a role, but eventually they donated his brain to the National Institute of Health study and CTE was confirmed.

Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL. Hernandez played three. He only started in two full seasons of college football and three games his freshman year.

Black Bodies

I’ve been tempted to say that Trump’s remarks on peaceful protest and race are distracting from the truth of CTE. In a way, he lets us off the hook and we can avoid admitting that America’s favorite sport is destroying the brains of its players. Forget the NFL for a moment, high school football is a religion in much of the country and and over 1 million kids age 6–12 play the game each year according to 2015 data.

What if helmet innovation and throwing the flag more often than Trump and his “alpha” men like is not enough to stop CTE? What if the only safe thing to do is drastic, like removing helmets or even pads all together? What if the only reasonable thing to do is ban the sport or at least youth participation?

None of us who love watching or playing the game want it to become something unrecognizable. We want that crunch that my high school teacher loved so much. We want the excitement and fist-pumping that came during a tackling drill when I was 11 and knocked another kid so hard he flew into a nearby chainlink fence and crumpled. The coaches were so jazzed up by my hit they didn’t even notice him. I did.

In a way, the drama of whether players will or won’t kneel is a fulfilling diversion. We can signal virtue that we care about the issues, about “black bodies,” without having to change anything in our world. But to fully separate CTE and race is too miss the obvious connection: both things Trump said about football have to do with black bodies.

African-American men comprise 70% of the players in the NFL. They are six percent of the U.S. population. CTE isn’t interested in race, but with some exceptions on the offensive and defensive lines, players of color fill most of the positions that see the hardest hits, while the primarily white quarterbacks are protected.

Screenshot from The Undefeated

Trump and his followers have a coherent message on race and it cuts across the issues of police violence, peaceful protests and CTE:
Beat the shit out of each other until you die and be grateful for the opportunity. Your bodies are here for our entertainment, and your brains and the ideals within them don’t matter a lick. Keep your mouth shut, Boy.

Kneeling and CTE aren’t separate issues to pitted against each other in a battle for maximum social media attention. They are deeply connected by how we value (or don’t) black men, whether they are being killed by a sport or armed agents of the state; locked in a brain that is atrophying and destroying their families, or a cell through mass incarceration.

The league and the owners can win points by standing with the players against Trump over the right to protest, but they still black-balled Colin Kaepernick. The NFL was so heavy-handed in trying to guide the first major CTE study that the National Institute of Health ended a partnership with the league, rejecting $16 million in NFL funds.

While it’s wrong to simply say, “Kneeling one Sunday and fighting with Trump is a distraction,” it’s nowhere near sufficient for the scale of the crisis. For us white people that seek to be allies, it’s just too damn convenient.

This is a moment of crisis, a moment of conscience.

The family of Aaron Hernandez is suing the NFL and Patriots organization on behalf of his 4-year-old daughter. They may also sue the NCAA. The suit will put the entire sport of football in the dock, and we are hypocrites if we kneel for the anthem, but don’t stand for the players. It’s no longer enough for a person of conscience to say, “It happens in this game.”