The League

Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

Let the Hearings Begin


The Congressional hearings on NFL brain injuries that begin today should be fascinating, gruesome, and possibly momentous. Concern about injuries is nearly as old as football itself in this country. Even casual fans likely know that the NCAA was created in 1905 after President Theodore Roosevelt himself declared that the game had become too brutal. The new rules (including legalization of the forward pass) that were instituted for the 1906 season did not in fact make football less dangerous, but the game has survived for more than a century despite periodic outbreaks of concern about injuries.

This one's different.

Football players have always died from injuries, but these deaths have usually seemed to be isolated cases. After 18 or 19 (at all levels) died in 1905, the total dropped to 11 in 1906 but leapt to 26 in 1909. Thirty-one died in 1931, among the more than 200 over the course of that decade. Between 1931 and 1965 an average of 17 died each year directly from football injuries, another 8.5 indirectly. ("Indirect" deaths would include Korey Stringer's heat stroke in 2001.) From 1966 through 2008, the annual average dropped to 9.4 direct deaths and rose slightly to 9.2 indirect ones. (These data are collected each year by the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.) With the exceptions in 1905, 1909 and 1931, these deaths provoked no sense of crisis. There has been no serious call to abolish football as too violent since 1905.

Each football-related death is shocking, but most of them have happened on sandlots and high school fields, outside the interest of the national media. Rashes of injuries in the NFL have received more attention over the years, though only sporadically. Since the 1990s, a number of surveys and investigative reports have called attention to the arthritic spines and hip or knee replacements with which former NFL players are limping through retirement. But the story in recent days about the long-term damage to former NFL players' brains has been an altogether different matter from both the occasional fatalities and the too-common physical disabilities. The prospect of dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment is more chilling than the reminders that aging football players are hobbling about on crippled limbs even with chronic pain. Loss of the mind, rather than loss of the use of a limb, seems more like a loss of human identity.

Is the survival of the NFL at risk in these Congressional hearings? I doubt it, if only because at this point the extent of the problem is a matter of speculation and projection from a limited number of cases. As we have been constantly reminded, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can be diagnosed only after death. Neuropathologists who have examined the tissue of sixteen or seventeen brains might estimate that 20 percent or more of former NFL players will be afflicted by CTE, but they will need to see hundreds more brains before they can know if they are right.

Is the future of the NFL at stake in these hearings? Absolutely. Violence is not incidental but fundamental to the appeal of the game. Not violence alone, or in itself, but violence in tension with beauty, artistry -- call this other side what you will, it's equally important. Think of the signature elements of an NFL Films highlight: a series of lyrical, balletic moves by running backs and receivers, followed by a series of collisions punctuated by explosively popping pads and grunting linebackers. Put the two together -- in the same play if possible -- and you have NFL football. Back in 1905, Teddy Roosevelt (and many others for whom he was a spokesman) wanted football to be safer but not too safe. Its roughness was deemed essential to the valuable lessons it could teach. Over the 1950s and 1960s, professional football went from being a near-cousin of professional wrestling to the number-one American spectator sport. At the same time, what sportswriters began calling the "sanctioned savagery" or "controlled violence" of "Sunday gladiators" came to be seen as an antidote to the dull conformity of modern life. That appeal hasn't diminished as those "gladiators" have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger.

If the game were safer, I don't think that it would become less popular, so long as it didn't seem safer, or at least too much safer. The NFL has already been doing what it can to protect quarterbacks, reduce the use of the helmet as a weapon, eliminate clothesline tackles and head-slaps and so on. Surely it should continue doing what it can, but it can only do so much. The modern high-tech helmet has become a lethal weapon, perhaps more lethal to the one wearing it than the one hit by it. Eliminate helmets and pads, and you'd have a safer game. Like rugby. But it wouldn't be American football. Should we try leather helmets again?

The NFL's major challenge before Congress lies in the fact that the burgeoning evidence of long-term brain damage is not a sports issue but a national health issue, like black lung for miners. When the issue was former players' crippling injuries, I was uncertain whether the NFL or NFLPA should be held responsible. What other employer, I thought to myself, had to provide life-long health insurance for employees after as few as three or four years of employment? On the other hand, if those few years caused life-long physical disabilities, didn't the NFL and NFLPA bear some responsibility? On the other hand, after years of entitlement, don't retired athletes have to become responsible for themselves? On the other hand...

I have no ambivalence about the published research on brain trauma. It's hard to hold someone personally accountable who cannot process basic information. And there is something utterly horrific about athletes who earn hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars -- while generating billions more for the TV networks and the NFL -- becoming mentally incapacitated by the experience. Who cannot be haunted by thinking of Steve Young or Troy Aikman, all-pro quarterbacks retiring early due to too many concussions, now reading about the potential long-term consequences of that brain trauma.

The NFL and NFLPA are one on this issue. They are partners, not adversaries, in depending on the continued financial thriving of professional football. Are they "morally" responsible for the athletes who pass through the NFL for a few years? Set morality aside, as an unnecessarily complicating factor. Self-interest alone should dictate their responses to the current crisis. And it seems a crisis to me, even should it prove temporary. The NFL has embarrassed itself by denying disability benefits after independent diagnoses showed a correlation. Still the league denied the credibility of neurological evidence (too little) and surveys of former players (too unreliable), even the results of its own funded study. This is the NFL, an organization otherwise obsessed with its brand, acting like Big Tobacco. Were I Roger Goodell, I would be instructing everyone who represents the league before Congress to fall all over themselves expressing deep concern about the findings of researchers thus far. Further, he should pour more funding into truly independent research and promise that they will accept the judgments of independent neurologists as the basis for disability payments, while continuing to strive in every way possible to make the game safer, and imagining every other way possible to assure not just Congress but also the American public that they put players' well-being before mere profits. Whether or not this is morally necessary, it would be good business for the NFL.

Talk about the position the NFL should take before the subcommittee leaves unanswered the question whether 20 percent, or some such number, of NFL players will end up with dementia or similar brain disorders. That's the all-important question, but it won't be answered definitively in these hearings or for some time. In the meantime, current players are not likely to surrender their shot at millions on the chance that they will have cognitive problems twenty or thirty years later. The games will go on (though the pipeline of future NFL players might well contract). But it's in the self-interest of all of us to find an answer to that all-important question as quickly as possible.

By Michael Oriard  |  October 28, 2009; 7:46 AM ET  | Category:  Concussions , Medical , Roger Goodell Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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One simple rule change would quickly reduce the size and speed of the players. Go back to the limited substitution two-way style of play abandoned by the NFL in the 50's. In a few short seasons the rosters would be full of smaller "endurance" type players.

Posted by: PatD1 | October 28, 2009 1:44 PM

Why is Congress involved? This is a private business, doesn't Congress have more important things to do, like balance the budget, deciding on health car, a couple of wars going on!!!! I agree this is a problem but is this the correct venue???

Posted by: dayle1 | October 28, 2009 10:32 PM

dayle1 @ October 28, 2009 10:32 PM: Congress is involved because it gave the NFL exemption from the anti-trust laws. That in turn has made the NFL the financial powerhouse and cash-cow it is.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 29, 2009 9:46 AM

Bread and Circuses. Congress, wasting the time paid for by taxpayers (nothing new here), is equivalent to the Roman Senate being concerned about the deaths and injuries sustained in the arena by gladiators. Professional athletes, NFL or otherwise, are the modern equivalent of gladiators, with the important distinction of having been free to choose their profession. When they made the choice, they assumed the risks associated with it. I would rather have the government get more effectively involved with real employment safety issues. What a dismal history they have with regard to mining safety measures (ever heard of Black Lung?) and other issues of public safety that involve not only employment, but travel and transportation. Are the modern gladiators, combined with trillions in social welfare spending, the current version of Bread and Circuses? Is this the reason the current regime needs to concern itself with football safety? Are they really afraid that the players will opt out of the game? Why, that would imply a level of intelligence exceeding that of the average legislator in Washington. Truly, all they want to do is play on until the fat lady sings.

Posted by: tkmenzie | October 29, 2009 10:47 AM

The real circus isn't the NFL, it's the congress which is poking into sports not because it actually cares, but rather it makes them look like they're doing something.

Rest assured, they are not.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | November 4, 2009 10:12 PM

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