Column

NFL's modern-day gladiators pay the price as the crowd roars

As evidence mounts that football is too dangerous to sustain status as national pastime, fans keep cheering

On a cloudless, gentle Sunday afternoon in America's newest football palace, fans gathered on a patio behind the San Francisco 49ers bench to compare jewelry and sip margaritas.

Ten yards away, helmets collided with a sickening thwack and a giant body groaned in agony as it was flattened into the grass.

Everyone cheered. Next play.

After a game at Levi's Stadium ended with the St. Louis Rams beating the San Francisco 49ers earlier this season, disappointed fans became window shoppers, departing wide-eyed through a maze of gleaming restaurants, museum exhibitions and stadium stores that sell souvenir 49ers jerseys.

Far below the concourse, limping players tore off real 49ers jerseys, bloodied and grass-stained. One corner of their locker room was filled with piles of sweat-soaked pads and red-tinged tape. In another corner, a 350-pound man winced and puffed as he struggled to pull his blue jeans over his battered hips. A teammate was wearing a designer business shirt that bulged all over because of the bags of ice taped underneath. As the locker room emptied, someone in a back room shouted as if in terrible pain, yet no one even turned his head.

Welcome to our paradoxical national pastime.

The NFL is America's richest sports venture with about $10 billion in annual revenue. It is also America's favorite gambling habit, as an estimated $50 million is bet every week in Las Vegas alone and an estimated $11 billion a year spent on fantasy football.

All this affection for an ancient and brutal game of gladiators. We loudly cheer as they slowly die.

By popular demand

As the 49th Super Bowl week begins, much will be written about the NFL's popularity.

The most-watched TV series in America this fall was NBC's “Sunday Night Football.” The most-watched TV show in U.S. history was the 2014 Super Bowl with 112 million viewers. The top 21 most-watched television shows in U.S. history were all Super Bowls.

Yet despite all the happy talk this week there will be a set of far more compelling NFL statistics, numbers not about popularity, but mortality. It has become clear that as America crowds around the television to watch its superheroes bang heads, the brains inside those heads are being damaged, leading to dementia and sometimes death.

For 24 years, the opening sequence to “Monday Night Football” involved animated helmets smashing together, resulting in the colorful explosion of the gear and the implication that violence was acceptable. These statistics reveal why, before the 2010 season, that sequence was dropped.

Studies have predicted that nearly 30% of NFL players will develop a serious cognitive issue such as Alzheimer's disease, ALS, Parkinson's or dementia in their lifetimes. There is also a chance that players could have the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is thought to be linked to repetitive brain trauma. According to research at Boston University's CTE Center, evidence of CTE was found in the brains of 76 of 79 deceased players.

The first NFL player discovered to have CTE was legendary Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. He died of an apparent heart attack at age 50 after suffering from dementia and depression; he spent his last years living in a pickup truck and subsisting on dry cereal and potato chips.

“I don't even feel good watching the NFL. The NFL's a mess right now,” said his son, Garrett Webster.

CTE has since been found in the brains of all nine of the retired or active players who have killed themselves since 2010. Among those was Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau and former Super Bowl champion safety Dave Duerson, both of whom shot themselves in the chest after retirement. This list includes Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who, while still an active player, shot and killed his girlfriend and then drove to the team's training facility and shot himself to death in the parking lot in front of his coaches.

Living players who have been diagnosed with CTE include Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure and running back Tony Dorsett, who said he struggled to remember why he was flying from Dallas to Los Angeles for the test.

All of this has led to more than 5,000 former players filing a class-action concussion lawsuit against the NFL that has been tentatively settled for about $950 million.

Looking other way

Perhaps the only thing more alarming than those damaging statistics is that fans haven't really paid attention to them. The public continues to view the violent collisions as entertaining ignoring the danger it presents. The loudest cheers during any game are usually for the biggest hits. A player's life can be unalterably damaged in a single moment, yet that moment is routinely met with wild applause.

When that same sort of violence erupts in a player's personal life, fans pay brief attention before quickly turning back to the kickoff. This fall, during the same week the nation viewed the video of former Baltimore star running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an elevator, a game featuring the Ravens without Rice attracted 20.8 million viewers to CBS and the NFL Network. It was the largest prime-time Thursday night audience in more than eight years. In the stands in Baltimore, many fans wore Ray Rice jerseys, and some of those fans were women.

Even the active players themselves seem unconcerned about the effect of concussions, as they often brag about lying to sideline doctors to avoid being removed from the game after a blow to the head. At last Sunday's NFC championship game Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson endured a brutal blow to the head by the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. Upon reaching the sideline, Wilson spoke to Seahawks doctors for less than a minute.

“At my signal, unleash hell,” says Russell Crowe's Maximus in “Gladiator,” and for 17 weeks during the fall, that's what happens in the NFL, and we love it.

But, slowly, fear over the effects of football is gnawing at the game's edges. It is much like the fear that eventually consumed America's first real national sports pastime, boxing. The more that is known about the long-term effects of football, the more tenuous its grip will become, perhaps mirroring America's once-close relationship with tobacco.

Speaking to a football academy in 2013, Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney said he feels the sport could eventually disappear, saying, “The game is becoming more deadly today. . . . I think it's the greatest game if you like gladiators. . . . I can see in the next 10 to maybe 20 years, society will [eliminate] football altogether.”

Powerful voices

The most powerful political and sports figures in the United States have also spoken out, and their verdict is clear — they are hesitant about children playing football.

“I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” President Obama told the New Republic in 2013.

Basketball star LeBron James, who has two young boys, agreed.

“Only basketball, baseball and soccer are allowed in my house,” James told ESPN. “It's a safety thing. As a parent you protect your kids as much as possible. I don't think I'm the only one that's not allowing his kids to play football.”

Even one of America's most enduring symbols of football toughness, “Iron” Mike Ditka, the legendary former player and coach for the Chicago Bears, now fears the effects of the game. In an interview on HBO's “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” he was asked, if he had a young son, would he let him play football?

“Nope. That's sad. I wouldn't. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do,” Ditka said.

According a recent Bloomberg Politics poll of 1,001 adults, 50% of Americans do not want their sons to play football, and the numbers are supported by declining participation at the grass-roots levels.

From 2010 to 2012, participation in the Pop Warner youth football program declined nearly 10%. According to Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of its medical advisory committee, the main reason is parents' concern over head injuries.

The fears increase in high school, in which football has the most catastrophic injuries of any sport, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. There were eight high school football deaths reported in 2013, according to their most recent study. This fall there were three recorded deaths in one seven-day period, highlighting how tragedy is slowly becoming an everyday part of the sport.

Isaiah Langston, 17, died in North Carolina after collapsing during a pregame warmup. An autopsy report listed the cause of a death as “complications . . . due to blunt force injury of the head and neck.”

Demario Harris Jr., 17, died in Alabama two days after collapsing on the field after a head-jarring tackle.

Tom Cutinella, a 16-year-old from suburban New York, died shortly after suffering a head injury in a game in what school officials called “a typical football play.”

Those fears have led to a startling drop in high school football participation, particularly in California. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, in a six-year period between 2007 and 2013, nearly 5,000 fewer students were playing 11-person high school football in California even though only four fewer schools fielded a team. The trend is mirrored nationwide over the same time frame, with about 40,000 fewer players and about 1,000 fewer schools.

Pastime's paradox

The paradox facing America's love for this deadly sport could be seen on a recent Sunday at a La Cañada fire station. With an NFL game on TV in the background, firefighter Joe Hanes talked about a decision to end his 12-year-old son Noah's Pop Warner career after two seasons and forbid him to play tackle football again.

“It all started adding up and finally it was like, ‘What am I doing?'” Hanes said.

After being called to treat numerous football injuries, as well as watching those injuries occur while serving as the team trainer, Hanes decided the sport was just too dangerous.

“I love football and the teamwork and camaraderie and what it did for my son,” Hanes said. “But the risk versus the reward just wasn't there.”

Hanes said he would care for children who vomited on the field after a hard hit to the head, children who couldn't focus, children who wobbled to the sideline before crumpling to the ground.

Just like their NFL heroes.

“These kids are little gladiators, they are hitting hard, and you just don't know the long-term effects,” Hanes said. “I realized there are other ways for my son to learn camaraderie, like in water polo and baseball.”

While the NFL vocally shares the concern of Hanes and millions of other parents, it continues to peddle the type of savagery it professes to oppose. At the NFL's official store, the league sells a DVD celebrating the game's violence . It's called “Moment of Impact,” and is described in one review: “Suddenly you're down and you're looking through your helmet's ear hole. Pain? That's for tomorrow morning.”

And the next morning. And the next morning.

Twitter: @billplaschke

Times staff writer Nathan Fenno contributed to this report.

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