On one level, the NFL has to know it found a silver lining in Tom Brady and Ray Rice. In timely fashion, they deflected attention from the league’s potentially devastating long-range problem. Concussions.
Deflated footballs got more attention than damaged brains. That’s because deflated footballs are easy to understand and cause only a temporary kerfuffle.
FOR THE RECORD:
NFL: In a column in the Sept. 22 Sports section about the problem of concussions in the NFL, a production error caused the last name of Dr. Ann McKee to be misspelled as McFee. —
And expect Rice to return to the NFL fairly soon. All we saw on video from a hotel elevator will not be forgiven, but it will certainly be mostly forgotten, especially if you have him on your fantasy football team.
Concussions are the most serious threat to the future of the NFL and its license to print money. But concussions have gone from an “oh-my” story, to “do-I-have-to-read-about-that-again?”
The NFL is a diversion, and pro football fans care more about the point spread than the body count. Players’ health and well-being are not foremost in the minds of people who paint their faces in team colors and call their bookies once a week.
Last week, PBS’ Frontline program continued its groundbreaking work on brain injuries in football by reporting that 87 of 91 — 96% — of deceased NFL players who had their brains tested had been suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a condition caused by repeated brain trauma that impacts emotions and destroys critical thinking.
The tests were performed at VA Boston Healthcare Center on players who had asked — or acted in a way late in life that prompted their families to ask — that their brains be tested post-mortem. The fact that all these brains were volunteered for testing may skew the sample a bit.
Six years ago, when the work of Dr. Ann McKee and the Boston center got its first public airing, people sat up and took notice. Parents who dreamed of their sons smashing through the line for big gains suddenly started dreaming of him marching with a tuba at halftime. Brain injuries to tuba players are rare.
But time has passed and the NFL public relations machine kicked in. Now, we hear mostly about NFL donations to brain-injury causes and settlements to former players identified as in-need.
The work of McKee and others has forced the NFL to take notice and at least change concussion procedures. Coaches now don’t dare send a player who looks woozy back into a game and tell the press afterward that he “just got his bell rung.”
Good first step by the NFL. Dozens more are needed.
Real NFL contrition is nonexistent, and NFL payouts are way short of proper compensation. Its attention to head injuries is driven more by public relations and long-term survival instincts than heartfelt attempts at doing the right thing.
Remember, this is a league that as recently as 2009 was telling the public — the same message it had given its players for 60 years — that there was no connection between football and brain damage. The NFL pretended to listen to McKee, then publicly denied all her research conclusions and treated her so dismissively that it smelled of sexism.
McKee, 62, grew up a tomboy in Appleton, Wis., and played football in her backyard with older brother, Chuck, who became a star quarterback at Lawrence University. She is a Green Bay Packers fan. She doesn’t hate football. She loves it. The NFL Players’ Assn., if it weren’t a self-centered political enigma in its own right, ought to canonize her.
The Players Union, as well as the fans, should be eternally grateful to the likes of the late Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who made sure their brains were in shape to be tested by shooting themselves in the heart. They could no longer take the pain of whatever was going on in their heads.
The players union also ought to be grateful to former player Dave Pear, who runs a blog that never lets stops pounding the NFL; grateful to the likes of Curly Morrison, who will be 89 in two weeks, once a star running back in the days of George Halas, and never stops working the phones for his contemporaries, who, he says sadly, “Are almost all dead now.”
When the most recent story hit about CTE and the 96% finding, it triggered ho-hum reaction. This paper ran three paragraphs. Most others did the same. Most local television newscasts didn’t touch it. After all, Kobe Bryant had just been cleared to play again and sportscasters were goose-bumpy.
That’s exactly what the NFL hopes for, that the concussion story becomes old news, that the public becomes numb to old guys seeking justice — “They knew what they were getting into … — than about a filthy rich league finding a broom and a rug.
Hollywood is about to weigh in. Coming soon is a movie entitled “Concussion.” It stars Will Smith and is about a doctor named Bennet Omalu, who made one of the earliest connections between football and brain damage and was treated like a fumbling tailback by the NFL.
All this having been said, what’s the NFL to do?
Its product is violence. Its bottom line is enhanced by helmet-to-helmet hits played on SportsCenter dozens of times. The NFL fines the players for those. How two faced.
We can send men to the Moon but we can’t design a helmet to protect against scrambled brains?
We know the affects of second concussions, but we can’t sit a player with his first one for the rest of the season?
We can’t make rules, or tighten the drug testing, that would help create jobs for more 250-pound linemen and fewer 320-pounders?
We repeat: The NFL’s product is violence. Any toning down of that, any honest in-house assessment of it and action against it, would be counterproductive to what the league is.
It would murder the bottom line.