Hypocrisy and the Great American Game

WEB-football concussion-Mark Burnham

In the Line of Fire

The thirtieth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, tight end Dustin Keller, had a solid and somewhat productive career with the New York Jets before finding a limited market for his services after hitting free agency this offseason. It’s a known reality of life in the NFL, in which veterans who don’t happen to play quarterback often find the open market to be tough and resistant to doling out big money contracts. Keller opted to sign with the division rival Miami Dolphins on a lucrative one-year contract, the classic “prove it” variety demanding he deliver a big season before any further investment be made.

During a preseason game on August 17 versus the Houston Texans, Keller made a catch going towards the sidelines with his back turned towards oncoming rookie safety D.J. Swearinger, who drove low for the tackle. The hit dropped Keller to the turf, screaming all the way down, and brought the game to one of those gruesome and depressingly familiar standstills where a hushed crowd watches in pained silence as a player is carted off the field, heads bowed and fingers crossed.

For all the good vibes sent his way, Keller’s worst fears were realized: his knee was dislocated, his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) all torn to shreds. The hit ended his season as the Dolphins placed him on Injured Reserve three days later. More depressingly for the young man, the violent collision could conceivably jeopardize his career.

The off-field fracas that played out in the media over the weeks following has been fascinating and, when framed in a larger context, perfectly describes the macabre conundrum players face every time they strap on their helmets and step onto the field of play — the very real physical cost of doing business.

Swearinger was contrite and apologetic given the devastating extent of Keller’s injuries in an interview with ESPN.com, but proclaimed innocence. “ . . . I had like three helmet-to-helmet [penalties in his senior year of college]” he said. “I knew I had to change my style of play and start targeting low.

Over the last few years there has been a renewed and intense scrutiny on hits to the head in all sports. But football in particular, in part due to its lofty status, has borne the brunt of a concerned public. The major American leagues have therefore moved swiftly to address some of these fears, including those voiced by the President himself.

A rule passed this offseason in the NFL outlawing offensive and defensive players from using the crown of their helmet to deliver a blow in the open field to either tackle or “finish a run,” in the parlance of the game. “Unnecessary roughness” penalties are often enforced when defensive players are deemed to have targeted the head of an offensive player when making a tackle. Fines and short suspensions generally follow, with escalators attached for repeat offenders.

The NCAA also enacted a new rule this season with a zero-tolerance policy that expels “targeting” offenders from a game with a subsequent short-term ban. The bounty scandal, zealously pursued by the NFL last season against the New Orleans Saints, was in part driven by the hysterical desire of the league to ensure its continued popularity by aggressively maintaining its illusion of safety and its willingness to aggressively crack down on presumed violators.

The issue with all of this? Football, like most contact sports, isn’t safe — nor will it ever be. And, oddly enough, that’s part of its appeal.

The lure of the NFL, unlike most other mainstream team sports (discounting promotions such as boxing, MMA and wrestling), has always been its barely-contained and simmering violence that threatens to froth over at every snap. The big, bone-rattling hit has been elevated to mythical proportions. Dick “Night Train” Lane, a Hall of Fame defensive back who played from 1952-1965, was a legendary practitioner of hits that today would be considered excessively violent and extremely dirty, yet he is feted as one of the greatest players at his position in the history of football.

NEWS-quotation marksGuys get hit sometimes. That’s what we all know coming into the game.”

– Aldon Smith, outside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers

Dan Daly, a sports correspondent for The Washington Post, epitomized this disregard and obsession with violence with an almost incredulous justification. “You have to understand that most of those hits were not illegal when he [Lane] played the game,” Daly reasoned in Top 10 Most Feared Tacklers, a documentary for NFL Films. It was this violence that kept the NFL from fully displacing the far more gentlemanly game of baseball as America’s pastime until more recent years, and it is this obsession with the same violence that has seen the league’s popularity explode into the stratosphere over the last few decades.

NFL Films has been one of the more instrumental tools in building the league’s brand, and a big part of its draw has been to illustrate the barbarism and savagery of the NFL today — and all its yesterdays — with a visually lyrical brush. Players became hewn as larger-than-life figures chiseled from granite and marble.

Violent and dangerous hitters and hits have been canonized. Coaches are generals, stadiums are warzones and players are warriors locked in a struggle that symbolizes life, death and perseverance against all odds. It’s a hell of a marketing tool, and it is the way the league has sold its history that set the stage for Keller’s knee to be blown out.

Legislation has been introduced and enforced with the desire to make the game safer for all, but has nevertheless drawn much derision from players former and current. Many feel that the very fabric of the game has been altered, to its detriment.  Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, blasted the crown of the helmet rule as “absurd.” Smith, whose career was one of those rare instances of a player managing to avoid a significant injury throughout, bemoaned that we would “start to see players run out of bounds,” as though that were the worst thing in the world.

You see, in the hyper-masculine coliseum that is the NFL, only “wimps” and “sissies” shy from physical contact. In this league, you either hit or are hit. This is why the blowback on Swearinger’s justification for his hit on Keller is startling. To be fair, it is an unwritten code of moral conduct in football between players to avoid tackling one another in the knees for fear of causing injury. But the speed of the game demands split-second decisions while providing such little margin for error that a targeted hip can turn into a knee or head within a heartbeat as the ball carrier pivots or ducks his shoulder to absorb the blow.

This ‘low versus high’ debate has no satisfactory way of being concluded, as defensive players are more focused on making sure the tackle is made; otherwise, they run the very real risk of being out of a job the following week. But this didn’t limit the vitriol Swearinger was bombarded with.

Tony Gonzales, a hugely respected tight end for the Atlanta Falcons who is destined for the Hall of Fame, was particularly caustic in an interview for USA Today. “That [hit] was ridiculous . . . it should be a finable offense,” he fumed, continuing, “any player who does that . . . I have no respect for that.” The most jaw dropping part of Gonzales’ rant, however, was this gem: “ . . . hitting a defenseless player in the knee . . . that’s my nightmare. Hit me in my head.”

Modern Gladiators

The biggest impetus driving the NFL’s sudden obsession with shots to the head stems from the recently settled class action lawsuit launched by hundreds of former players suffering from degenerative cognitive issues; conditions the players allege stem from repeated traumatic head injuries incurred while playing in the NFL.

Over the last few years, Dave Duerson (a safety for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s) and Junior Seau (a linebacker for the Chargers and Patriots who had a 20-plus year career and a likely Hall of Fame inductee) were among a number of former players who committed suicide. Their families and friends reported significant changes in them prior to their suicides — depression, mood swings and increasingly erratic behaviour — this escalated concern.

A few months prior to his death, Seau made nationwide headlines when he drove off a cliff. He survived with minor injuries, and explained away the incident publicly and privately by claiming to have fallen asleep at the wheel. Whisperings and rumours that it was a suicide attempt remained unsubstantiated until Seau put a single bullet through his own heart.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Seau’s close friend and former teammate Aaron Taylor gave the public a chilling glimpse into Seau’s tortured psyche: “He was a beaten-down man. His confidence was gone. He seemed worn-out. It was hard for him to articulate coherent thoughts. There was a degradation of the dude that I remember playing with.”

Seau’s family joined the class action lawsuit after the post-mortem examination revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition that is rooted in sustaining repetitive blows to the head and concussive forces. A joint-study performed by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Veteran Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Sports Legacy Institute identified CTE in the brains and spinal cords of 68 deceased athletes and military veterans donated by their families. Thirty-four had played at the NFL level.

Given this information, Gonzales’ willingness to sustain shots to the head as opposed to his knees, to the casual viewer, borders on the ridiculous. Such a mindset flies directly in the face of this class action lawsuit, in which the former players allege the NFL did not adequately alert them to the dangers of concussions and sub-concussive hits to the head nor provide sufficient medical treatment. We live in a golden age of medical research, and it is indubitable that Gonzales knows those risks. However he, like a number of his peers, chooses freely to embrace them.

Chris Carter, a Hall of Fame wide receiver, argued on Swearinger’s behalf on ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown, insisting that low hits would be an unfortunate part of what he termed “the new NFL” before he was interrupted by Mike Ditka, who echoed Gonzales’ assertion. “I understand nobody wants concussions,” Ditka said almost sheepishly on air, “but I’d rather get hit in the head. Sorry, guys.” This is even more mind-boggling when you consider that Ditka was Dave Duerson’s coach when the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985.

This gladiator instinct and mindset of alpha-dog supremacism runs rampant across all sports, and is not singular to the NFL. Rick Rypien’s suicide was as startling as it was tragic. The death of Derek Boogaard, another young man lost before his time, was highly publicized. Both men embraced the roles of ‘enforcers’ or ‘bangers;’ the type of guys on the bottom of the roster who were tasked almost exclusively with energetically physical play and protecting the health of their star teammates. Both deaths are considered to be at least in part related to the post-traumatic effects of hits to the head.

This is not to say that authority figures such as the NFL, NHL and NCAA are completely innocent or divorced of responsibility when it comes to diagnosing and treating concussions.

The case of Preston Plevretes, whose family was awarded $7.5 million in a settlement from the NCAA, springs to mind.

Then 18 year-old Plevretes enrolled at La Salle in 2005, and had his future vanish in a blur of violence. Plevretes suffered a concussion in practice and, despite repeated headaches and impaired vision, was cleared to play in a game a scant two weeks later. He suffered a second, sickening blow that ended his career — and almost his life. A third of his skull was removed by emergency room doctors to remove the pressure induced by subdural swelling. His right frontal lobe was disconnected from the rest of his brain four years later to halt repeated seizures that he suffered. He can barely speak now, and requires round-the-clock assistance.

Football is not safe, nor will it ever be — and that’s part of the appeal.

There’s nothing to say that Plevretes was strong-armed into returning to the field of course; ultimately, the decision to play was his own. But in a sport where sacrifice for the team is considered mandatory and evident of manhood, the players themselves are wary of making unpopular decisions protecting their own interests for the fear of being labeled ‘selfish’ by their teammates and fans alike.

Football coaches are partially deified as the ultimate authority figures; therefore, they and the team’s medical staffs are responsible for preserving the lives and futures of the young men entrusted to their care. Shockingly in this case, there were no efforts whatsoever to evaluate Plevretes’ mental status prior to clearing him to return to contact. In a deposition provided by La Salle’s trainer, he stated that he gave Plevretes no recall questions, memory tests or cognitive evaluations at all. Why? Because the guidelines in place (at the time) stated that he didn’t have to.

The Plevretes family now lives on a farm, which allows Preston to drive a small utility vehicle — the singular joy he has left in his life other than football (which he still watches religiously). Preston Plevretes’ broken body was chewed up and spit out by a sport that he still loves even as it marches on, leaving him behind with innumerable athletes who are forced to piece their lives together once the cameras stop flashing.

It makes running out of bounds, which Emmitt Smith sneered at, seem like a brilliant plan. Indeed, it is the only logical plan to avoid injuries from piling up as former athletes are squeezed through the meat grinder. The same athletes who have launched legal challenges at the NFL (one would have to assume the NHL will face a similar epidemic of its own soon) need to, essentially, be protected from themselves, and need a strong team with the wherewithal to tell them “no,” even when such a move is unpopular. But first, they need that team to have the same wherewithal to prioritize their health and safety ahead of winning.

However, we cannot completely lift responsibility from the players. The raging debate over whether fighting should be outlawed in today’s NHL is a prime example of the ‘history’ and ‘character of the game’ being prioritized at the expense of the players by the players themselves. Here’s a thought: if hockey players didn’t want to suffer from the ill effects of potential brain trauma associated with fighting, why don’t they stop fighting?

Given what we know today about the severity and significance of concussions, it doesn’t seem like a stretch that the players would unilaterally and informally reject fighting. But it is so tightly enjoined within the story of the game that the players of today, brought up in a much more lax time with respect to physical violence, consider it a vital element despite its independence from the sport’s specific skill sets and goals (such as, you know, to score goals).

All Part of the Game

How do we as fans, knowing what we know now, continue to enjoy the game of football? For that matter, why hockey? Why do we excitedly discuss watching an athlete’s eyes roll back into his head after a perfectly placed kick in a UFC octagon knocks him out cold? As much as the athletes themselves embrace the role of gladiators, we as fans are equally responsible for goading them on to commit increasingly spectacular feats of violence.

On the opening night of this college football season, a wide receiver from Vanderbilt was hit so hard that he wobbled through one more play before vomiting on the field. Instead of looking on in horror, the shot caused a social media eruption, especially after the same receiver came back into the game on the same series and caught a 45-yard catch and run that set up a go-ahead touchdown. Those stories, which should be of incredibly misplaced priorities, are instead rebranded as incredible acts of heroism, and re-affirm our love affair with human bodies being pulverized.

Consider Lawrence Taylor, the fabled New York Giants linebacker and one of the most feared men in the league who delighted in boasting that, “In football, you can always maim a person if you [want] to.”

Sports are not safe and they never will be safe, regardless of the repeated and creative attempts of their governing bodies to make them so. In an article for PolicyMic, George Thomas insisted that we as fans were not obligated to draw a line in the sand when it came to violence in football. Instead, our comfort levels could be defined by where we draw the line.

This is pure fantasy. As a consumer, you can either choose to watch a sport where up to 10 per cent of the athletes may suffer a concussion in a given season or, in good conscience, elect to change the channel.

In settling the aforementioned class action lawsuit to the tune of 765 million dollars (a number that appears staggering but is a drop in the bucket for a hilariously profitable league), the NFL has attempted to continue their re-branding process. As much as NFL Films sells the game as a nobly violent sport, the league is also trying to appear safer, and convince parents at home that they will be doing everything they conceivably can to make sure their kids will be okay.

To reassure fans at home that their favourite players (infallible heroes all) will still be available for their fantasy team next week. As the ‘Back to Football’ slogan goes, the NFL hopes that we as fans ignore the nasty stuff, that we swallow and ignore our own culpability in the degradation of the bodies of athletes, and continue to buy merchandise.

I question why I watch football as much as I do (and I do somewhat obsessively). Casual fans and those unfamiliar to the game often remark that the game looks like a display of chickens racing around with their heads cut off and running into one another for two minutes before a five-minute block of commercials is plunked into the broadcast.

That’s a fair criticism (though its validity, for me, is questionable), but the game’s appeal to me is hinged in dual parts on its tactical complexity and the sheer degree of athletic skill that enacts voluminous game plans.

It’s an inherently violent game but I can’t help but love it, and if my child one day asked to join their atom league, I would let them. I’d probably end up watching with gritted teeth and clenched fists, but I can’t imagine myself discouraging their enthusiasm for it or any other sport. On the flip side, there are many professional football players — current and former — who insist that they wouldn’t allow their kids to play the game. That’s their prerogative.

My relationship with the game and league is one of love and frustration, because as much as it bothers me that Washington’s team name is considered a racial slur, and that HBO’s Hard Knocks takes us inside medical treatment rooms as no-name free agents and low end draft picks suffer catastrophic injuries only to be provided a pittance of an injury settlement, the spin of a perfectly-thrown football down the seam to a leaping receiver in the end zone is unbelievably seductive.

We as fans are responsible for goading players on to commit increasingly spectacular feats of violence.

Ed Reed, a hard-hitting safety who made his name and career in Baltimore, was especially contemplative as he faced media scrums before the Super Bowl last year. Of course, the subject of concussions came up, and Reed was particularly frank in this exchange with a reporter (reprinted from Grantland):

“I feel effects from it. Some days, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Where did my memory go?’ But I signed up for it.”

“Did Junior Seau sign up for it?”

“Yeah, he signed up for it. Junior gave everything he has to football. I’m sure he’s looking down now and has no regrets.”

It is this waffling in players themselves, an inability to make a concrete decision on what is best for their health right now, the desire to play tough, to be tough, that inspires them to take risks that they do. Football rosters are most often dominated by incredibly athletic kids from small towns and rural areas who are inspired by a dream they see on TV, a chance at a better life. To obtain a college education they may never otherwise have an opportunity to receive. To drag themselves, and their families, out of poverty.

Quite simply, our almost existential struggle with the game is irrelevant. Whether legislation within the game encourages low or high hits is also irrelevant. The long-term impact of concussions and mounting injuries is simply part of the Faustian pact they willingly make.

Aldon Smith, a third-year pro bowl linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, was succinct in the way he summarized the risks players willingly take to play in front of a global audience for ESPN.com. “It’s not like we signed up and thought we were going to play tennis. It’s a physical game . . . and guys get hit sometimes. That’s what we all know coming into the game. We all signed up for it.

“We came out to play football.”