Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
Football fans around the nation are feeling the excitement grow as we again approach the NFL Football season. They are avidly watching their favorite team’s pre-season games, checking out the new rookies and preparing for their various fantasy football leagues by analyzing league rosters. NFL Football has become the preferred sport of the country and generates many billions of dollars. It is our budding empire’s version of the gladiator battles in the various Roman Coliseums that were spread across the Empire as a palliative to an enslaved populace. While it is true that the Roman Gladiator battles usually ended only by the death and dismemberment of the “losers”, the news of the physical and mental costs to pro football players has begun to receive more publicity of late. This is due to the realization of the lasting damage done by football head trauma referred to broadly as concussions. As someone who has watched the National Football League for perhaps 60 years the idea of a concussion is one that is intertwined with the sport itself. For much of that time while it was discussed openly by the game announcers, analysts and sports journalists, in truth they all made light of them and players themselves would cheerfully discuss “getting clocked” or “having their bell rung.” The players thus injured who would insist on returning to the game were seen as “real men” and “heroes” for their fortitude. Then too coaches concerned with winning would tell them to “man up” and their teammates opprobrium for them “relaxing” on the sidelines would add peer pressure to continue to play even through their disorientation and head pain.
As the sport grew and outpaced baseball as the nation’s “national pastime,” like the gladiators of old players became heroes with nationwide celebrity. Many noted how some retired players from era’s past seemed to die relatively early in life, especially considering that to play football one must be an excellent physical specimen. As fans we were also aware how many of our heroes’ sustained injuries that in their retirement rendered them somewhat physically disabled for life, but merely made passing note of this reality, rather than feel discomfort at what this violent sport was doing to those who played it for our entertainment. The truth is that football fans and football professionals celebrated the violence of the game, even while shedding “crocodile tears” for player carted off the field with terrible injuries. Coaches and players talked about the exultation one felt when they made a jarring hit upon another player. It was common in interviews for players to talk of the joy they felt “making contact”, a minor euphemism for hitting or being hit with jarring intensity. We are to my way of thinking no more evolved than those Roman Citizens who would excitedly vote “thumbs down” on whether a losing gladiator should receive the killing blow. Our social norms require that we “feel sad” about a terrible injury, but if it occurs to an opposing player and affects our teams prospects, only the most unaware would deny that in the back of their mind they are calculating what this injury will mean. Our consciences are salved by the fact that many football players get paid enormous sums of money for their skills and so from a legal perspective one might say there is an assumption of risk. I want to examine this “assumption of risk” and discuss the implications that it has for NFL, the players and for us the fans.Last year at this time, which coincides with the beginning of the NFL regular season, I wrote a guest blog that dealt with the “lockout” of NFL Officials and Referees, which had just ended after a debacle of a call on Monday Night Football. It was titled: “The NFL and What’s Wrong with America”:
https://jonathanturley.org/2012/09/29/the-nfl-and-whats-wrong-with-america/#more-54904 My premise was that the NFL as an entity of our Corporatist State was a microcosm of how this country has fallen under the control of a wealthy elite. As I’ve written many times my belief is that this “elite” seeks to establish in our country, if not the world, a modern version of the medieval feudalistic governance, with them as a new kind of nobility. This quote sums up my thoughts in the piece:
“The NFL as an organization is a member of the corporate elite, as are most of their team owners. They vie for Corporate wealth to buy luxury boxes at their stadiums and they mostly share an educational and social background with those plutocrats. What I think the Dean misses in analysis is that “Capital”, (i.e. the 1%) doesn’t really hold “Talent” in high regard either. “Capital” loathes talent because “Talent” has skills that allow them to treat “Capital” without the deference “Capital” thinks is due them. How dare these “upstarts” try to get the better of me and my money they think?
Think about it. Why do billionaires like Bob Kraft (New England Patriots) and Woody Johnson (NY Jets) buy these teams? Sure they probably love football, but I believe there is also a psychological factor at play. To put it into somewhat gross terms human males have spent eons obsessed with whose penis is larger. We all know that this is mostly a metaphor for who has power over other males, or who is the Alpha? When you own a football team you are the boss to at least fifty male behemoths, who wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t been exceptionally Alpha males. When you’re the “Boss” that means that all your employees are subordinate to you. After awhile, or maybe even initially, given the egos at play, the “Boss” begins to see himself as the central figure on his team. Players and Coaches come and go, but the “Boss” remains in control. Players and Coaches are seen as just as “disposable” as the “Labor” that Dean Roger Martin http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/opinion/the-nfl-strike-and-modern-economy.html?_r=0 talks about. The demands of this “Talent” strike the “Boss” as effrontery and the “Boss” begins to believe that these “ingrates” to his munificence should be taught a lesson. This was really what the threatened “lockout” in the NFL last year was about. The leagues income kept rising, even terribly managed teams are being well rewarded and yet the NFL demanded “givebacks” from its players and to some extent got them. This was more than greed. This was a demonstration of penis size and a reminder to “Talent” of their place in the hierarchy.”
To me the NFL’s prominence can be seen as a metaphor for the changes that have come to American society. This was brought home to me by a news item that I came across this week that dealt with how the NFL had intervened to stop the partnership between sports network leader ESPN and the PBS investigative series “Frontline”, in producing a documentary on head injuries in the NFL:
“Pressure from the National Football League led to ESPN’s decision on Thursday to pull out of an investigative project with “Frontline” regarding head injuries in the N.F.L., according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, pays the N.F.L. more than $1 billion a year to broadcast “Monday Night Football,” a ratings juggernaut and cherished source of revenue for Disney. “Frontline,” the PBS public affairs series, and ESPN had been working for 15 months on a two-part documentary, to be televised in October. But ESPN’s role came under intense pressure by the league, the two people said, after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6, the day that the project was discussed at a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/sports/football/nfl-pressure-said-to-prompt-espn-to-quit-film-project.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&smid=tw-nytimes&partner=rss&emc=rss
The background for this is the fact that there are currently about 200, representing 4,000 former NFL players. Their contention is that the NFL hid information about head trauma from its players to both keep them on the field playing and to also limit its own liability for the injuries caused by this violent sport. From the perspective of the multi-billion dollar injury that the NFL has become these lawsuits, if successful could severely damage their “bottom line” and also expose the sport for the modern day gladiatorial contests it truly is. The repercussion of these lawsuits being successful would ripple through the entire structure of the football world, down through the college football, high school football and PeeWee football etc. About 6 months ago I heard Harry Carson, the great New York Giants linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer say that had he known about the seriousness of the head trauma he wouldn’t have played football and that he wouldn’t let his young grandson play the game. Clearly there are multi-billions of dollars to be lost and these lawsuits threaten not only those directly in the “football business”, but also those corporations that use football to promote their products.
With the advent of this “head trauma” awareness the NFL has tried to get “out in front” of the potential damage by instituting its own research into making the game safer, while at the same time downplaying its own role in ignoring what has been known to be a serious problem in their game. Let’s look at some particular stories:
“Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau Jr. (/ˈseɪ.aʊ/; January 19, 1969 – May 2, 2012) was a linebacker in the National Football League (NFL). Known for his passionate playing style, he was a 10-time All-Pro, 12-time Pro Bowl selection, and named to the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.
Originally from San Diego, California, Seau played college football at the University of Southern California (USC). He was taken by the San Diego Chargers as the fifth overall pick of the 1990 NFL Draft. Seau started for 13 seasons for the Chargers before being traded to the Miami Dolphins, where he spent three years before four final ones with the New England Patriots.
Seau retired from pro football after the 2009 season. A standout on San Diego’s only Super Bowl team, he was later inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame and the team retired his number 55. Seau committed suicide with a gun shot wound to the chest in 2012 at the age of 43. Later studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage that had also been found in other deceased former NFL players.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junior_Seau
I used Junior Seau’s picture as the insert above. He was certainly a great football player and I enjoyed watching him even as he was demolishing my own favorite teams. Another tragic story:
“David Russell Duerson (November 28, 1960 – February 17, 2011) was an American football safety in the National Football League (NFL) who played for the Chicago Bears (1983–1989), the New York Giants (1990), and the Phoenix Cardinals (1991–1993). He earned significant honors during his career, including selection to four consecutive Pro Bowls for NFL seasons 1985 through 1988.
“Duerson was found dead at his Sunny Isles Beach, Florida home on February 17, 2011. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner reported that Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He sent a text message to his family saying he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine, which is conducting research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by playing professional football. He left behind three sons and a daughter from his marriage to ex-wife Alicia Duerson. On May 2, 2011, neurologists at Boston University confirmed that he suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Duerson
A third story about the results of brain injury and the tragedies that follow some ex-football players after their retirement from the game:
“Ralph Richard Wenzel (March 14, 1943 – June 18, 2012) was a professional American football player who played guard for seven seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers. Wenzel’s family, including his parents, two children and four grandchildren reside in San Diego, with his elder brother residing in Hawaii. Wenzel’s name has gained notoriety as of late 2009, when Wenzel’s wife, Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, testified on Wenzel’s dementia. Perfetto testified that Wenzel’s football career probably had a causal effect with his dementia.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Wenzel
Wenzel’s widow, Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, was interviewed for a New York Times story last April. She details Ralph Wenzel’s deterioration as he lapsed into dementia and then Alzheimer’s caused by the trauma to his brain coming from years of playing football:
“The end of Ralph Wenzel as his wife knew him began in January 2007. They were descending a flight of stairs at San Francisco International Airport, on their way to the baggage claim, after a two-week trip to Hawaii. Symptoms of his dementia had been troubling during their vacation. Wenzel acted as if he had awoken in a strange place, surrounded by strangers. He did not recognize his wife, Eleanor Perfetto, or her parents. He braced himself and shook his big fists when they approached. He tried to run away. It had not been much of a vacation, she thought.
Wenzel started down the stairs, and Perfetto walked next to him, holding his hand. Six steps from the bottom, he stumbled. He fell hard and landed in a heap on the floor, blood spewing from a gash on his forehead. He stayed at a hospital in California for 10 days. Doctors would not let him board a plane because he was too volatile. They increased his medication, and he drifted further out of touch.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/sports/football/eleanor-perfettos-journey-coping-with-dementia-and-death-of-former-nfl-player-ralph-wenzel.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=headinjuries
The deterioration and final death of this once superb physical specimen is detailed in the Times article. It is a too sad tale of a once splendid athlete and the end game of the physical trauma that he suffered as an elite athlete. There are many such stories to be told as the 200 lawsuits covering 4,000 former NFL players will follow the process towards settlement or dismissal. The NFL will be fighting this all the way through the courts and will have much support in the Corporate world, since the success of these lawsuits will affect everybody’s bottom line. There will be a ruling on the validity of these cases as to standing and other issues due from the presiding Judge by September 3rd. Until then all parties have been ordered by the Judge to go through a mediation process to determine if there is some grounds that can be found to settle the issues:
“The federal judge overseeing the case brought by thousands of former N.F.L. players who have accused the league of hiding the dangers of concussions ordered both sides to mediation Monday. United States District Court Judge Anita B. Brody, from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ordered Layn Phillips, a retired federal judge, to serve as mediator in the case.
Brody said she would not rule on the N.F.L.’s motion to dismiss the case until Sept. 3 to give the mediator time to bring the sides closer. She had expected to rule on that motion July 22. Brody said she had an “informal exploratory telephone conference with lead counsel” Monday before referring the case to a mediator.
The league and the lawyers representing more than 4,000 players and their wives will now meet in a conference room instead of a courtroom to try to iron out their differences, which will not be easy given the complexity of the case.
The players have charged that the league concealed for years and even decades what it knew about the long-term dangers of repeated hits to the head. The N.F.L. has rejected that argument and said it had issued warnings consistent with medical research available at the time. It also claims that player safety was and is governed by collective bargaining agreements negotiated between the league and the players.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/sports/football/judge-orders-nfl-concussion-case-to-mediation.html?ref=headinjuries
I’m not sure which side will prevail in this battle, but it surely is of the “David vs. Goliath” type and my emotions are always with the underdog. Polls of athletes related to steroids have shown that overwhelmingly they would accept a shorter life span in exchange for fame. One wonders then that even if it was conclusively shown that playing football could result in a tragic life following ones retirement, would many gifted athletes refuse to play? Would they give up the status, fame and fortune that their football careers give to them? Does the idea that assumption of risk comes into play here absolve the NFL of any liability other than providing paychecks and medical insurance? Legally I don’t know how this will play out and so as I see it the issue devolves upon whether or not the NFL knew of the dangers of head trauma, yet failed to fully inform the athletes about it. My suspicion is that this is the case, but then I must admit that I watch football but have no love for the business entity that is the NFL, so my judgment is one sided. What do you think? Do these 4,000 players have a case and should they be awarded compensation for the damaged wreaked upon them from years of playing football? I know that as always I’ll be following my favorite team avidly, as I already am doing. So in the end we return to the question. Are you ready for some football?
Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger