Umm, Aren’t You Forgetting Something?

SI’s cover story this week is about the central tension in the NFL as a product and spectacle – the desire of fans to see big hits, and of players to deliver them, set against the potentially devastating health impact of being on the receiving end of a serious body (or head) blow. Tim Layden profiles, as it were, seven big hits from the 2006 NFL season, describing the particulars of the play, how those on the dishing out and receiving end experienced it, and putting it in the context of a sport in which “bloodlust” is an undeniable feature of the game. It’s an interesting article, but with a very disturbing and misleading slant, as I’ll discuss below.

Concering the yin and yang of violence in the sport, Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens’ ferocious middle linebacker exemplifies the tension well. At one point in the Layden piece, Lewis laments the toll of such brutality:

“They (the fans) sit at home and watch and go, Ooooo, owwww, woooo. But then do they ask themselves, I wonder, does his head hurt now? How many hours did he sleep comfortably last night? Good hitters have been hitting for a long time. You can feel knots all over my head, and there’s a place where my hair doesn’t grow anymore. I’ve been hitting people so long, you just pray that nothing happens like with that boy in Cincinnati.” (Linebacker David Pollack, the Bengals’ first-round draft pick in 2005, fractured his neck making a tackle in the second game of last season; he is rehabbing and hopes to return to football.) “You pray for that not to happen,” says Lewis. “To anybody.”

But, elsewhere in the article, Lewis explains what it means to be able to hit hard:

“When you get that type of hit on a player, trust me, the game is not the same after that — and the player is not the same, either,” says Lewis. “That player is going to ask himself, Will I pay the price? Do I really want to get hit that hard again? And that’s what the game is about. The long runs, the touchdowns and all that, that’s the glamour. But the game is about taking a man down, physically and mentally.”

But, author Tim Layden’s characterization of the league’s role in all this is suprising, to say the least. He writes:

In June the NFL convened a one-day symposium during which medical experts (some of whom work for the league), current and former players, commissioner Roger Goodell and others addressed the effects of football-related concussions. The NFL formed the Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in 1994, and that group’s work — including recommendations to strictly enforce the ban on helmet-to-helmet contact and levy steep fines for dangerous play — has made the game safer.

Layden then enumerates several steps the NFL is taking to better track and safe-guard players’ health, before opining that:

…Yet the NFL and its players would appear to be trapped in an endless loop, with a problem that is resolvable only to a point.

…On the one side, you have doctors and officials trying to protect players. On the other side, you have players trying to take an intensely violent and physical game to higher levels of violence and physicality. Wedged in the middle is the billion-dollar relationship between the NFL and the fans who drive its popularity and crave the very acts that make the game so dangerous.

There are several problems with these concluding paragraphs. One, Layden writes them as if he is unaware of the significant reporting that Alan Schwarz of the New York Times has done on the league’s approach to concussion and traumatic brain injury. For example, the doctor who headed the Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, Dr. Elliott Pellman, was fired by the NFL recently, after Schwarz and others criticized his approach to the issue of head trauma, and noted that, as a Jets’ team doctor, with no formal training in neurology, he was not only ill-equipped for the position, but compromised in his approach to putting players’ well-being before team and league concerns (like the desire that players get back on the field as soon as possible). Kevin Guskiewicz, head of UNC’s Center for the Study of retired athletes, among others, has criticized Dr. Pellman for his dismissive approach to dealing with the long-term consequences of head trauma. (ESPN the Magazine dubbed Dr. Pellman, “Dr. Yes” in a devastating account of his widely discredited views on the issue of head trauma and its potential long-term health effects).

Two, several recent high-profile cases, including Ted Johnson, former Patriots’ linebacker who accused Coach Belichick of insisting he go back into a 2002 preseason game shortly after having sustained a concussion, and now suffers severe headaches and depression, illustrate the degree to which team and league interests are sometimes squarely at odds with players’ well being. Layden himself notes that the EA and Madden video games bring several billion dollars in revenue alone, and that each highlights over-the-top big hits. Given what’s at stake financially, for the NFL, and the degree to which fan interest is driven by the violence of the sport, which Layden asserts is crucial, it’s extremely naive for him to act as if the league itself has no conflict of interest when it comes to players’ health. True, Layden notes in the quote above the multi-billion dollar relationship between the fans and the NFL. But, even in that sentence, the desire for violence is understood to come from fans, not from the league. And, elsewhere in the article, Layden makes it sounds as if the impetus for the NFL’s violence solely derives from the fans and the players, as if the league is little more than a concerned bystander.

Indeed the sub headline for the entire article reads:

Players live for it, fans love it, media celebrate it — and all bemoan its devastating consequences. The brutal collision of bodies is football’s lifeblood, and the NFL’s biggest concern.

Contrast this irresponsible characterization of the dynamics of NFL violence with the account of Luciana Chavez, sports writer for the Raleigh News and Observer, who last Sunday wrote two illuminating pieces on violence, players’ health and the NFL.

One of those includes the following opener:

Michael Waddell knows lonely. The Tennessee Titans cornerback and former North Carolina Tar Heel has done his time in the NFL’s most ostracized position — the injured guy in street clothes on the sideline. “It’s really bad,” Waddell said about missing the 2006 NFL season with a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee.

“The coaches ignore you. Nobody speaks to you.”

The not-so-subtle message: Can’t play? You’re no good to us.

The recent storm over former New England Patriots star Ted Johnson’s accusation that three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick pressured him to play with a concussion shows how volatile an issue it can be.

Athletes admit they often play with pain or injury, though concussions are a more dangerous situation. Still Waddell’s experience shows how a cocktail of fear — “I can’t lose my job” — and competitiveness — “I must play for us to win” — can create powerful motivation to play hurt.

SI really missed the boat on this one. Given the significant recent attention paid to traumatic and recurrent head injuries in the NFL, the high profile cases of Ted Johnson, Andre Waters and others, and the well-documented evidence of how seriously flawed and compromised the NFL’s leading committee on head trauma has been, Layden’s characterizations are at least a year out of date. They fit a larger pattern, too: an on-going insistence on holding players responsible for their personal decisions and conduct without any concomitant acknowledgment of the institutional factors that drive the sports news cycle. So, players are villains (at least some are), for taking steroids, but leagues and commissioners get a virtual free pass (which is one reason why Gary Sheffield calling Commissioner Selig a “liar” earned him a nomination for a “just shut up award).” So, though violence is the acknowledged lifeblood of the NFL (well, leaving aside gambling), that’s the fault of fans and players.

The NFL: they’re just “concerned.”

20 Responses to “Umm, Aren’t You Forgetting Something?”

  1. “They fit a larger pattern, too: an on-going insistence on holding players responsible for their personal decisions and conduct without any concomitant acknowledgment of the institutional factors that drive the sports news cycle. So, players are villains (at least some are), for taking steroids, but leagues and commissioners get a virtual free pass (which is one reason why Gary Sheffield calling Commissioner Selig a “liar” earned him a nomination for a “just shut up award).” So, though violence is the acknowledged lifeblood of the NFL (well, leaving aside gambling), that’s the fault of fans and players.

    The NFL: they’re just “concerned.”

    Outstanding analysis.

  2. Nice take Jwei…

    As a life-long SI suscriber, I, along with many others, have questioned the magazine’s relevancy over the past few years. I read the article a few days ago and wondered what the point of the article even was? My feeling was that it was just a puff piece to get NFL fans ready for the upcoming season again. Not a lot of journalisic fresh information, or any hook to make me think after putting the mag down.

    Cases like Ted Johnson and Andre Waters are sad. As a Boston resident, I’ve seen Ted Johnson go from quite an upstanding guy to someone who has made some bizarre public appearances and behaved very erratically. The radio stations and Boston MSM don’t even welcome him to their programs much anymore, and he used to be a regular.

    Investigations into his head injury, and others, and how the NFL has really turned a blind eye, need to be documented and hashed out. This puff-SI piece did nothing to adavnce the discussion, or turn up the heat on the NFL.

  3. Well done. The league needs to take care of these guys. We all know the hitting won’t go away, so if someone’s willing to take that risk, the league should be prepared for the consequences.

  4. Nice job, J. I sensed something was missing from that article when I read it, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I suspect Layden wrote this piece well before that stuff came out and they just held it until training camp rolled around — regardless, it’s awful form.

  5. I cancelled my SI subscription moments after they sent me the one with the Kobe’s mug shot on the cover. Haven’t even thumbed through an article since.

  6. Yeah Kev,

    Maybe I’ll have to stop being a creature of habit and kick my years-old SI addiction. My lady will certainly be happy.

    Any good mag recommendations?

  7. jweiler Says:

    S2N

    Alan Schwarz’ first piece on Andre Waters came out in January, and the ESPN piece I linked to is from 2006. There’s just no excuse (I know you’re not trying to make one for him) for Layden having characterized the NFL committee the way he did – he has to have had all the pertinent information available to him before he wrote this article.

  8. Pats

    Wish I could help out. I’ve become so disgusted with MSM that I’m not the one to ask.

  9. J,

    I think about Al Toon, who can’t look at an operating ceiling
    fan because of too many concussions. Earl Campbell has dropfoot,
    It took Johnnie Cooks FIVE minutes to get up from a chair on
    Real Sports. Football may not be war, but are those not war
    wounds? Tim Layden wasn’t trying to be informative, he was
    pimping the NFL. The players are disposable, the game. as always,
    goes on.

  10. J, yeah, there’s no way it’s possible. Layden either didn’t do or wasn’t interested in the outside leg work, or even worse, didn’t want to take on the established NFL narrative regarding the effects of hits like that.

  11. Great column jweil. Yeah, it’s true, the larger organizations are never held accountable for the damage done in the interests of the league itself. And as you said, given what’s come out about Andre Waters, Ted Johnson, and others recently, that piece in such a prominent venue as SI is even more irresponsible.

  12. It only belies the fact that its an embarrassment that the NFLPA is the weakest players association of all the major sports. The players are treated like trash in every arena because everytime the PA has gone to the table it has just signed off and been the NFL’s little lapdog. Thus, the “shield” always gets protected and the peions at the bottom get crushed.

  13. I cancelled my SI subscription about 2 decades ago when Rick Telander decided that Barry Switzer’s primary appeal to Black youth had something to do with being outside the law. I have no tast for that sort of whoremongering, er, reporting. SI has sucked since…

  14. T3

    Damn, should have known you’d be on the cutting edge.

  15. Cornelius Says:

    The saddest realization from this piece, is that all of corporate america is no different. Who’s protecting the working class that can only get jobs from fortune 500 companies that have no regard for them?

    And then, you realize how sad the situation described above is, since they actually have a union that is supposed to be supporting them.

    I can only believe that the signing bonus’ are blinding them from reforming their own union. Because it IS their union.

  16. HarveyDent Says:

    Telling comment, Cornelius, because to paraphrase, ‘Every season, the NFL eats its young’ and the NFLPA is the primary culprit. Bryant Gumbel didn’t lie last year when he advised Goodell to make sure he had Tagliabue’s leash to keep Upshaw in line. The fact that retired, permanently injured players had to go to the Congress just to get the Union to give them a few more dollars is deplorable. I won’t even get started on the lack of guaranteed contracts but in a column I wrote last year for another website, the NFLPA has forgotten it’s supposed to have more of an adversarial relationship with management and ownership and because of that the players, current and former, are the ones who will suffer.

  17. But if the players were to come out and “complain” most fans and the media would point to the money they make as justification for them being treated like dirt. Just because you have some money, you forfeit your rights according to many. I wish those Americans making 40K would realize just how much money, relatively, they’re making than the rest of the world.

  18. Ap

    Your point is dead on. And, of course, the fact that the owners are vastly wealthier than the players never seems to stop them from complaining about players’ salaries, and “cost certainty” and all the other garbage they come up with to justify why they really do have legitimate gripes about money. In this, the sports media gives owners an entirely free pass.

  19. Cornelius Says:

    The problem I see, is that the Union only cares about money. As far as I know they only harped on one thing in the last negotiation (60%). And since the union represents the players, I have to believe now, that money is all they care about.

    I don’t recall any backlash in the last negotiations when Upshaw kept still until 58% and the possibility of an uncapped year was on the table. The backlash was that he was being moronic and didn’t realize that the uncapped year was not good for the players in the overall longterm.

    I think a lot of fans want to see more benefits for retired players. I also think they would like to see more protection for vets. That guys like Bruce Smith, etc. have to finish their careers in other uniforms needs to be addressed. (I use Smith as an example because he had more in the tank than others when he moved from Buffalo.)

    I don’t think guaranteed contracts are the answer. I don’t think it’s right, just because 3/4 of the major sports have them. Where else in reality do they exist? CEO’s don’t always get them. There are ways of making the systems work without it.

  20. […] specifically focusing on the NFL. This is not the first time OTL has reported on this story and, as I mentioned in criticizing a recent Michael Farber piece in SI, the issue has received more and more attention in the past […]

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