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.”