Heckuva Job, Goodie
This past Sunday, the typically outstanding Outside the Lines devoted its program to a discussion of concussions and their potential impact on dementia and suicide, 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 year.
Before I address the OTL report in greater detail – I have to ask this question: why is “bad attitude” and irresponsible off field conduct by players constant fodder for “reporting” and moralizing by sports media, while the NFL’s ongoing refusal to deal with the growing body of evidence that playing football for a living can literally kill you is consigned to the tiny ghetto of serious sports journalism – like OTL and the New York Times’ Alan Schwarz? To quote Lt. Caffey in A Few Good Men – we’ll come back to that.
OTL focused on the work of the neuro-scientist, Dr. Bennet Omalu and a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski who, after numerous concussions from football and wrestling, began researching the issue and teaming up with Dr. Omalu to pursue the issue further. The pair, who first came to national attention through the reporting of Alan Schwarz in the New York Times in January, in connection with Andre Waters’ suicide last Fall, are on a crusade to force the NFL to accept the growing evidence that “brain damage brought about by repeated concussions from football can bring about depression, dementia and suicide.”
Based on examinations of the brains of four deceased former NFL players – Terry Long, Mike Webster, Waters and Justin Strelsek – Omalu’s examinations have led the pair to describe a syndrome they call “football dementia.” Long and Waters killed themselves at ages 45 and 44 respectively. Webster died at age 50, from a heart attack, after suffering terribly from depression for years and Strelzek died at age 36, following a high speed chase with police, also following years of psychological problems, including bi-polar disorder. As I’ve written about previously, the NFL’s designated committee to examine these issues has repeatedly dissented from findings that much of the rest of the medical community believes are plausible. And, according to OTL, when the medical journal, Neurosurgery, published some of Omalu’s and Nowinski’s findings, specifically about Webster, three NFL doctors wrote to the journal disputing the findings and asking for a retraction. Later, the NFL attacked their findings concerning the other three as “anecdotal” and “insufficient.”
OTL reported that when Commissioner Goodell convened a summit in June on the long-term effects of concussions, Omalu wasn’t invited, though his findings were presented by Dr. Julian Bailes, described by OTL as a leading concussion expert and the chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University. Bailes told OTL that Omalu’s findings have been examined by a number of neuro-pathological experts and that the work is “groundbreaking” and a “real finding.”
Of course, medical issues, are complicated, and reasonable people can disagree. Furthermore, it’s true that their findings are anecdotal – they have thus far only examined a small number of cases. But, so far, the findings appear to be, at the least, highly suggestive, and support the conclusions of other experts, like UNC’s Kevin Guskiewicz and the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes which, surveying a large number of retired players, have also concluded that there is a likely connection between repeated head trauma and long-term psychological and physical problems.
What’s striking here is that the NFL’s point man on this issue for many years (though recently relieved of his duties), Elliott Pellman, had far less relevant expertise on these matters than the growing array of doctors and scientists who think there is a real connection between repeated head trauma and various long-term health problems. Furthermore, there is no legitimate reason why the NFL’s reaction to the research should be so knee-jerk. Even if the NFL wanted to do nothing but engage in spin and PR, why wouldn’t it just acknowledge that these are interesting findings, that the league is taking them into account, and will try to contribute further to an understanding of these important issues?
Nowinski has an answer to that question: “I guess what we’re dealing with here is that the issue that, essentially, 32 billionaires, who are worried that the values of their franchises are going to drop, or that the game is going to be less popular, or that the players are going to start suing or something, something is going to go wrong that people are going to figure out that concussions cause long-term problems.”
Nowinski may or may not be right. Perhaps the new revelations, even if fully acted upon and requiring much more stringent guidelines won’t affect the health of the sport at all. But, if nothing else, the NFL is acting far more like a guilty party than an institution genuinely concerned with the long-term health and safety of its workers.
On cue, today’s USA Today had a 1700 word article on Commissioner Goodell, titled “Commissioner’s First Year in Charge of NFL Full of Tough Decisions.” Sports media love Goodell, particularly because of his conduct policy – disciplining seriously players who have engaged in repeated bad acts off the field. Notable casualties so far include Pac Man Jones, Tank Johnson and Chris Henry. The article ranged broadly over the issues Goodell has faced, including the conduct policy, the Michael Vick case, a controversy over cameramen having to wear advertising logos on their vests, playing regular season games overseas and LA’s future viability as an NFL city.
And, in 1700 words, how many were devoted to the health and safety of the players? That would be zero.
The relative lack of attention to the health issue says alot about the priorities and values of sports discourse. I am no fan of people driving while intoxicated, or of dog-fighting, but if you step back from it for a minute – isn’t it striking that every scrape with the law, no matter how trivial (and the most recent Tank Johnson incident, the one that got him cut from the Bears, was as trivial as it gets), involving an athlete is a news story, and another chance for moral pontificating? And, meanwhile, the fact that playing the game without full and proper information about the potential effects of doing so – with consequences that are, in some cases, literally life and death – is nary a blip on the radar screen.
I have said this before, but one reason for this is that the story of the NFL’s ongoing and increasingly difficult to deny negligence in the matter (Goodell has, it should be noted, been somewhat more attentive to this issue than his predecessor, perhaps because it has gotten so much more attention since he took office), is that it doesn’t admit of the easy sermonizing that personal transgressions involve. Sports media, stewing in conflicted resentment about professional athletes and their incredible wealth, fame and (shocking!) sometime self-absorption and irresponsibility, find easy targets for those resentments in the form of misbehaving players, easier targets than the owners and leagues that rip-off municipalities, because exposing transgressions that take place at the institutional level, on behalf of wealthy, powerful and well-connected men requires reporting and hard work. To criticize a reckless 25-year old for drinking and driving – that’s easy pickings.
But, there’s something else going on here, too – a belief that people who work with their bodies for a living are, rightly, fodder for the greater glory of the nation, or their emplyers’ bottom line – whether as athletes providing public distraction or spectacle, or workers in industries like coal mining or meat processing, where casualties are common, and owners almost never pay seriously for their negligence. This is partly because our system of workplace oversight is so badly broken a product, in part, of the relentless war against government oversight by the rightwing over the past generation. The latest coal mining tragedy in Utah is being played as a tragedy, which it is. But, what’s gotten almost no attention is the fact that the mine has, as the Huffington Post puts it, a “troubling safety record” but “useful political clout.”
It’s a painful irony that we hear the word “accountability” more and more these days in sports discourse. The term, in that parlance, refers to the idea that players have to be accountable for their actions – their performance on the field, and their conduct off of it. That there, in short, consequences for actions. Ironic, because the increasing obsession with personal accountability comes at a time when, due in part to that successful attack on oversight, powerful institutions in the United States, from big business (like coal mines) to the executive branch of the federal government, are increasingly insulated from accountability. As the wealthy and well-connected live lives increasingly insulated from the rules and strictures by which ordinary people must abide, those ordinary folks face an increasingly punitive and unforgiving legal system, workplace and economic reality.
In this world, professional athletes find themselves in a strange position – they are extravagantly paid (many of them, anyway) – and possess extraordinary, mostly unthinking privilege. Of course, on a smaller scale, sports media do, too, especially, the celebrity commentators who drive the discourse, who combine that privilege with unearned sanctimony.
But, professional athletes, especially those in sports, like football, that require sometimes literal sacrifice of life and limb, are still just bodies, to be used and discarded, at the discretion of their master/owners. This is why William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves, which at first blush seems over-the-top, speaks an important truth.
Owners, executives, TV networks and corporate sponsors are all getting rich off the NFL – more, even than the players themselves. But, only the latter are paying a dear price. Only the players assume meaningful risk. American ideology insists that the wealthy have earned their wealth because they have assumed the kinds of risks that propel a country forward and contribute to our mutual wealth. Hence, they ought to reap the rewards. Conversely, those who knowingly take on risk have made a choice, and must accept the consequences.
But, a lack of accountability, and growing insularity from the consequences of one’s actions, undermines these key tenets of the American ethos. NFL owners are just a microcosm of these larger developments, but they assume no risk and are subject to no meaningful accountability. They are guaranteed enormous profits the moment they take possession of a franchise. The league’s functional monopoly, its policies to restrict the free movement of labor and its political leverage ensure that. Meanwhile, the only stakeholders in the NFL who do assume meaningful risk are the players and,as Nowinski told OTL: “there will always be people who want to accept that risk, and that’s fine. But, until this point, nobody’s been making an informed choice about that risk.”
With the notable exceptions I’ve mentioned here, including OTL – sports media’s just way off base on its priorities. Endless whining about minor transgressions, police-blotter journalism, constant harping on steroid use and on-going nonsense about the decline of “old school” values rule the day, while the same media practice an almost total neglect of the growing evidence that America’s favorite sport may be killing some of its participants. If there’s an opportunity to pile on players – great. But, when it comes to taking on the real powers-that-be in sports – pass.
In the contest between bad guy trivialities and serious issues, consider the score 1700-0, in favor of the bad guys.