Here we have a multibillion-dollar industry. Where does their responsibility begin? Say you’re a kid and you sign up to play football. You realize you can blow out your knee, you can even break your neck and become paralyzed. Those are all known risks. But you don’t sign up to become a brain-damaged young adult. —Dr. Julian Bailes, neurologist who has studied football-caused brain damage
John Mackey is remembered as the founding president of the NFL Players Association union and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. Mackey is generally seen as the best tight end in the sport’s history, combining an unmatched combination of strength, speed, and great hands hauling in passes from the Baltimore Colts’ legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas.
But now the past tense is often used when talking about Mackey, 69, who has been afflicted with concussion-induced dementia for more than a decade, reducing him to a shell of his former self. “John was a phenomenal athlete who defined the tight-end position and was a great leader,” recalls his long-time friend and colleague Ed Garvey, who formerly served as the Players Association director and masterminded the stunningly successful 1982 players strike.
The tragedy of Mackey was one of a string of highly-publicized cases that has eventually forced the NFL to end many years of intransigence on the issue, and come to grips with the debilitating brain damage resulting from the thousands of collisions players undergo thoughout their careers.
Watching the deterioration of Mackey has been particularly painful for Garvey, who worked closely with him in leading the NFLPA. “John was
a great strategist and a great orator who could inspire people,” says Garvey. “By the time he was done talking to players, they were ready to break down the walls to get to the bargaining table.”
NFL OWNERS ERECT BARRIERS TO DEALING WITH CRISIS
But the NFL owners erected formidable walls to deal with the issue of chronic brain injuries resulting from the constant high-speed collisions of NFL play and the frequent concussions they often produce. Repeated concussions result in memory loss, depression, disorientation and moments of uncontrollable rage.
Admitting the syndrome of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) —manifested in dementia, the early onset of Alzheimer’s, and episodes of bizarre and anti-social behavior—drew fierce resistance for years from the NFL and its owners. The NFL used panels of doctors utterly lacking qualifications in brain physiology to deny and minimize the effects of concussions, much like how the lead-paint industry systematically concealed the devastating effects of lead poisoning on children.
GAME PROMOTED ON BASIS OF ITS VIOLENCE
All the while, the league was actively promoting the game on the basis of its violent collisions, “smash-mouth football,” and constantly-replayed “greatest hits”—often involving vulnerable players in mid-air being grotesquely speared helmet first and slammed to the turf, as Garvey points out.
Meanwhile, the players’ helmet surfaces became harder and harder, rendering them more devastating weapons, enhanced by increasingly larger faceguards as well. “Generally, it’s just evolved where helmets get harder and faceguards got bigger,” Garvey notes, with helmet-first contact stressed by coaches and more serious head injuries resulting.
Where football players in the early NFL wore only light leather helmets without face masks and therefore sought to avoid head-to-head collisions, coaches of the modern era taught and expected players to lead with the new super-hard plastic helmets in order to make the most devastating block or tackle possible.
The outcome has been an epidemic of concessions, as a hard collision sends the brain bouncing against the inside of the skull, with each concussion producing more and more damage.
ENORMOUS PRESSURE BUILDS ON NFL
Only under enormous pressure from former players’ wives and families, the public and Congress did the NFL begin to deal with the problem of brain injuries. Belatedly, the NFL finally responded to a mounting wave of bad publicity caused by the disabling and destructive impact on much-beloved former players like Mackey.
Only after appalling cases of neglect became public—like the immensely popular former Pittsburgh Steelers star center Mike Webster, a victim of brain damage after 15 years in the NFL who became homeless and eventually committed suicide—did the NFL begin to address the problem.
The league and the NFL Players’ Association finally initiated the “88 plan” – named after Mackey’s number. Under the program, the league provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care. The NFL also finally adopted strict policies on monitoring players who had suffered concussions.
TOP-DOWN FIX: BLAME THE PLAYERS
This year, the NFL—led by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, Jr.—has imposed a top-down “solution”—targeting the conduct of players who use their helmets as weapons.
But this step means fining and eventually suspending players who are simply engaging in the high-impact hits which they were constantly trained to inflict from the time they were eight years old playing in kiddies’ leagues, through high school, college, and NFL training camps—always with the threat of being benched or cut from the team if they failed to hit with maximum force at every opportunity.
“The players are put in very odd position,” observes Garvey. They risk losing their jobs if they fail to deliver as much pain as possible to opponents, while the NFL continues to market its violence as a central part of its appeal.
Moreover, the player-centered penalties conveniently sidestep theresponsibility of owners and coaches. “Coaches know their careers depend on winning, and they will teach whatever it takes to win games under the present rules, ” Garvey says. With the hard-plastic helmets a powerful weapon to use in blocking and tackling, the coaches are bound to demand helmet-first hitting that leads to concessions.
OWNERS SEE PLAYERS, EVEN STARS, AS REPLACEABLE
The owners could scarcely be more removed from the pain of players and the suffering of families of repeated concussion victims, Garvey says:
For the owners, they seem distant from the process, like the war in Afghanistan with someone else’s kids are out there being hurt and dying. The owners are relatively unaffected. They just bring in another player.
As John Mackey used to say, if you think of the NFL as a machine, it has replacement-parts factories known as colleges like Ohio State and USC and Wisconsin all over the country.
With a plentiful supply of eager and talented young players capable of making the fans forget the damaged and discarded super-stars of just a few weeks back, owners are content to make minor changes and blame the players for the concussions they suffer.
But the activism of families and players is certain to produce a vastly different game. The culture is going to change,” predicts Garvey. “Players and parents are realizing these injuries could be lifelong. Millions of youngsters are facing long term injury under the present setup—it will be a strange moment if Congress says we’re not interested in this.”
The long-term solution lies not in unilateral changes laid down from above by management, but by dialogue involving players and medical experts and coaches. “If you take the best medical minds and bring in players and coaches, you could come up with a series of recommendations that are better than what Roger Goodell and Wellington Mara’s kid have done,” Garvey says.
Such discussions would cover equipment like the helmets, rules regarding hits on vulnerable players and medications to help treat concessions, among other issues.
But owners have seen all efforts to improve safety as encroachments on their essential management powers, says Garvey.
The introduction of plastic “Astroturf” by agri-business giant Monsanto was supposed to reduce ankle and knee injuries compared to natural turf, while saving money on maintaining football fields, the corporation promised. But the players soon discovered that being knocked to Astroturf was like landing on a thinly-covered concrete surface, meaning that players’ heads would be smacked against a totally inflexible floor again and again.
Further, knee and ankle injuries actually rose, because if a player’s cleats got tangled in Astroturf, there was no natural “give” as with natural sod. “But there was no way we could lead people out on strike over playing on Astroturf,” Garvey remembers.
“When we first talked about Astroturf, [the owners] went nuts,” Garvey says. “They said that it’s their game and they will make the rules.”
Garvey vividly recalls a discussion with the late Cleveland Browns owner Art Model about Astroturf. Modell responded by pointing to a nearby asphalt parking lot and declaring, “If I tell my team to go play on that, they had better do it.”
“We got together a team of medical experts with players and the owners wouldn’t yield, but it got discussion started,” says Garvey. Eventually, the NFL came to discourage the use of Astroturf.
MANAGEMENT CONTROL ABOVE ALL ELSE
Essentially, the NFL owners have perceived the introduction of brain injuries and other safety issues as an intrusion on sacrosanct management prerogatives and a challenge to their customary dictatorial rule.
But by now, public horror over the fate of much-beloved heroes like John Mackey and Mike Webster and anxiety about their children’s long-term health are fueling a full-scale challenge that will inevitably crack the owners’ vise-like grip over decisions affecting player safety.
Moreover, with more and more medical research on football-caused brain damage coming forth outside the NFL’s control, the league’s responsibility for their players’ long-term health is becoming undeniable.
“The liability issue now just jumps out at NFL owners,” Garvey argues. “If juries start awarding huge awards to permanently brain-damaged players, then the NFL will really have to sit up and take notice.”
This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.
About The Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]