Sports correspondent for the Nation Magazine
November 24, 2009
The NFL's Concussion Conundrum
On Sunday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made a startling concession to medical ethics, one resisted by all of his predecessors. Goodell said that when a player sustains a concussion, teams will now be required to seek advice from "independent" neurologists. As the commissioner said on NBC's Football Night in America, "As we learn more and more, we want to give players the best medical advice. This is a chance for us to expand that and bring more people into the circle to make sure we're making the best decisions for our players in the long term."
There is a reason why this story made the front page of the New York Times. It marks a major change in policy and would be like the tobacco industry bringing the American Cancer Institute into its boardroom or Exxon Mobil stating that they needed more input from Greenpeace.
The official NFL line has always been that team doctors held no conflict of interest when evaluating players. The NFL said this despite the stories of former players suffering early-onset dementia at alarming rates and being told to "shake it off" as the ringing continued in their ears.
Former Commissioner Pete Rozelle ignored this issue even when players like the Colts' Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. Another former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, did the same, even when Hall of Fame center Mike Webster died at age 50, homeless and incoherent. It has even been said that Webster was suffering from dementia when he was still an active player in the league.
And Goodell continued to defend the system even though Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who suffered from concussions, said that his coach Bill Belichick bullied him back into games (something Belichick denies). There was still no action taken after the 2006 suicide of Eagles pro-bowler Andre Waters, 44, whose brain tissue was that of an 80-year-old with Alzheimer's. The absence of medical oversight has been nothing short of breathtaking.
Goodell has been forced to shift his stance because the issue has simply reached a tipping point. Fittingly, New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author of The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell wrote a blistering critique of the NFL's treatment of ex-players last month, in the magazine, and concluded, "In the nineteenth century, dogfighting was [also] widely accepted by the American public. But we no longer find that kind of transaction morally acceptable in a sport."
I'm going to guess that the NFL has let its subscription to The New Yorker lapse. But they do have to care what Congress, the NFLPA union and former players are saying. In a hearing last month, The House Judiciary Committee flayed Goodell under the hot lights. It played footage of Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, saying that there was no connection between football and brain injuries, which is like saying there is no connection between smoking and lung cancer. When Goodell commented that the health of retired players is a priority for the league, committee member Maxine Waters said, "We've heard from the NFL time and time again--you're always 'studying,' you're always 'trying,' you're 'hopeful.' I want to know what are you doing...to deal with this problem and other problems related to injuries?"
While Goodell dangled off the ledge, NFLPA union chief DeMaurice Smith felt no compunction to lend a hand, saying that the union "has not done its best in this area. We will do better."
Chester Pitts, a lineman and union rep for the Houston Texans, told the New York Times, "I don't want to call it forced, but it's been strongly urged because of the awareness of the issue these days. When you have Congress talking about the antitrust exemption and them calling them the tobacco industry, that's pretty big. But it's a good thing it's transpiring."
But the main reason this situation has reached crisis proportions, is that every Sunday we see evidence of the problem and now we are much more aware of the tragic consequences. On November 22, the two quarterbacks who ended last season in the Super Bowl, finished their games on the sidelines. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers was captured on camera, glassy-eyed and attempting to follow a trainer's finger after taking a knee to the head. Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals, who also took a shot to his head, denied having a serious injury. "I've had a couple minor concussions. Nothing that has been prolonged. Haven't had anything in a number of years," Warner said. There is simply no such thing as a minor concussion.
It's time for a change. A concussion is caused by a blow to the head and can happen to any player, on any play. Goodell, I believe, sees the handwriting on the wall: Brain damaged players and the perception of indifferent owners hold the potential to permanently damage the sport. But before we collectively pat his back, consider the task before him. Goodell and the league will now embark on an effort to sell a slickly packaged three-hour slice of Sunday violence while simultaneously "doing no harm" to its players. Can NFL doctors serve the league and uphold the Hippocratic Oath? Doesn't take a Mayan calendar to see that this will not end well.
Dave Zirin is the author of "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.