My Thoughts on Football...

In a country where capitalism is favored by the majority of the influential, it isn’t until one is faced with extreme embarrassment at their own socially reprehensible behavior that they start making changes. The recent developments in the studies of the harm incurred by NFL players during their career shows that their brains are damaged at levels higher than anyone had ever thought possible.  While everyone knows that football is unsafe, the undeniable empirical evidence that shows just how unsafe it is, is stirring up controversy between the NFL and the NFLPA, as we near the upcoming expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement in March 2011.  Is further regulation necessary?

The NFL is a superbly run organization that provides entertainment and promotes camaraderie amongst its fans. The short season and parity of the teams make professional football desirable for numerous sponsorships as well as for gambling on individual games and for creating fantasy football teams. It is managed so efficiently that it is the only organized athletic league still earning sufficient revenue during these tough economic times. The owners and executives are looking to take advantage of the leagues efficiency by capitalizing as much as possible through the new collective bargaining agreement. To make this happen, owners are requesting that players decrease their income to 41 percent of applied revenues from about 59 percent. They also want to replace two of the pre-season games with two regular season games, lower rookie salaries, make players free agents after three years, and give more money to older and retired players. In defense of their requests, Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president of labor and chief counsel, said that
“It’s a season that would deliver more value to the fans. It would allow a lot of growth opportunities that don’t exist with the current structure, and those growth opportunities would be beneficial for the players as well as for the clubs.”
The NFLPA is in support of the notion that rookies are paid too much and of giving more money to older and retired players.  However, they feel that the sport is already detrimental to their health and that being asked to play more games, especially with a decrease in salary, is unacceptable.  Several of the players including Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens have expressed concern about the damage that two extra regular-season games could do to players' bodies.
"I've taken part in several postseason runs where we have played 20 games. The long-term impact this game has on our bodies is well documented. Look no further than the players that came before we did. Each player today has to play three years in order to earn five years of postcareer health care." - Tom Brady
"I know our fans may not like preseason games, and I don't like all of them but swapping two preseason games for two end-of-season games -- when players already play hurt -- comes at a huge cost for the player and the team."  - Ray Lewis
In December of 2007, the Mitchell Report, a document that detailed the use of illegal steroids and other performance enhancing drugs by players in MLB, was released.  The report identified 86 names to differing degrees of MLB players that were allegedly using performance enhancement drugs and proposed recommendations for how to handle past usage and for future prevention.  Robert Mitchell, former senate majority leader, was appointed by Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, to conduct the study as a reaction to the controversy surrounding a book that was published earlier that year about the alleged use of drugs by baseball players. The book, Game of Shadows, caught the attention of influential members of congress who in return questioned the effectiveness of drug prevention in MLB.

Concerns regarding the severe health effects of these drugs, their illegality and of the cheating nature they pose on the game had been raised before, but it wasn't until an excerpt from Game of Shadows was released that the public began to see the harsh reality of drug use in major league baseball.
"when an excerpt from the book dealing with Mr. [Barry] Bonds appeared in Sports Illustrated ...it created a furor, renewing the outrage over steroid use in baseball that had flared a year ago after the publication of Jose Canseco's sensational book, "Juiced." This time, there were calls for more Congressional hearings and demands that Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, appoint an independent investigator to look into allegations made in "Game of Shadows" — in particular allegations about Mr. Bonds, who holds the single season home-run record (73) and who, with a career home-run total of 708, is closing in on the sacred numbers of Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755)." NY TIMES
The report showed illegal substance usage ranging from players who had short major league careers to potential members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Robert Mitchell cited that
"Everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades -- commissioners, club officials, the players' association and players -- shares to some extent the responsibility for the steroids era. There was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on."
In the New Yorker last year, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece called "Football, dogfighting, and brain damage" in which he compared the dangers in the game of football to that of dogfighting. The essay shows data comparing blows to the heads from football plays being comparable to mini car accidents.  Some of these football players experience 10-12 mini car accidents in a very short amount of time.  It's hard to imagine anyone walking away from that kind of experience uninjured.  Gladwell provides insight into the game through examples from retired players.

Kyle Turley played in the NFL for nine years as an offensive lineman before retiring.  In Gladwell's article he speaks about the traumatic days when he was an athlete,
“I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter."
“Then, there was the time when I got knocked unconscious...I got hit in the back of the head...They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it. I was just going after guys in practice. I was really trying to use my head more, because I was so frustrated, and the coaches on the sidelines are, like, ‘Yeah. We’re going to win this game. He’s going to lead the team.’ That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”
When Michael Vick was charged for his involvement with dogfighting he had to meet with Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, so that it could be determined whether or not he was remorseful. 
"Goodell’s job entails dealing with players who have used drugs, driven drunk and killed people, fired handguns in night clubs, and consorted with thugs and accused murderers. But he clearly felt what many Americans felt as well—that dogfighting was a moral offense of a different order."
Dogfighting is not a sport to be taken lightly and the facts are why Goodell dealt with Michael Vick as he did.  Gladwell ends this part of his essay with
"One wonders whether, had he spent as much time talking to Kyle Turley as he did to Michael Vick, he’d start to have similar doubts about his own sport."

In response to the outrage at the recent findings of the long term dangers of football, the NFL has been taking measures to make sure more concussions are being reported. This past Monday, CBS Sports released a statement saying that the number of reported concussions is up 20% this season from last. "The NFL considers that proof that players and teams are taking head injuries more seriously and being more open about them. The players themselves agree." Through week ten of this 2010 season there have been 154 reported concussions.  Together, the NFL and the NFLPA are trying to make sure the players are aware and educated enough about their injuries that they communicate to coaches and trainers when something is seriously wrong.

But is this enough? In a sport where every game is important, can we rely on the players to admit when they are hurt and trust trainers and coaches to decide if they are okay to play, especially when it is a star player that is injured?  Is the harm they are incurring to their bodies, fighting through blurred vision just to score a touchdown, similar to the steroid era of MLB?  With more studies being conducted and the increase in awareness and education amongst players will an agreement be reached before the expiration of the CBA in March?  If an agreement is not reached, will congress be forced to step in?  These men won't stop playing football because where else will they receive the same salary that they are making in the NFL? What is a fair amount to place on a life threatening position? Is it even quantifiable?

1 comment:

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