Akbar Gbajabiamila, a former defensive end for three NFL teams, described his first concussion, suffered in just his fourth pro game, as feeling like “someone hitting you over the head as hard as possible with a cast-iron frying pan.”
Everything around me at that moment sounded faint, as if I were at the bottom of a swimming pool hearing conversations above me. My understanding of my surroundings was foggy, almost like that feeling you get when you lose your train of thought.
Gbajabiamila was a rookie fighting for a job, and he didn’t want to come out of the game. “I got up like a drunken man and started searching for that big hit,” he wrote, “but the play was already over.” After receiving some medical attention on the sidelines, he continued to play.
That’s how football has always been. You take a hard hit, you suck it up like a man and you go out for more. Until recently, those who raised concerns about the long-term effects of repeated episodes of mild brain trauma were dismissed. They didn’t understand the toughness of the game or its players. The league claimed there wasn’t enough evidence to draw any conclusions about the safety of the sport.
But today, research by independent neuroscientists has outpaced the NFL’s ability to spin away its concussion crisis – and calls for making the game safer are growing louder.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of 4,500 former players who face what they say are concussion-related health issues was settled last month by the league for $765 million. The NFL admitted to no wrongdoing, but the settlement may signal that the sport is finally coming to terms with research showing that repeated head trauma produces long-term impacts. Last year, the league announced that it was making a $30 million donation to the National Institutes of Health to study the phenomenon.
For decades, the NFL had denied that there was any connection between huge men smashing into one another at top speed, and a disproportionate number of retired players developing early-onset brain illnesses – including Parkinson’s disease, ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disorder similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the lawsuit, the NFL had “gratuitously and voluntarily inserted itself into the scientific research,” to produced “industry-funded, biased and falsified research” which supported the league’s claim that the sport didn’t result in any “serious, life-altering risks.”
For years, the chairman of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, Dr. Elliott Pellman, portrayed concussions as nothing more than minor injuries. In fact, Pellman, a rheumatologist with no prior expertise in brain research, was the lead author of nine of the 16 studies published in 2003 that minimized the significance of concussions in the NFL. Pellman, who served as chairman from 1994 to 2007, also “discredited various independent studies concerning the severity of concussions,” writes Sean Newell of Deadspin.
Pellman’s view of the concussion issue was in line with that of then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who resigned in 2006. His actions led players to be sent back on the field, again and again, after suffering from heavy hits, Newell concluded.
An upcoming episode of PBS’ “Frontline” on the subject, Outside The Lines, reveals that Pellman served as Tagliabue’s personal physician for ten years. He stepped down as head of the concussion committee shortly after Tagliabue left his job, but retains the title of NFL medical director.
The Deniers Attack
In the wake of the NFL settlement, a number of pundits have come out to defend the NFL and its $9 billion annual business. Some deny that there’s a problem. Others have attacked the messenger, or the former players themselves.
Writing at Townhall, Timothy Birdnow claimed that destroying the NFL is “the left’s end-game.” After scoffing that there’s “no solid evidence that the game is dangerous,” Birdnow blamed the “liberal sports media” for wanting to over-regulate the game – and for ruining childhood in the process.
There has been an increasing effort by the Progressives to straitjacket young children. Sports are one outlet they have targeted, with an increasingly regimented and organized approach to what were once thought of as children’s games. Michelle Obama may say “Let’s Move!,” but she wants all movement under her watchful eye.
While Birdnow may write from the fringes, a similar theory has gained traction among some mainstream conservatives — Rush Limbaugh also wondered recently if “the left” was intent on “banning football as we know it.”
And NewBusters founder Matthew Sheffield agreed that the “liberal media” poses a genuine threat, writing that while “it’s difficult to imagine Americans going along with government outright banning football,” he could easily see “”compassionate’ liberals and trial lawyers gradually destroying the sport through excessive regulation, government intervention and lawsuits.”
While it may seem unclear why anyone would want to destroy football, running underneath these complaints is an established narrative about the supposed “feminization” of American culture that people like Limbaugh have long embraced. Jeff Blevins, author of Confessions of a Mad Sports Addict, was explicit about this angle, writing, “I like to call it the feminization of the league. Emasculation is another good” way to put it.
In less ideologically strident circles, one finds narratives that, while somewhat milder, are also notably devoid of compassion.
While Dave Zirin rightly called the NFL settlement a “rotten deal,” likening it to the kind of slap on the wrist Wall Street firms are used to paying to settle SEC suits (the injured players will get a payout of about $150,000, on average), CBS’ sportswriter Pete Prisco called the retirees’ lawsuit “a money grab,” adding: “I don’t think they deserve it.” For Prisco, “there is no proof that the hits in the NFL are what caused any problems” anyway.
Suck it Up!
Then there are those who would urge players to simply “suck it up.” Deion Sanders, a former two-sport athlete and now an ESPN analyst, told viewers that the sport is perfectly safe, and that “half these guys are trying to make some money.”
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher put it in simpler terms last year. “If you don’t want to play and get concussed, then don’t play,” he said.
Many of these arguments assume that football’s very existence is in peril, but they miss the point that the game can be made safer. For a decade, some college teams have been using a system, called HITS, that uses sensors embedded in players’ helmets to measure the amount of shock their noggins are taking. So far, the NFL and the player’s union have resisted bringing it to the big leagues.
But the NFL will have to change its ways. Like any for-profit enterprise, it will deal with the problem when the costs of denial become too great. Last week, four former players filed a new lawsuit against the league and its helmet-maker, charging that they hid the dangers of head injuries for years. The players are asking that the league cover the costs of a monitoring and treatment program that would cover past, present and future players.