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League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth
August 23, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

The New York Times is reporting that pressure from the NFL led ESPN to pull out of an investigative project with FRONTLINE regarding head injuries in American Football. The two-part investigative report and book will reveal how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage. ESPN has a $15.2 Billion deal with the NFL. (Football concussions previously: 1, 2, and 3)
posted by Public Policy (84 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
The choice between more money or someone else's health. In the USA. I am shocked. Shocked.
posted by Danf at 10:45 AM on August 23, 2013 [11 favorites]


Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesman, said Thursday that ESPN’s decision was not based on any concerns about hurting its contractual relationship with the N.F.L.

This is a lie.

Sports reporting requires that those undertaking it fawn over the sports, teams and players they cover. Access comes at a price, and that price is objectivity. This isn't a new problem in sports reporting and ESPN is guilty of it often.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:46 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Somebody should make a helmet out of whatever the NFL shield is made of -- because it surely gets protected a hell of a lot more than the players.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:49 AM on August 23, 2013 [14 favorites]


My brain hurts.
posted by fairmettle at 10:51 AM on August 23, 2013


I would expect better from a nonprofit tax-exempt 501(c)(6) organization.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:55 AM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


Simple: wrap every football player in a protective layer of lawyers before he goes onto the field to play. Replace this protective layer with fresh lawyers as it becomes degraded during play.
posted by hank at 10:59 AM on August 23, 2013 [10 favorites]


I don't really get the outrage. Of course football hurts people, and not just their brains. But guess what - lots of sports do. Its in appropriate to hide this information, but I don't find any shared liability on the part of the networks, or fans, or teams.
posted by H. Roark at 11:02 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, the NFL is basically the tobacco lobby 30 years ago?
posted by leotrotsky at 11:03 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Replace this protective layer with fresh lawyers as it becomes degraded during play.

I fail to see how anything can be more degrading than being wrapped in lawyers.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Get rid of the anti-trust exemption for professional sports in America. So many bad examples of sportsmanship of late...it makes it hard to be a fan...
posted by zerobyproxy at 11:11 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Reducing head injuries in a full contact sport is really hard.

Take hockey. There's much less denial that brain injuries are a real problem; this is acknowledged by both the league and the media. Even blowhard and violence aficionado Don Cherry sees this as a serious problem. The NHL has tried to change the rules by heavily penalizing hits to the head, but it's not making any statistical impact on the rate of head injuries, either because the new rule isn't being properly enforced or because more rule changes are needed.

Football? The linemen are suffering heavy head impacts on every play. It's hard to see what rule changes could reduce the injury rate without making it a different game entirely. Maybe they should go back to leather helmets.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:12 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't really get the outrage. Of course football hurts people, and not just their brains. But guess what - lots of sports do. Its in appropriate to hide this information, but I don't find any shared liability on the part of the networks, or fans, or teams.

Injuries incurred in the workplace are the responsibility of the employer in most civilized countries. NFL players are not self employed.

Reasons for outrage: They were aware of the problem. They allowed players who had been injured to go untreated (and in fact provided little to no health care during and after). They allowed more players to suffer the same injuries. They did little to nothing to prevent the injuries and even concealed what they knew from the players and public (who end up footing the bill for the health care and suicide cleanup teams).

Even now their measures are half-assed but I feel less bad for the players because the players are at least informed of the risks of permenant brain injury.

Turns out Eric Lindros and his Dad were pretty damn smart men and Eric will have a better life because of it. Bobby Clarke should be ashamed of himself.

With that giant mountain of money the NFL and its partners are sitting on they could at least provide the players with health care for the rest of their lives.
posted by srboisvert at 11:12 AM on August 23, 2013 [21 favorites]


H. Roark: "I don't really get the outrage. Of course football hurts people, and not just their brains. But guess what - lots of sports do. Its in appropriate to hide this information, but I don't find any shared liability on the part of the networks, or fans, or teams."

So the league gets to beat the hell out of young men and then leave them to live with their disabilities for the rest of their lives? Nice.
posted by octothorpe at 11:15 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


So the league gets to beat the hell out of young men and then leave them to live with their disabilities for the rest of their lives?

Every sport everywhere does this -- the NFL has a set of problems, but I'm not willing to tar them alone for this.

Of course, in civilized countries, all people have healthcare, regardless of if they're working or not.

Maybe they should go back to leather helmets.

You would literally have to disqualify every single play from the Pop Warner leagues up, or you would have dozens of people dying of skull fractures -- those are why gridiron football players wear hard helmets.

The problem is that they've been drilled to play the game with hard helmets. They're going to do things that will kill them if they're not wearing them while playing, and for pro players, this is quite literally a lifetime of training they'd have to overcome. And they won't, and if you put them into games without them, they will be badly hurt.

You could start limited pad games, but the two games could never be played together. I have no idea how you work this with the pro leagues -- highschoolers and college levels will naturally evolve away, but you'd have to run two teams until enough full-pad players retired.

It might need to happen to save the game. But it is, in no way, easy.
posted by eriko at 11:23 AM on August 23, 2013


I know you're joking about the leather helmet thing, but one reason that football players get more concussions than rugby players, or that boxers get more concussions than e.g. MMA fighters, is because the protective gear allows people to hit harder.

Maybe leather helmets aren't such a bad idea--they could market it like a throwback thing.
posted by box at 11:25 AM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


Boycott football. Simple as that.
posted by Apropos of Something at 11:30 AM on August 23, 2013 [13 favorites]


Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesman, said Thursday that ESPN’s decision was not based on any concerns about hurting its contractual relationship with the N.F.L.

Moments later, Mr LaPlaca's pants were seen to spontaneously combust and engulf the ESPN spokesman in flames. Services will be held Tuesday.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:34 AM on August 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


I wonder if doping scandals, anti-competitive behavior, disregard for player safety, and so on will disgust fans and drive them away from professional sports over time. But then again, sports fans want to watch sports, and if these monopolistic organizations control the supply, fans can only get their fix from one place.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:36 AM on August 23, 2013


I said it last time the subject came up--if you watch, you are complicit.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:37 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Triplanetary: "I wonder if doping scandals, anti-competitive behavior, disregard for player safety, and so on will disgust fans and drive them away from professional sports over time."

Have they ever? Seriously, if it wasn't for the threat of lawyers getting involved, would any sport care about their athletes performing at dangerously high levels? The Tour de France practically invented doping and it de rigeur in the sport for years, and fans didn't seem terribly concerned about it.
posted by mullingitover at 11:39 AM on August 23, 2013


I love football (Broncos!) but I am beginning to think it is immoral for me to watch it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:42 AM on August 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


I wonder if doping scandals, anti-competitive behavior, disregard for player safety, and so on will disgust fans and drive them away from professional sports over time.

American fans have shown, time and time again, that the more violent their sports get, the more they like it. I wouldn't hold my breath for anything to negatively affect fan attendance/viewership short of a popular player actually being killed during a play.

And, even then, I suspect the fans will be able to shrug it off as an unfortunate accident. "He knew the risks," "It's a naturally violent sport" and other such hand-wringing.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:42 AM on August 23, 2013


Taking away hard-hitting smash-mouth rite-of-manhood high school and college football is more likely to cause a second Civil War than anything Obama could ever do.

Which is a shame, because as much as I enjoy watching the sport (or at least as much as an Eagles fan can), it needs to go away. Completely. The painful thing to watch will be tiny adjustments being made -- a tweaked helmet here, a rule alteration there -- and those responsible pretending that it will make a measurable difference in the rates of brains smashing against bone repeatedly. Football establishments will pat themselves on the back for 'protecting our players' while simultaneously hanging them out to dry, simply because long-term concussive effects aren't blatant enough for fans to quickly recognize.

Meanwhile, our children are out on grassy fields, slowly killing themselves.
posted by delfin at 11:45 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't really get the outrage. Of course football hurts people, and not just their brains. But guess what - lots of sports do.

I played rugby for three years in college, but we had extremely strict rules around concussion treatment, aid, and returning to the field. (In addition to playing a sport where head-crunching tackles are not a goal, although concussions are a serious and common side effect of rugby, especially at the elite level.) This is, as far as I can tell, an extremely different model than football from middle school on up, where children are sent back, again and again, to playing after head injuries. I have cousins and uncles who've played football, and I am so grateful that they basically all sucked at it in college. The end result of those years of injury appear to be extremely debilitating for top players at the elite levels, not at that long in some cases after they leave the field. The NFL has continued to try to obfuscate the effects of the sport on the players and their lack of honesty is appalling.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:46 AM on August 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I said it last time the subject came up--if you watch, you are complicit.

Yeah, I'm basically uncomfortable watching professional football at this point.

Time-limited NCAA football I'm still OK with at this point, but not the pros.
posted by Jahaza at 11:52 AM on August 23, 2013


It's a few years old now, but the Onion's NFL Concussion poster is still right on the mark.
posted by gladly at 11:59 AM on August 23, 2013 [12 favorites]


I know you're joking about the leather helmet thing

Actually I'm serious about it as the only thing I can think of that would reduce brain injuries for linemen in a game still recognizable as football.

You would literally have to disqualify every single play from the Pop Warner leagues up

Exactly. The current style of play makes brain injuries inevitable and needs to change. The increased risk of skull fractures would result in a new style of play that would make head-to-head contact something that doesn't happen on every play.

For pro players, this is quite literally a lifetime of training they'd have to overcome. And they won't...It might need to happen to save the game. But it is, in no way, easy.

Agreed, and I admit that it's a bizarre idea, but I don't have a better idea. Does anyone?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:00 PM on August 23, 2013


I guess this means Nate Silver, recently of the NY Times now of ESPN, won't doing any Moneyball nerd stat analyses of concussions and gridiron performance?
posted by notyou at 12:04 PM on August 23, 2013


This is, as far as I can tell, an extremely different model than football from middle school on up, where children are sent back, again and again, to playing after head injuries.

The other HUGE problem with American football specifically and with contact sports in general is that it's not just the massive knocked-out-of-your-shoes hits that cause the damage. The lineman or running back who takes hit after hit after hit in a game may not take a single KO blow, but incur significant injury from repeated subconcussive hits.

As one of many examples, Purdue studied high school football a couple of years ago (featuring kids who, obviously, are smaller and don't hit as hard as their grown-up counterparts). One kid took a 289G hit to the head and showed no visible concussive symptoms. But he was not alone:

Some of the high-schoolers Nauman studied suffered about 150 head impacts per week during the season, or about 1,500 impacts per year. On average, the hits carried a force of around 40G.
...
A low-speed rear-end crash causes an impact of 10G to 30G.


...How about a nice game of chess?
posted by delfin at 12:10 PM on August 23, 2013


I've unintentionally boycotted football my entire life. It's just too violent for my tastes.

I do know some Fans who scare me. Otherwise civilized, they have no problem at all with screaming "Kill him!" while watching a game, and beyond a mild shrug, are completely unconcerned regarding the future well-being of their gladiators. "I'm sure the NFL will take care of them," they say. "They'll make better helmets." When I suggest that perhaps it's a game best left behind, it is quickly pointed out to me that anything that represents that much money cannot possibly go away.

So, a boycott? I'm behind it, but good luck getting The Fans to embrace such a thing.
posted by kinnakeet at 12:17 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any Mefite parents of young boys plan on letting them play full-contact football?

I predict it'll be boxing all over again, eventually relegated to fringe status.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:21 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if I will live long enough to see the results of the O. J. Simpson autopsy and the Aaron Hernandez autopsy and the pathologist explaining to the public how those guys brains were like totally fucked up.
posted by bukvich at 12:21 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The assertion that leather helmets would be safer, without any data to support it, is ridiculous. One could also claim that if we got rid of crumple zones and airbags, everyone would drive safer because the consequences of a wreck would be worse, but it would take some seriously good data to support such a change. It could be true, but it also could be much worse. Simply asserting that it would be safer based on ones perception of rugby vs. American football is not sufficient.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:26 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any Mefite parents of young boys plan on letting them play full-contact football?

Terry Bradshaw wouldn't let son play football now
Hall of Fame quarterback and FOX analyst Terry Bradshaw has become the latest former player to say that he would not allow his offspring to play football.

"If I had a son today, and I would say this to all our audience and our viewers out there, I would not let him play football," Bradshaw said during a Wednesday appearance on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

"There will be a time in the next decade where we will not see football as it is, I believe," the former Pittsburgh Steelers great said.
posted by octothorpe at 12:33 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The assertion that leather helmets would be safer, without any data to support it, is ridiculous. One could also claim that if we got rid of crumple zones and airbags, everyone would drive safer because the consequences of a wreck would be worse, but it would take some seriously good data to support such a change. It could be true, but it also could be much worse. Simply asserting that it would be safer based on ones perception of rugby vs. American football is not sufficient.

Seriously. Concussions don't just come from the linemen smacking each other. There are plenty of concussions each year from players who just get whiplashed into the ground. Imagine how many more QBs and WRs would get head injuries from that alone if we went back to leather.
posted by DynamiteToast at 12:34 PM on August 23, 2013


The assertion that leather helmets would be safer, without any data to support it, is ridiculous.

People behave differently and sometimes counterintuitively when safety is brought into the conversation (to wit: requiring bicycle helmets tends to depress bicycle use).

I'm not saying I know either way whether less armor would make people play differently enough to lower injury rates more than the loss of protection would raise them, but it's not ridiculous to think that it might.
posted by Etrigan at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bad as it clearly is, I don't think the worst of the problems are caused by direct damage to the brain from concussions and sub-concussions.

The real trouble appears to be that those concussions and subconcussions trigger an autoimmune disease which devastates the brain over the long term:
In football players who take lots of hits to the head, their immune system may be attacking their brain.

That shouldn’t be possible, because a healthy blood-brain barrier keeps antibodies firmly on the body side - but new research shows that even sub-concussive hits can cause that barrier to leak. Brain proteins spill through to the body, and antibodies to those proteins can enter the brain, potentially destroying cells.

That means that the long-term brain damage seen in football players and boxers may be, essentially, an autoimmune disease.

(The study was published today in PLOS One.
...
It used to be that loss of consciousness was the marker of a concussion. Then, it was the marker of a bad concussion. Now we know that concussions can have very subtle symptoms, detectable by computerized or app-based tests.

Now evidence has been mounting over the last decade that even smaller hits add up.

High school soccer players, in a study published last week, showed subtle changes after practice in their ability to point away from an object on a tablet-based app. I wasn’t crazy about the study because the control group hardly seemed comparable (non-athlete students) but the results are along the lines of what we’d expect to see if sub-concussions are a problem: subtle brain damage after minor hits to the head.
...
Then comes the study published today in PLOS One. Rather than looking at cognitive deficits, they tested college football players’ blood for S100B, a protein that’s found in the blood after brain injury and, the authors say, is an accepted marker of concussion.
...
The bottom line on football players’ S100B: it spiked after games, but returned to baseline within 24 hours. The more head hits they’d had in the game, the higher the S100B levels. (Nobody in the study had a concussion.) This suggests that the blood-brain barrier is breached during each game, letting those proteins into the bloodstream when they should be staying in the brain.
...
The next time the player takes a hit, and the blood-brain barrier opens up again, those antibodies can cross into the brain, attacking the protein at its source. [I think the immune attack on the brain at this stage does not require further trauma, because primed immune system cells can cross the blood-brain barrier, even when antibodies cannot.] This study didn’t look at brain damage directly, but they did find that although S100B always returned to baseline, the anti-S100B antibodies increased steadily throughout the season.
And the implications of this go far beyond sports.

Exposure to the shockwaves of IEDs appear to do very similar damage, and we have a whole generation of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to look after.
posted by jamjam at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2013 [12 favorites]


I started boycotting football two years ago. Haven't watched a single game since, college or pro, and don't miss it. But I was never a really big fan, so I don't know how much headway such an effort would make. It might be very interesting if more big-name ex-players start advocating for people to give up the game or keep their kids out of it.
posted by dellsolace at 1:21 PM on August 23, 2013


Damn, and I thought it was bad when the NFL pressured ESPN to cancel Playmakers. That show was great.

Playmakers is an American television series that aired on ESPN from August 26, 2003 to November 11, 2003. It depicted the lives of the Cougars, a fictional professional football team in an unidentified city. The show starred Omar Gooding, Marcello Thedford, Christopher Wiehl, Jason Matthew Smith, Russell Hornsby, and Tony Denison. The show, which ran eleven episodes, was the first original drama series created by ESPN. Although the ratings were very high for ESPN—Playmakers was the highest-rated show on the network other than its Sunday night NFL and Saturday college football games—ESPN eventually canceled the series under pressure from the National Football League, who thought professional football was being negatively portrayed.

posted by Drinky Die at 1:23 PM on August 23, 2013


Actually, the better helmet design just gives the illusion of safety, causing people to go faster and hit harder than they would have before the better helmets.

It just ratchets up everything, same reason people drive like maniacs in their SUVs because they think they're protected. Turns out they're just making it more dangerous for everyone.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:31 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Injuries incurred in the workplace are the responsibility of the employer in most civilized countries. NFL players are not self employed.

This statement scares me. I see some NFL exec seeing this a few hours from now and a big light bulb going off in his head. 3 years down the line I see a story written on grantland: "NFL players as independent contractors: Is the notion of The Team suffering?".
posted by hal_c_on at 1:35 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's unlikely ex-players will have much impact by advising kids not to play. In fact, that might be the least credible piece of advice an ex-player could give, from the perspective of a football-inclined kid. The kid would equally ignore Dan Marino telling him to stay off drugs or practice abstinence, but those wouldn't ring quite so loudly of hypocrisy. "Sure, 'cause you got yours. Lemme make a couple million, then I'll join you."

The rewards for playing football are rich and immediate: the adrenaline high, the thrill of victory, the camaraderie of a team, popularity among your classmates and neighbors...it's a compelling list. I don't think you can dent that significantly by putting a celebrity face on a public-service announcement. You'd have to get kids genuinely thinking about the long term, and that's something society has struggled (and mostly failed) with since we started having the little brats. Otherwise you'd have to dull the rewards, and good luck with that.

I feel ridiculous disagreeing with Terry freakin' Bradshaw about what football will look like in ten years, but yeah, I disagree. I think rule changes will continue to make the game safer, and I hope equipment will improve. I do not think anybody in 2023 will have trouble recognizing today's game of football in their stadiums.
posted by cribcage at 1:47 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


"He knew the risks," "It's a naturally violent sport" and other such hand-wringing.

I don't know how you can dismiss these as hand-wringing when they are actually fairly compelling arguments--even legal principles. What's disgusting is less that people are willing to watch adults partake in inherently risky sports, and more that the League tries to silence people pointing out the undeniable risks while promoting the sport to children.
posted by Hoopo at 2:30 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seriously. Concussions don't just come from the linemen smacking each other.

In fact, it's not the lineman who are most often concussed. It's backs -- in particular, cornerbacks, wide receivers, safeties and full/half backs -- who suffer the most, because they're moving much faster when the impacts happen. The nature of the game make lineman helmet-to-helmet remarkably rare, because linemen are moving upwards, with arms out front, at contact on almost every play.

WRs is the single worst position, because unlike *every* other position, you can't cover up before the hit if you haven't gotten the ball yet, so they often get hit stretched out, then slam into the ground.
posted by eriko at 2:59 PM on August 23, 2013


Linemen smack right into each other every play, often hitting helmets, and move very quickly for their size downfield to make blocks as the play develops. So, they get less concussions but a ton of the sub-concusve hits.

The surprising finding was that some athletes never sustained a hit strong enough, as measured by the hit monitors, to cause a concussion, and yet the fMRI and CNT results showed evidence of the characteristic increases in brain activity and decreases in cognitive ability normally associated with a concussion. This result was most common among offensive linemen, who may take 40-50 sub-concussive hits in a single, ordinary practice. Over the course of a season, this massive accumulation of lower g-force hits seems to have caused the same effects we’d usually expect only from more powerful, concussion-causing hits.

So, it's really hard to pick a worst position as far as the head impacts go.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:14 PM on August 23, 2013


It isn't that concussions are bad that surprised everyone and which the NFL tried to cover up. That's kind of obvious, and the equipment and rules are aimed at limiting the incidence of obvious concussions. The shocker was the cumulative damage from sub-concussive hits adding up to serious overt symptomatic brain damage in the players' late 40's and early 50's. It could be devastating for the league both in its liability to generations of players who have been harmed far more than anyone ever suspected, and in the ramifications for what safe game play might look like with this danger factored in.

Everyone knows football is violent and dangerous, that bones are broken, ligaments torn, joints blown out, and even the occasional severe spinal injury will occur. These risks are accepted and managed. But the revelation that a hidden injury which isn't apparent for years might lurk in your brain waiting to drive you insane at a relatively young age is the stuff of horror.
posted by localroger at 3:46 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The assertion that leather helmets would be safer, without any data to support it, is ridiculous. One could also claim that if we got rid of crumple zones and airbags, everyone would drive safer because the consequences of a wreck would be worse, but it would take some seriously good data to support such a change.

Apples to oranges. When you put a hard helmet on someone and charge them at the other player that helmet becomes a tool. It's one of the things people hit with. Replace the hard helmets with leather and peoples technique changes because they no longer have the hard shells.

The crumple zone and airbag equivalence would only be if you drove like dodgems at the fair ground and expected the crumple zones to be used on every trip rather than very rarely.
posted by Francis at 4:15 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


They switched away from leather helmets because players were dying. On the field. Right away.
posted by srboisvert at 5:10 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's America's Sport!
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:22 PM on August 23, 2013


They switched away from leather helmets because players were dying. On the field. Right away.

Players aren't dying in rugby.
posted by Etrigan at 5:37 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am so glad that "Frontline" somehow still exists... though now I'm afraid I'm jinxing it by saying that out loud.
posted by argonauta at 5:50 PM on August 23, 2013


Players aren't dying in rugby.

Google 'rugby player killed'.
posted by srboisvert at 6:01 PM on August 23, 2013


Yeah, a guy at my high school lost a testicle in a rugby game. It's not exactly a safe sport either.
posted by Hoopo at 6:10 PM on August 23, 2013


I'm glad others have mentioned the growingly-extensive body of evidence about all this. I think we'll get even more damning evidence from the sensors Stanford is making. While I don't think that the popular culture would ever willingly let go of football, no matter how violent it gets, I think it's going away fairly soon regardless (boxing redux, indeed).

NFL football is built on a massive, completely-free-to-them farm system that starts all the way back in pee-wee leagues but is especially focused on high school and college athletes. The problem is that all that high school and college football happens at schools, who must be able to afford the various kinds of liability etc. insurance they need to have a legally safe program.

I believe that as soon as the medical evidence is clearly conclusive, insurance premiums will be too prohibitively expensive for schools to afford them, and the NFL's massive feeder system will evaporate. They could perhaps just recruit other professional-caliber athletes and turn them into football players, or establish a professional farm team system like baseball, but I think once schools can't sponsor competitive, intermural football teams because it destroys players' brains, this all will then be widely known.

After that, I anticipate lots of people, just like me and several others in this thread, will make a moral decision to quit watching, because not everyone wants to see young men actually destroy themselves. Many may, but many more will not.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:15 PM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


(I still believe that when Mohammad Ali became visibly completely debilitated and people saw that, is when boxing ceased to be a viable major sport. It's only a matter of time for football.)
posted by LooseFilter at 6:18 PM on August 23, 2013


Evolution towards a more non-contact sport seems more likely than collapse to me. I would keep watching if they went flag. It's just hard to figure out what professional flag football blocking and defense would look like.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:21 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Damn, and I thought it was bad when the NFL pressured ESPN to cancel Playmakers. That show was great.

I hadn't heard of Playmakers or its cancellation before reading the NYT story. Someone put the whole season up at YouTube. First one was pretty good.
posted by mediareport at 8:09 PM on August 23, 2013


Will no one rid me of this turbulent two-part investigative report?
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:55 PM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't hold my breath for anything to negatively affect fan attendance/viewership short of a popular player actually being killed during a play.

Even that probably wouldn't make so much of a difference - Dale Earnhardt's death didn't make people give up on NASCAR.
posted by Daily Alice at 9:26 PM on August 23, 2013


This is the beginning of the end for professional football; I predict it will take some time, but it will end up like boxing. I used to be a football fan - a huge fan. I played on a high school team. I loved the game. What started to turn me off about the game was the sudden realization one day that just about every player was a walking wounded player. That, combined with the ridiculous louts that were selected from pro football retirees to announce games. Their mindless commentary; their adulation of the big "hit"; their boisterous bravado - all of it made me feel small for wanting to watch the game.

Now, years later, I don't miss it one bit, and hope I live to see the day when pro football shrivels and dies, as it deserves to do. Either that, or they turn it into a finesse game with no head contact. Good luck with that!
posted by Vibrissae at 1:15 AM on August 24, 2013


or they turn it into a finesse game

My wife and a good friend were in Las Vegas for the 2009 Super Bowl, patriotically decked out in Saints swag to see our home team play and win its first championship.

After the game they were joined in the elevator by a dour looking Englishman. He eyed up their swag and their giddy aspect and cocked an eyebrow.

"I just don't get American football," the fellow finally said.

They braced a bit and got ready for the lecture about how violent American football is.

"Too much thinking," he declared.

Part of the problem is that even fans aren't allowed an appreciation of how much the game is as much a chess match between the coaches as it is a physical contest. There has been talk of showing the All-22 view, which shows how the entire play develops more clearly than the follow-the-ball focus of current broadcast technique. This is the film which teams review to analyze their own play, but the coaches howled when it was suggested to make this footage public because they don't want the back seat drivers piling on.

I think the best possible future for football is for every player to be fully and publicly instrumented for cumulative trauma, with per-game caps being part of the chess match. So part of the game becomes: This is a big play, do we put $important_player out there and risk him taking a hit that puts him out for the rest of the game, or save him for the next quarter? Add to this the all-22 view and a few rules changes to reduce head impacts in general play strategy, and I think it would remain popular while mitigating the worst of the danger.
posted by localroger at 7:11 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


> After that, I anticipate lots of people, just like me and several others in this thread, will make a moral decision to quit watching, because not everyone wants to see young men actually destroy themselves.

The destruction has always been part of the show. It is modern gladiator combat. Youtube search on (football big hits). The clips have millions of views. It's all perfectly legal and moral if you have adults and informed consent. What is going to go away is high school football.

But not in Texas and Florida any time soon.
posted by bukvich at 7:40 AM on August 24, 2013


MMA is still gaining viewers. WWE is at least maintaining its viewership, and they're ambivalent about exactly where to draw the lines on blood and chair shots. Soccer fans pull apart stadiums and riot in far more violent ways than football-fan fisticuffs, and nobody is calling for the sport to be put down.

I'm not making an argument about value or morals. What I'm saying is, looking around at the social context, I find it hard to believe football is going anywhere. The backlash in baseball is about drugs, which is a loaded issue in our society; and anyway that conversation is focused on cheating, not player health. I just don't think we, as a society, care enough about the physical risks implicated by a non-compulsory, billion-dollar game. That's why it's important to keep the rules evolving toward safety, and to keep investing in technology as well.
posted by cribcage at 8:03 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


What I'm saying is, looking around at the social context, I find it hard to believe football is going anywhere.

I agree. I think it's fiscal concerns that will do it. When prohibitively expensive insurance premiums make it impossible for schools to sponsor competitive football teams, the entire infrastructure of the sport below the professional level will collapse. No other sport is completely dependent on schools to train and provide athletes like football, and much of the love of the sport in this country is not for the NFL teams, but for college teams. When those are no longer financially viable, a tectonic shift will occur.

Also, there are some interesting numbers on youth participation in sports if you look around online: there are about 35 million kids enrolled in youth sports programs, with over 5 million of those playing soccer. Though about a million boys play high school football, just about half a million kids (including girls!) play high school soccer.

I don't think it's so unimaginable that, when playing on the school football team is no longer an option, student athletes will choose non-football sports in slightly greater numbers than they already do. It won't take as much as it seems to tip the balance.

(Also, judging from my students--university, so young adults, mainly--soccer or MMA is the sport for them. But it's California, so who knows.)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:06 AM on August 24, 2013


Dear parents: letting your children suit of for Pop Warner is the first step on the road to brain damage and early death. Never let yourself be convinced otherwise.

What's that? You bought the top of the line helmet that Riddell swears is engineered to protect your son from concussions? Silly parent, corporations lie because it's more profitable than the truth.

Every time you watch your kid smack helmet-on-helmet, you should up that mental "My Kid's Brain-Damage-O-Meter" one tick. Maybe two if the crowd gives a universal "Oooh" as the echo of skull-on-skull bounces off the stands. And 10 ticks for an outright concussion.

Let.
Football.
Die.

It will take some time and there will be dead-enders down South who will continue to put their sons on the CTE assembly line to have their brains smacked around inside their skulls like dad and his uncles did.

But we need to keep spreading the meme:
The very act of playing American Football = brain damage. Every time you see your son put on a helmet, you 're sending him out to the brain damage factory
And BTW, American Football encourages some serious levels of obesity in linemen.
Rugby players? Generally much more athletic.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:14 AM on August 24, 2013


They switched away from leather helmets because players were dying. On the field. Right away.

Sorry, thought I'd expanded on this earlier with my rugby comment, but here's what I also meant to say:

No, they didn't. They switched away from flying-wedge style plays and legalized the forward pass because players were dying. On the field. Right away. Helmets were evolutionary advances, not "Holy shit, people are dying -- they need helmets!"

The plastic helmet didn't come into the game until the 1930s, and the predecessor leather helmets were never required in college or the NFL. Before that point, players didn't spear because they knew it would hurt themselves more than their opponents. Armor-type helmets took that fear away.
posted by Etrigan at 9:14 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Corporate sponsorships, nationally televised games, minute-by-minute coverage on sports websites -- for players, parents and coaches, high school football has never been bigger. But is enough being done to ensure players' safety as the intensity of the sport grows? In Football High, FRONTLINE investigates the new face of high school football."
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:53 AM on August 24, 2013


This Politico story (via), which primarily focuses on the inside baseball football journalism story of a conflict between two Wall Street Journal columnists, is an interesting read in terms of what some prominent writers are taking away from the debate over brain injuries in American football:
"Another thing he might mention is this absurd concussion lobby, which consists of these researchers in Boston and other assorted grant-grubbing academics and worry warts who are all trying hard to push this nanny state narrative," Walker wrote. "The quarterback of that team is, of course, the NYT - but we wouldn't want to mention them in the piece."
...
"He also misses out on some strong arguments in football's favor," the editor added, and went on to list four points in defense of football, including the lower brain-damage rate among younger players, the changes already taking place to protect players' health, the fact that risk was an inherent part of life, and the fact that football "is a consciously AMERICAN game... part of our national identity-as much as, if not more so, than baseball."
posted by tonycpsu at 12:31 PM on August 24, 2013


Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.

George F. Will, International Herald Tribune (7 May 1990)

Will is a goof but that was pretty darn funny.
posted by bukvich at 1:32 PM on August 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


So a question: why can't they put sensors on a player's helmet like the ones that shippers put on fragile, high-value fresight?

Those things, call "tell-tales," I think, reveal whether the package has been jarred, tipped, or dropped en route. Couldn't a smilar, cheap sensor/indicator do the same for football players' heads? It would be clear when they had been hit past a certain threshold, and too many hard hits in a goven timeframe would result in mandatory benching.

Father of four, none of whom will be playiing football.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:56 PM on August 24, 2013


why can't they put sensors on a player's helmet

They are already doing that for research, and incorporating it into game play is exactly what I suggested upthread.
posted by localroger at 7:04 PM on August 24, 2013


One of the subjects in the Football High docu is what lack of funds for poor schools forces them to forego for their players. And sensors are $pendy.

Another thing: college players have a limit of 20hrs per week to complete all football activities.

High School players have no such limits, and the serious teams train all-year long. They can smack helmets as much as they want, in season and off.

Srsly, high school football is where I think ther's a ticking time bomb.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:03 PM on August 24, 2013


As someone said upthread, high school football as we know it is going away. And college football is going to change, a whole hell of a lot.

I think HS football could morph into a flag-style sport that preserves enough of the moves of the full game that it could still serve as a feedline to the college and NFL recruiters. It will look a lot more different from the pro sport than the current version does from the current pro version though.

College players need to be paid, full stop. They are taking the same kind of body damage the NFL players do for no compensation except glory, while everyone around them rake$ in the buck$. Otherwise college needs to follow what I said about HS, being a much milder sport which displays and tests for capabilities without being as traumatic. I don't think the alumni whose fandom mostly funds college football would go for that as easily as HS alumni though.

Also, sensors and wireless comms are getting pretty cheap. I think in a few years if it's adopted and economies of scale apply it will be within budget for even HS football teams to have sensor helmets with real time connections for only a bit more than they pay for equipment now. It might not be that unrealistic, maybe with a few grants from the right places, for even poor schools that can field a team at all to field one compliant with NFL instrumentation rules.
posted by localroger at 8:13 PM on August 24, 2013


Players aren't dying in rugby.
Google 'rugby player killed'.
I also googled 'football player killed'. While I did get other results, statistically there are more football players in the realm where google believes my search results should originate from. There was also this.

It's amusing that on one hand people are comparing this to the Gladiators, and then also stating non-ironically that leather helmets are a bad idea.

Personally, I think leather helmets are a bad idea. However I'd wager large sums of money that they'd be at least as effective as the current NFL "minor adjustments" program will be.
posted by Blue_Villain at 10:36 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is an issue that interests and concerns me. With Junior Seau's death, in particular, the post-mortem CTE diagnosis was alarming because he never had a diagnosed concussion. Helmets protect the skull from fractures. We know less about how to protect the brain from sloshing around inside the skull.

My anger at the league comes from two sources. One, they have known for years about the long-term impacts of head injuries, yet continued to send concussed players back on to the field, frequently during the same game. Two, the owners are making millions of dollars on the backs of young men who see no other way to earn a living for their families than to literally sacrifice their lives for our entertainment.

Sensors sound like a good idea because any steps toward quantifying the problem would be helpful. However, the most recent research, IIRC, shows that while the major concussions are obviously problematic, so too are the small ones that happen during practices. The mini-concussions coming from everything that happens after the snap that most people would not even notice add up to the point where they might be even worse than the big concussions.

There are a lot of known unknowns and unknown unknowns but the known knowns are pretty damning as it is.
posted by kat518 at 11:39 AM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


The mini-concussions coming from everything that happens after the snap that most people would not even notice add up to the point where they might be even worse than the big concussions.

I tend to think this is the case. If I was running the show, this would be my proposal: First, the NFL plays a season or two where every single player in every single game and full dressout practice is instrumented, to get a full picture of the kind of acceleration profile players (including players at different positions) endure during a season.

Second, go back to the films and interpolate to find out what the damage profile likely was of the players who developed CTE and those who don't seem to have. See if there is a clear threshold, whether acute or chronic, below which play is relatively safe.

Finally, make the instrumentation and threshold part of the game, just as measures to limit overt concussion have been. The technology exists to do this and there is enough money at stake in the preservation of the game to pay for it.

And for God's sake change high school football to some form that doesn't ever require deliberate head trauma to make a successful play.
posted by localroger at 12:24 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you wanted to implement an experiment like that, you'd get a university lab funded and then enlist a local youth league, or even just one individual high school team with their league's approval. Alternately, you could approach arena football (AFL) with the proposal. They have considerably more to lose than kids' teams, but arguably less than the NFL and there's a chance they'd see value in the potential for education and spotlight.

Taking the idea untested to the NFL would be...well, like banging your head against a wall.
posted by cribcage at 12:59 PM on August 25, 2013


Yeah cribcage I know, but as I said it would be "if I was running things." The NFL is the best place to get the data because it's in the NFL that the CTE injuries have occurred, and everything is recorded back to the beginning of time so you can add up a player's pre-instrument exposure if you have enough data to relate hit styles to acceleration stats. The problem with using Arena or a youth league is that there are no symptomatic CTE victims whose history can then be reconstructed to see if there is a safe threshold.
posted by localroger at 2:08 PM on August 25, 2013


"Another thing he might mention is this absurd concussion lobby, which consists of these researchers in Boston and other assorted grant-grubbing academics and worry warts who are all trying hard to push this nanny state narrative," Walker wrote. "The quarterback of that team is, of course, the NYT - but we wouldn't want to mention them in the piece."

See also smoking / cancer and anthropogenic global warming. Right wing bingo.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:22 PM on August 25, 2013


"Was ESPN sloppy, naive or compromised?" ESPN's ombudsman's report:
So what just happened? Beats me. At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.
posted by gladly at 8:51 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


ESPN: The NFL has reached a tentative $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players, agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:05 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The NFL has reached a tentative $765 million settlement...

Which is how much they will make from seven games of Monday Night Football this year.
posted by Etrigan at 5:03 PM on August 29, 2013


Lights out? Forsaking football in the land of gridiron giants:
More than a sign of the times, it's a sign of concern. Here in the land of Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Mike Ditka, fewer high school students are opting to play football.

Coaches say a big reason is parents concerned about concussions.

Although the trend has not been enough to dim those Friday Night Lights, the falling numbers are striking. The Post-Gazette's Mike White reported last week that many of the WPIAL's teams have smaller squads than 10 years ago. At Woodland Hills High School, the number of players fell from 94 in 2003 to 62 this year, a 34 percent drop. Other schools have seen similar declines: Baldwin, 27 percent; Shaler, 27 percent; North Hills, 25 percent; Fox Chapel, 21 percent.
posted by octothorpe at 8:32 AM on September 9, 2013


More than a sign of the times, it's a sign of concern. Here in the land of Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Mike Ditka, fewer high school students are opting to play football.

One percent of high school football players go on to play college football. One percent of college football players go on to play in the NFL. Numbers in high schools could drop by 60-70 percent and you'd still have enough to field complete teams on either side of the ball (and frankly, that's not even a requirement -- a lot of great players even these days played both sides in high school, because they're that much better than everyone around them). And you'd still have plenty of people available to fill Div I FBS teams in the colleges, and that's all anyone really cares about (and by "anyone," I mean "the people with money").

It's when colleges aren't filling the stands that the football collective needs to start worrying.
posted by Etrigan at 8:53 AM on September 9, 2013


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