NFL's Best Defense Is Kind of Offensive
For the first time ever, the National Football League has explicitly admitted there is a link between football-related brain trauma and the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It's a stunning shift in strategy. The first question is: Why now?
During a roundtable discussion with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Monday, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois asked Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety, if "there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE." "The answer to that is certainly, yes," Miller answered. League spokesman Brian McCarthy later affirmed, "The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL."
Remember, this is a league that for years denied the connection between football and brain damage and has used an extended public-relations campaign to minimize the sport's impact on player health. This is a league that has hired team doctors -- often specialists in areas other than neuropathology -- to toe the company line. This is a league that has funded dubious research with the purpose of casting doubt on existing studies that showed the hazards of football. This is a league that hired Miller, a lobbyist who previously worked as a congressional aide, to head up its "health and safety" division.
Remember, just last month, the league would not admit the link. In the week before the Super Bowl, Dr. Mitchel Berger, a member of the NFL's Head, Neck & Spine Committee, went out of his way to connect CTE with anything but football, to convey the message that the game isn't somehow uniquely dangerous. Commissioner Roger Goodell stayed on message in his State of the NFL press conference two days before the Super Bowl, asserting that football's dangers shouldn't deter anyone from playing. "There's risk in life," he said. "There's risk in sitting on the couch."
But increasingly, players are deciding that the risks of football outweigh the love of the game, the fame and the money. Early retirement has become a trend among young stars looking to preserve their minds and bodies. Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Jerod Mayo and Chris Borland are just a few of the growing number of players to leave the game at 30 or younger. Interestingly, it isn't just about the concussions: Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman spoke to Jermichael Finley, who retired in October at the age of 28. Finley said that for many players, the decision is "partly because of health, but other guys feel they're being undervalued in terms of contracts and pay and are deciding it's not worth the risk to keep playing."
Fans might not take too kindly to athletes scoffing at a few million dollars, but it's not hard to see how middling talent -- not necessarily the stars -- might see themselves as undervalued in a $13 billion league that pays out less than half of its revenue to players. Numbers aside, it's quite an expectation to ask someone to place a monetary value on his long-term mental and physical health. How many millions is your sanity worth?
The league's sudden acknowledgement of the link between football and CTE might be a sign that it's finally willing to accept reality and honestly address the dangers associated with the sport, and the threat many players are starting to feel. More likely, it could be part of an effort to reframe the conversation. Rather than deny the link, the league is shifting the discussion toward what that link does and should mean, to the question of whether such dangers should deter future players. Goodell's "risk in sitting on the couch" line sounded like a tone-deaf gaffe at the time, but perhaps it was the league's way of steering us toward a conversation that's easier on its future.
It's likely not a coincidence that such reframing has come alongside a recent report suggesting CTE is much more widespread than previously thought, extending beyond the NFL to high school football and other contact sports. The league is trying to spread the culpability around to other "risky" activities. It's the closest thing the NFL can do to what the National Hockey League does when it repeatedly contends that hockey "isn't the same as playing football" when it comes to brain trauma. The NFL is no longer denying the dangers of football, but now it will play up the dangers of everything else.
It's a strategy the league has tried in the past -- "A concussion can happen in a variety of different activities," Goodell said in 2007 -- but now seems to have a much more organized lobbying effort behind it, given Miller's discussion before Congress. The NFL is facing mounting evidence from researchers like Dr. Ann McKee, who on Monday presented her findings that CTE was present in the brains of 90 of 94 former NFL players studied, 45 of 55 former college football players, and six of 26 high-school players. Even conceding the connection, Miller still did his best to change the subject: "The broader point ... is what that necessarily means and where do we go from here with that information."
It's important to note the NFL's previous position on the science of brain disease. In December, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported that the league backed out of a seven-year, $16 million study, part of a $30 million "unrestricted gift" to the National Institutes of Health, because its lead researcher, McKee's Boston University colleague Dr. Robert Stern, has publicly criticized the NFL. (The NIH ultimately funded the study itself.) For years, the league has funded research conducted by scientists with strong league ties who produced results favorable for football and discredited others. The NFL is still maintaining its position of doubt, but instead of doubting the science, it's now doubting what the science should mean.
I suppose any acknowledgment that comes close to the league admitting that football is an inherently dangerous sport, that you can mitigate some of its risks but can never make it truly safe, is a step toward progress. But the implicit suggestion that knowing the risks, players should just suck it up and deal with it is just as tone-deaf as the previous stance of denial. There will always be athletes willing to put their bodies and brains on the line for a shot at pro glory, and they will increasingly come from the most socioeconomically vulnerable among us. But the more players learn about what football is doing to them, the less willing they seem to be to take the risks on the field -- making the smart decision to take their chances on the couch.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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