The past week has been a public relations nightmare for the National Football League (NFL) and its commissioner, Roger Goodell. First, Goodell came under fire from social and mainstream media for his gross mishandling of a domestic violence incident involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after a video surfaced showing Rice knocking his wife unconscious with a punch to the face in an Atlantic City hotel elevator.
Days later, one of the league’s marquee stars, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, was indicted on charges of child abuse for beating his four-year-old son. Shortly after being reinstated by the Vikings after sitting out a game, pictures of his allegedly abused son hit the internet, amid reports that Peterson is supposedly under investigation for abusing another one of his young children, via yahoo.com.
The public was outraged by the league’s perceived indifference towards domestic violence, which became the subject of endless talk show commentary. Yet, it is a story from last week which received very little national attention that poses the greatest threat to the league’s long-term profits and viability.
The NFL submitted documents in federal court which concluded that “it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population,” via the New York Times. This position represents a 180 degree turn from the league’s long-standing claim that there is no evidentiary link between concussions and cognitive impairment in former players. In fact, the league went to great lengths to withhold such evidence from players and the public, via ESPN.com.
The avalanche of anecdotal evidence linking professional football to cognitive impairment has picked up speed in recent years, with the suicides of former players Andre Waters, Ray Easterling, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the murder/suicide case of Kansas City Chiefs lineback Javon Belcher, and the advent of new technology, which provides greater insight into the condition of the human brain.
Researchers are now able to test deceased athletes for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease that can follow multiple hits to the head. A study published in the journal Brain in December 2012, examined the brains of 35 deceased former football players. Of the 35 players, 34 of them at the professional level, who had brain tissue sampled posthumously for the study, all but one showed evidence of disease.
The report submitted by the league in court was not accompanied by a startling video like the one TMZ.com acquired of Rice punching his girlfriend, though the numbers in the report are startling and there is plenty of jarring footage demonstrating the tragic results of too many hits to the head. The excerpts below from the PBS feature “League of Denial” of late Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster and former New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins safety Gene Atkins are two disturbing examples.
Many other former players have provided chilling accounts of their declining quality of life in recent years, including these heartbreaking comments by Hall-of-Famer Tony Dorsett.
The Rice and Peterson situations will blow over as soon as the ultra-reactionary Twittersphere finds a new target for its collective outrage. Goodell could take the fall if team owners bow to pressure from sponsors who are beginning to grumble about the league’s handling of the Rice and Peterson cases (Radisson suspended its sponsorship of the Vikings and Anheuser-Busch, sponsor of the official beer of the NFL, delivered scathing criticism of the league’s handling of the Peterson and Rice situations), but the NFL will walk away from the scandals relatively unscathed.
The league will commit to supporting charitable organizations that raise awareness about domestic violence, implement a stricter player conduct policy, and continue with business as usual.
But if the Rice and Peterson sagas are a mere blip on the NFL’s radar, the court documents submitted by the league represent a seismic shift, analogous to the admission by tobacco companies that evidence suggests a causal link between cigarettes and lung cancer.
The NFL has passed numerous new rules in recent years in an attempt to reduce the number of concussions, from prohibiting defenders from leading with their heads, to protecting “defenseless receivers,” to moving kickoffs up to the 40-yard-line. The league also implemented a more stringent protocol for players to return to the field after a concussion and continues to experiment with safer helmets.
However, football built its immense popularity on the type of collisions the NFL is now attempting to legislate out of the game. Modifying the game will alienate fans without solving the problem. The human body is not built to absorb hits from men the size and strength of professional football players, moving at remarkable speed.
Time is working against the NFL, as science discovers new ways to measure the impact of head trauma faster than the sport can address the issue. And the studies being conducted are no longer confined to the professional level. Earlier this year, the Journal of American Medical Association published a study, which concluded that “the brains of college football players are subtly different from the brains of other students, especially if the players have experienced a concussion in the past,” via the New York Times.
How much longer will parents allow their children to play such a barbaric game? At what point will elite athletes pursue sports that do not pose a significant risk of brain damage? When will the average fan stop tuning in to witness the carnage?
Football is entrenched in American society, and the NFL is an extremely powerful industry. The game will not disappear over night. But a steady decline in popularity, similar to the one experienced by boxing, is inevitable. The tipping point is likely to be a leaked video of a former star quarterback speaking gibberish or putting a shotgun to his chest, not an image associated with Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson.