Contra Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article isn’t 2009’s best piece of sports journalism. In fact, it’s not even the best article about football-related concussions. For that, you’ll have to go to GQ’s “Game Brain,” an absolutely frightening look at the long-term consequences of on-field collisions.
I’ve always enjoyed football, but I never really considered the physical repercussions of repeated head collisions. The visceral, bone-crunching stuff you see on TV – the big hits, the punishing sacks – immediately bring to mind broken legs and dislocated shoulders, and sure enough, the NFL has its fair share of both. But concussions don’t really get talked about. Unless, of course, it’s in the context of a star player getting concussed and walking back on the field two weeks later, no questions asked. This is almost universally lauded in glowing terms like “playing hurt” or “being a warrior” or “fighting through the pain.”
It turns out, however, that concussions are just as bad – if not worse – as broken bones. Here’s GQ on the heartbreaking post-football career of Mike Webster:
Nine-time Pro Bowler. Hall of Famer. “Iron Mike,” legendary Steelers center for fifteen seasons. His life after football had been mysterious and tragic, and on the news they were going on and on about it. What had happened to him? How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to…pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth? Mike Webster bought himself a Taser gun, used that on himself to treat his back pain, would zap himself into unconsciousness just to get some sleep. Mike Webster lost all his money, or maybe gave it away. He forgot. A lot of lawsuits. Mike Webster forgot how to eat, too. Soon Mike Webster was homeless, living in a truck, one of its windows replaced with a garbage bag and tape.
Mike Webster, dead at fifty. The hall-of-fame centerpiece of perhaps the most storied football dynasty of all time, driven insane by undiagnosed brain injuries. Needless to say, this sort of thing doesn’t get heavy rotation on the league’s back-slapping highlight reels. But not only has the impact of sustained head injuries failed to penetrate the public conscious, the type of plays that lead to concussions are positively celebrated by the media and fans. How many times have you heard a commentator praise “hard-nosed, old-fashioned football?” Or a “hard-hitting, blue collar game plan?” These cliches appear more frequently than any combination of “grizzled,” “gunslinger” and “Brett Favre,” which says something important about the level of tacit acceptance for incredibly violent on-field collisions. Last year’s Steelers-Ravens playoff clash, for example, featured an orgy of commentary praising both teams for their physical style of play. The injury time-outs, the big hits – these were taken as validation of a certain approach to football, not warning signs about the players’ physical well-being.
It’s particularly dispiriting because as former players, many sports commentators know what goes on in locker rooms across the country. Here’s an astonishing admission from Merril Hoge, an ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back:
“I got a concussion in Kansas City, then another one six weeks later when we played in Chicago . . . I read to my 3-year-old daughter – her books were about all I could read. I had to learn all over again.
“When I started working at ESPN, I would stay up all night practicing my lines. But when I’d do the shows, I couldn’t follow the conversation. Thank the Lord most of my shows we taped.”
Hoge always comes off as a genial guy on camera. But lurking underneath that calm, studio-friendly exterior is a former player who was hit so hard so frequently he literally had to learn how to read again. That’s absolutely shocking.
Having read the GQ article in full (I encourage you to do the same), here are three inescapable conclusions:
- Head injuries are a real (and under-reported) problem at all levels of football.
- With the speed and force of the modern game, there really is no practical solution to players’ vulnerability to head injuries.
- As an institution, the NFL is completely unwilling to even acknowledge the problem, much less do something to address player concussions.
Which, from a fan’s perspective, raises more than a few difficult questions. I watched and enjoyed the Jets-Dolphins game last night. But I admit to wincing a bit more than usual each time the players collided. It’s hard not to wonder which hard-hitting defensive back, offensive lineman, or tight end will become the next Mike Webster a few decades down the road. It’s also hard not to wonder how many potentially fatal head injuries are being brushed aside or otherwise overlooked by team medical staffs in the course of a tight game.
If players were aware of the dangers associated with head injuries, I might be less concerned. They are, after all, star athletes, paid millions of dollars annually to run into each other at great risk. But the NFL’s “see no evil” mentality also pervades all levels of football. Concussions simply aren’t understood as potentially life-threatening injuries, which is why coaching staffs in high school, college and the NFL simply ignore them.
Boycotting the NFL probably isn’t in the cards, but we can stop glorifying hard-hitting collisions as some sort of iconic symbol of all that is good and right about American football. This season, I’d prefer to see less injury time-outs, less stretcher-bearers and less self-congratulatory references to a “hard-hitting, physical style of play.” Instead, it would be nice if ESPN and the rest of the football-industrial complex showed some awareness of the severity of players’ head injuries.