TELANDER: Concussions are a problem in the NFL — and we can’t get enough of it
BY RICK TELANDER Sports Columnist September 1, 2013 9:39PM
Updated: October 3, 2013 6:26AM
You would have thought there would be both clarity and closure after the NFL settled its brain-trauma case Thursday with 4,500 retired players for $765 million. But there is neither.
Oh, the payouts will certainly help ex-players in dire need; that is, the ones who can’t remember the months of the year or their jersey numbers or children’s names, and the ones who are dying from the horrors of ALS, and the ones who are destitute from game-related medical bills.
But does the payout fix the essential problem with tackle football — the head being in the middle of the colliding shoulders — or the culpability of those who profit wildly from other men’s physical and mental undoing? No. Not even close.
Let’s start with what we do know.
◆ First, it can no longer be debated whether pro football causes severe, sometimes fatal brain injuries in some of the men who play the game. The NFL’s payment is admission (even if carefully unstated in the settlement) that it can’t fight the obvious.
◆ The NFL followed the devious and trusted PR strategy used by politicians, corporations, and monoliths of all type when revealing bad news but dousing its effect: move it before the hot focus is on you (the regular season, in this case) and preceding a big, forgetful, journalism-deprived three-day weekend (Labor Day, in this case).
◆ The amount paid out sounds like a lot, but it’s nothing but a speck of fly crap in the NFL’s money trough. At $24 to $30 million per team (depending on legal fees), the amount is roughly 10 percent of the average team’s 2013 income. This is for allowing employees to suffer and die, remember.
◆ The NFL admitted no wrongdoing, which was brilliant.
◆ The NFL does not have to produce papers showing what charlatans/house-toadies such as Dr. Elliott Pellman, the league’s former medical director, knew about the dangers of concussions and when they knew it.
◆ The NFL continues on, with better ratings than ever, with 90-percent of its $4-million-per-half-minute ads for Super Bowl XLVIII already sold, with fantasy owners and gamblers guaranteeing interest in even the most boring and meaningless games, with TV networks and cable slobbering for ever more “big event programming,’’ live dramas which viewers will not, as a rule, fast-forward through.
Now what we don’t know.
◆ We have no idea what this means in the future for football, the game. The NFL might have bought brain-trauma peace through the mitigating effects of this payout and the forgiveness of the players’ collective bargaining agreement.
But there is no union for NCAA football players, and who speaks for the collegians who reap the same devastation as the pros? Chicago attorney Joseph Siprut has a lawsuit in the discovery stage seeking class-action status against the NCAA for negligence with concussions. And he and his clients, which could include all brain-injured NCAA athletes in all sports, might breeze into settlement on the NFL’s coattails. Perhaps.
Nor can we be sure how “amateurs’’ would be compensated when the entire big-time college football landscape is so filled with carpet-baggers, TV-puppeteers, bowl-leeches, apparel robber barons, emperor-coaches and delusional fans that a Friday night crack house is sedate in comparison. Was I the only one stunned to see Louisville playing Ohio U. on Sunday afternoon?
College football — a not-for-profit, tax-free venture — is played every day of the week.
◆ High school football? Junior high football? Pee-wee football?
Do those feeder systems keep working as if the game is the same, hoping that trickle-down, over-the-top liability payments don’t end the game once and for all? Frankly, it wouldn’t bother me at all if no one under the age of 14 were allowed to play football.
◆ Football defenders are promoting new rules and techniques such as “heads-up tackling’’ as the answer to the game’s violence problems. Indeed, in the Northwestern-Cal game Saturday night a Cal defender was thrown out and suspended for part of his team’s next game for hitting NU quarterback Trevor Siemian with a high, late tackle that once would have drawn no flag and only last year would have received a 15-yard penalty.
Can you really stop head trauma as players grow faster, bigger, and stronger simply with new game principles? The problem becomes: when is it no longer football?
◆ Adults in the NFL might be able to say, as longtime, multi-concussed linebacker London Fletcher recently did, “I know what I signed up for.’’ But a child can’t do that. And there can hardly be a parent who doesn’t worry about his football-loving adolescent son’s safety or about saying, “OK, play,’’ when the boy’s head is the danger point.
◆ We live in a world of risk-reward, and we make safety choices every moment. If you really thought about the 40,000 people killed in car wrecks annually you might never get into a car. Or not. Some people are horrified of airplanes. But the fearful likely don’t know there hasn’t been a fatality on a major domestic airline in 12 years.
A lot about football isn’t rational. But we’d like it to be, even as the information on head trauma is just being gathered.
The trouble is, some things we know instinctively. Such as: violently hitting or shaking the most precious organ in our body, the one that makes us human, cannot possibly be good for us. If you ever played the game and you didn’t sense that on the most primitive level after getting your head rocked, down there with your encoded, glandular desire to knock the tar out of something, then, really, shame on you.
We’re not even sure what to think about former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, the career goofball who loved to butt heads with his own linemen and was brutally beaten up and now has major memory loss, and has said alternatively, A) I would never play the game or B) I’d do it all again.
It’s a strange game, and, man, do we love it. There’s nothing like American football.
If nothing else, the NFL settlement has proven that for all time.