January 24, 2011


Does Football Have a Future?: The N.F.L. and the concussion crisis. (Ben McGrath, January 31, 2011, The New Yorker)

We’ve been here before, historians remind us, and we have the pictures to prove it: late-nineteenth-century newspaper and magazine illustrations with captions like “The Modern Gladiators” and “Out of the Game.” The latter of those, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1891, describes a hauntingly familiar scene, with a player kneeling by his downed—and unconscious—comrade, and waving for help, as a medic comes running, water bucket in hand. It accompanied an essay by the Yale coach Walter Camp, the so-called Father of American Football, whose preference for order over chaos led to the primary differentiating element between the new sport and its parent, English rugby: a line of scrimmage, with discrete plays, or downs, instead of scrums.

Camp viewed football as an upper-class training ground, not as a middle-class spectator sport. But the prevalence of skull fractures soon prompted unflattering comparisons with boxing and bullfighting. Another image, which ran in the New York World, depicted a skeleton wearing a banner labelled “Death,” and was titled “The Twelfth Player in Every Football Game.” Campaigns in Chicago and Georgia to outlaw the sport were covered breathlessly in the New York dailies. That was in 1897, “the peak of sensationalized football violence,” as Michael Oriard, a former offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs who is now an associate dean at Oregon State University, explains in “Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle.”

The crisis surrounding football’s brutality at the turn of the twentieth century was so great that it eventually inspired Presidential intervention. Greg Aiello, the N.F.L.’s present-day spokesman, told me, “You should research Teddy Roosevelt’s involvement in changing the game in 1905.” Roosevelt, whose son was then a freshman football player at Harvard, summoned college coaches to the White House to discuss reforming the sport before public opinion turned too far against it. Eighteen people had died on the field that year. The idea, or hope, was to preserve the game’s essential character-building physicality (“I’ve got no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton-wool,” Roosevelt wrote) without filling up the morgue. The next year, the forward pass was legalized, thereby transforming football from a militarized or corporatized rugby to something more like “contact ballet,” as Oriard calls it.

Aiello’s point was that the game goes on; you reform it as needed. Dave Pear, a retired Tampa Bay Buccaneer, brought up the same example with the opposite lesson in mind. “Look at the historicity of football and Heisman,” he said, referring to John Heisman, who was among the leading advocates of the forward pass in 1906. “Football almost ended in the early nineteen-hundreds.” Pear’s view is that the game always has been “hazardous to your health, like smoking cigarettes,” and that trying to remove violence from football, as the N.F.L. now seems bent on doing, is like trying to remove the trees from a forest. “Now it’s not an instant death,” he said. “Now it’s a slow death.” You could say that Dave Pear holds a grudge: he has a minuscule pension, is uninsurable, and estimates that he has spent six hundred thousand dollars on surgeries and other medical issues (fused disks, artificial hip, vertigo) related to his football career. “I’m not trying to end football,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t like football.” But: “I wish I had never played.”

Introducing the forward pass may have saved the sport from marginalization, or even banishment, but it did not resolve the inherent tension in our secular religion. With increased professionalization, in the middle decades of the last century, came specialization within the sport, and the demise of players who covered both offense and defense. And with specialization came increased speed and intensity, owing, in part, to reduced fatigue among the players, as well as skill sets and body types suited to particular facets of the game. “Savagery on Sunday” was the headline on a Life story in 1955. Walter Cronkite produced a half-hour special, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” about a New York Giants linebacker who had declared, “We try to hurt everybody.”

The increased attention—football was on its way to surpassing baseball as the nation’s favorite spectator sport—brought more reforms, many of them related to equipment: chinstraps, the rubber bar, full-on face masks. “Even as the discussion of the game’s violence was at its shrillest, the sport was becoming safer,” Michael MacCambridge writes in “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.” But, even as the game was becoming safer, through better equipment and further tweaking of the rules (calling a play dead as soon as a knee touched down, say, to limit bone-crunching pileups), it was evolving in such a way that it also became more dangerous, as players, comfortably protected by their face masks, learned to tackle with their heads instead of with their arms and shoulders. When Michael Oriard played for the Chiefs, in the early nineteen-seventies, he weighed two hundred and forty pounds; his counterpart on today’s Chiefs roster weighs about three hundred and ten, and is probably no slower. Players didn’t obsessively lift weights in Oriard’s day.

From all these developments, we got smash-mouth football and, later, the spectacularly combustive open-field collisions that seem to leave players in a state of epileptic seizure nearly every weekend now. “We had a lot of discussions right after I became commissioner about this subject,” Paul Tagliabue, who served as the N.F.L.’s chief executive from 1989 until 2006, told me recently. “And one by-product of that was the question of whether defensive players were acquiring a sense of invulnerability, and playing the game with a level of abandon and recklessness that was not warranted. We created a committee with Mel Blount and Willie Lanier and some others. They raised the idea that it was no longer tackle football. It was becoming collision football. The players looked like bionic men. Whatever was the violence of Sam Huff, I don’t think he felt invulnerable, like a bionic man.”

Throughout most of the Super Bowl era, football was understood to be an orthopedic, an arthroscopic, and, eventually, an arthritic risk. This was especially obvious as the first generation of Super Bowl heroes retired and began showing up at reunions and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies walking like “Maryland crabs,” as a players’-union representative once put it. But a couple of incidents early in Tagliabue’s tenure left him with a sense of foreboding. “In 1991, my second season, Mike Utley went down,” he said, alluding to the paralysis of a Detroit Lions offensive lineman. “A year later, Dennis Byrd went down. Once you see two injuries like Mike Utley’s and Dennis Byrd’s, you begin to see that there are long-term consequences to injuries on the football field.” He meant long-term consequences of a sort that you can’t joke about, while patting your fake knee or hip and complaining that you can no longer navigate stairs or play with your grandkids. Byrd, who was a defensive lineman for the Jets, gradually taught himself to walk again, after being given a prognosis of partial paralysis, and delivered a rousing pep talk to the Jets before their upset victory over the Patriots in the conference semifinals, earlier this month. Utley’s moral is a grimmer one. As he was being carried off the field on a stretcher, he didn’t yet know that he was paralyzed from the chest down. He stuck his thumb up, and the fans applauded.

What was missing from this picture was the effect of all that impact on the brain. You got your “bell rung,” they used to say. You’re “just a little dinged up.” This was not merely macho sideline-speak; it was, as recently as a decade and a half ago, the language of the N.F.L.’s leading doctors. Elliot Pellman, who served until 2007 as the Jets team physician, once told a reporter that veteran players are able to “unscramble their brains a little faster” than rookies are, “maybe because they’re not afraid after being dinged.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., is the name for a condition that is believed to result from major collisions—or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice. It was first diagnosed, in 2002, in the brain of the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died of a heart attack after living out of his truck for a time. It was next diagnosed in one of Webster’s old teammates on the Steelers’ offensive line, Terry Long, who killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Long overlapped, at the end of his career, with Justin Strzelczyk, who was also found to have C.T.E. after he crashed, fatally, into a tanker truck, while driving the wrong way down the New York Thruway.

Credit for the public’s increased awareness of these issues must go to the Times, and to its reporter Alan Schwarz, whom Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers’ neurosurgeon and a longtime medical adviser to the league, calls “the Socratic gadfly in this whole mix.” Schwarz was a career baseball writer, with a heavy interest in statistics, when, in December of 2006, he got a call from a friend of a friend named Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned pro wrestler turned concussion activist. Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles safety, had just committed suicide, and Nowinski was in possession of his mottled brain. The earliest cases of C.T.E. had been medical news, not national news. Nowinski’s journalist contacts, as he recalls, were in “pro-wrestling media, not legitimate media.” He needed help.

Schwarz, acting more as a middleman than as a journalist pitching a hot story, set up a meeting between Nowinski and the Times’ sports editor, Tom Jolly, for whom Schwarz had been writing Sunday columns about statistical analysis on a freelance basis. Rather than assign the story to one of his staffers, Jolly suggested that Schwarz write it. The result, “Expert Ties Ex-Player’s Suicide to Brain Damage from Football,” wound up on the front page, on January 18, 2007. It described Waters’s forty-four-year-old brain tissue as resembling that of an eighty-five-year-old man with Alzheimer’s, and cited the work and opinions of several doctors whose research into the cumulative effect of head trauma was distinctly at odds with that of the N.F.L.’s own Mild and Traumatic Brain Injury committee (M.T.B.I.), which had been created by Tagliabue. “Don’t send them back out on these fields,” Waters’s niece told Schwarz, referring to young would-be football players.

Ted Johnson, a recently retired New England Patriots linebacker, read the Waters piece and called Schwarz. He was thirty-four- years old and had been locking himself in his apartment with the blinds drawn for days at a time. He believed that his problems had started in 2002, when, he said, his coach, the sainted Bill Belichick, ignored a trainer’s recommendation that Johnson practice without contact while recovering from a concussion. Schwarz accompanied Johnson to a meeting with his neurologist, Dr. Robert Cantu, who said, “Ted already shows the mild cognitive impairment that is characteristic of early Alzheimer’s disease.” Two weeks after the Waters piece, Schwarz landed another freelance submission on A1: “Dark Days Follow Hard-Hitting Career in N.F.L.”

Schwarz’s phone kept ringing. Several of the callers were the mothers and wives of football’s damaged men. They represented a readership far less likely to have come across, say, the annual men’s-magazine features about mangled knees, wayward fingers, and back braces, which had hardened almost into a sportswriting trope. In March, Schwarz published another front-pager: “Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma.” Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor at the Times who oversees long-term, Pulitzer-worthy projects, read this piece and decided to intervene. Schwarz was given a full-time position, with no responsibilities other than to broaden his new beat’s focus beyond the N.F.L. to the more than four million amateur athletes who play organized football. Although Schwarz was assigned to the sports desk, the Times framed the story as a matter of public health, akin to tobacco, asbestos, and automobile safety. Schwarz covered high schools, helmets, workmen’s comp, coaching, and so on, earning the nickname Alan Brockovich among friends. “You can imagine how many lawyers I hear from,” he once told me.

Schwarz’s expansive focus, as he reiterated it, one piece at a time, threatened to affect the so-called pipeline, the future sons of football, whose non-sports-fan mothers were reading his accounts. The reaction of the football establishment, both at the league office and at stadiums around the country, was not warm. “I remember hearing voices within the game, at the club level: ‘We don’t need this muckraking reporter doing this,’ ” Michael MacCambridge told me.

“Their initial reaction was ‘This guy’s out to get football,’ ” Gregg Easterbrook, the author of ESPN’s popular “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column, said. “I felt a little of that myself.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 24, 2011 7:01 AM
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