As the 2012 NFL season gets underway this week, commentator Bill Littlefield explores the consequences of our national obsession. In this Oct. 26, 2008 photo Philadelphia Eagles tight end L.J. Smith holds his head after a hard hit that resulted in a concussion. (AP File Photo)
As fans of the NFL consider whether Wes Welker has been treated fairly by the New England Patriots or if Peyton Manning can play well enough in Denver to make Indiana wish they hadn’t let him go, the league itself has more significant issues to consider.
A survey by the Sporting News provides the most recent evidence that former and current players have suffered concussions more frequently than they or anyone else had realized. In an SN August story titled “Living Through the Fog of Football,” former New Orleans Saints guard Derek Kennard acknowledges that after one concussion, he lost three days. Following a Sunday hit, he played the final three quarters of the game, flew from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, attended to his business at the team facility on Monday, took his wife shopping on Tuesday, and woke up Wednesday with no memory of anything after the hit. Today his short-term memory issues range from irritating to terrifying. His mood swings are so dramatic and frightening that his wife has said that when she senses one coming on, she packs up the kids and leaves the house.
As stories like Kennard’s spread, more and more former NFL players have signed on to lawsuits against the league. The number of litigants has topped 2,000. Though some of the former players have died, their families have remained parties to the suits. The numbers are bound to grow.
Current speculation is that the NFL will defend itself by claiming that the players were aware of the dangers they faced in their workplace. The players will certainly agree that they knew football was a violent sport. Lots of players have said that’s part of why they love the game. But lawyers for those suing the league are expected to contend that the NFL did not disclose specific information regarding the likelihood of long-term, permanent brain damage as a result of the routine contact that occurs during practices and games.
The resolution of court cases as big and complex as the class action suits against the NFL can take many years. Sporting News suggests that these cases may not even reach the courtroom until 2018.
But as another pro football season begins, what impact will the growing public awareness of the damaged state of those who’ve played America’s favorite game have on potential players and the public at large?
Perhaps the public will decide the thrills and drama provided by pro football justify the cost. The reasoning would be that former pro football players, like former coal miners, lead diminished lives that end early, but we need the excitement provided by pro football, just as we need the energy provided by coal. Headaches, mood swings, memory loss, even suicide – like black lung and emphysema – are the cost of doing business.
Against the broader landscape, this point of view may not be as extreme as it sounds. Football is not the only sport in which injuries are common. Soccer players and hockey players suffer concussions. Baseball players get beaned and jockeys fall from their horses. But are 2,000 former players of any other game suing the league in which they played? We are the only nation that loves its football above all other sports. Stories like the ones appearing recently in Sporting News are bound to lead some to wonder about the consequences of that obsession.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.