Revolution #155, February 8, 2009

From a Reader:

NFL Capitalist Concussions

When the Super Bowl is over and the champs have been crowned, and whether Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is or is not wearing that crown on his head is insignificant as to what he has inside his head that could cause him an early death. To date, Roethlisberger has suffered at least five serious brain concussions—three that occurred in football games in the past three years and two in motorcycle accidents.

In 2006, Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle in a head-on accident that sent him flying through the windshield of a car. He was not wearing a helmet! The fact that he was able to play the next season after that accident was amazing. Several weeks before this Super Bowl, in a game on December 28, his head had a violent collision with the ground, forcing him to be carried off the field on a stretcher. Roethlisberger had sustained his fifth known concussion with that hit.

Brain concussions in pro football players have been in the news this past week. Both the LA Times and the NY Times ran articles about concussions in the NFL (National Football League) based on the biopsy done on former NFL player, Tom McHale, who died last May of a drug overdose that showed “he suffered from a severe degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),” which was caused by repeated concussions.1

In the recent study, that was mentioned in both articles, the damage caused by CTE “affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells.” CTE eventually progresses into full-blown dementia with loss of memory, the inability to solve problems, agitation, the loss of emotional control, delusions, and hallucinations. The damage to the brain with this disease goes very broad and deep and is not just superficial, as previously thought occurs with concussions.

The article in the LA Times by Thomas H. Maugh II, stated that, “The biopsy (done on McHale) was the sixth out of six performed on deceased NFL players between the ages of 25 and 50 that showed evidence of such severe damage. All six men suffered emotional and behavioral problems after their playing days were over, often culminating in erratic behavior, drug abuse and suicide or overdose.”2

Brain concussions have been defined as a jarring of the brain against the inside of the skull, causing a short-lived loss of some brain function, and, in football, the treatment for it has been to rest for up to seven days before returning to the playing field. With the finding that CTE is caused by concussions, it completely changes how teams and players should look at how long a person should refrain from playing. Most likely, it would be best to quit the game completely.

Two previous Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, both retired early due to receiving multiple concussions, thinking that an early retirement would protect them from further brain damage. The discovery of CTE means that both of these former players could, sometime in the future, succumb to this death-threatening disease, and that their early retirement may not have protected them from it.

Chris Nowinski, a former collegiate football player and wrestler, has written a book, Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, where he focuses on concussions in high school football, as well as college and pro. He reports on the shocking number of high school football players who continue to play while they have headaches. As for the NFL, he believes that they must be fully aware of the problem of head injuries in football, and he points to the fact that the league began to study traumatic brain injuries in 1992.

However, he blasts the NFL for how they are handling this problem. He finds that team doctors are very incompetent, and they have a conflict of interest in that they are working for the team that has a compulsion to get an injured player back on to the field as soon as possible. He points out that studies of concussions funded by the NFL were poorly designed and their conclusions differed from most other medical studies on concussions. He states that the NFL has produced flawed studies that do not adequately diagnose concussions nor trace their long-term effects.

A gross example of how NFL teams handle concussions centers on the New York Jets and Wayne Chrebet, who played for them. The New York Times reported that “Chrebet sustained at least six concussions during his Jets career from 1995 through 2005. He occasionally returned to games in which he had been knocked unconscious.” Chrebet also pointed out that there are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL, which puts pressure on players to play while hurt or they may lose their job. He “has recently acknowledged he has bouts of depression and memory problems so severe that he cannot make the routine drive from his New Jersey home to his Long Island restaurant without a global-positioning system.”3 The Jets have denied requests for interviews with management concerning concussions to their players, and they forbid the players from discussing their injuries with the press.

Ted Johnson, former New England Patriot, who retired after receiving several concussions said “he played through concussions because he, like many other NFL athletes, did not understand the consequences.” He said he believes that the concussions he suffered while playing football explain the anger, depression and throbbing headaches that occasionally still plague him. He blasted the NFL. “They don’t want you to know,” said Johnson. “It’s not like when you get into the NFL there’s a handout that says ‘These are the effects of multiple concussions so beware.’”

When the findings of this recent study were announced this week, what do you think the NFL said? Did they freak out that their players were risking so much with head injuries? Did they jump to do something about it? No, none of that. Here’s part of their statement:

“Hundreds of thousands of people have played football and other sports without experiencing any problem of this type and there continues to be considerable debate within the medical community on the precise long-term effects of concussions and how they relate to other risk factors.”

And then there is the insensitive statement of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said this about former player Justin Strzelczyk after he died and it was found that he had CTE:

“There’s no record…He may have had a concussion swimming…A concussion happens in a variety of different activities.”

In fact, the NFL gives each player a pamphlet about the seriousness of concussions that is a total lie. The New York Times reported that the pamphlet states that “'current research with professional athletes' has not shown that multiple concussions have long-term effects if each injury is managed properly.”4

As I was writing this, my favorite line from one of the best sports movies, North Dallas Forty, kept coming to mind. In that movie, there’s a scene in the locker room where there’s an injured football player that the coach and owner wants to play. A lineman on the team, played by John Matuszak, who, in real life, played for the Oakland Raiders in the NFL, gets up and screams at the coach and owners, “Every time I say it’s a game, you tell me it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business you tell me it’s a game.” Ironically, the Tooz, as he was known, died of heart failure at age 38 due to a long-term use of steroids.

Since the NFL is a business, we all know the answer to the question of whether Ben Roethlisberger or other players who have had multiple concussions played in this year’s Super Bowl. The answer is literally a no brainer in two meanings of the term.

We need to put a stop to these athletes being used by the NFL to add value to “their product” and then ending up as a vegetable or even worse. We should demand that the NFL (and all levels of football) focus on the health of these athletes and that they own up to and put a stop to the head injuries that cause this horrendous CTE disease that is resulting in the death of football players. Players at risk for CTE should be allowed to retire early with pay. However, it is ultimately going to take revolution and getting rid of capitalism/imperialism in order to fully put an end to the business of sports that treats athletes as commodities and chews them up and spits them out. Only when we get to socialism will we really be able to transform athletics and sport into a game and not a business where the product takes precedent over athletes’ health.


1 “Football And Progressive Brain Damage: Tom McHale Of NFL Suffered From Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy When He Died In 2008”, ScienceDaily, January 27, 2009. [back]

2 “Consequences of Concussions,” by Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2009. [back]

3 “For Jets, Silence on Concussions Signals Unease”, by Alan Schwarz, New York Times, December 22, 2007. [back]

4 “New Sign of Brain Damage in N.F.L.,” by Alan Schwarz, New York Times, January 27, 2009 [back]

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