George Carlin, Frank Gifford, the NFL and Rugby—More Thoughts on Concussions in Football

December 14, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the National Football League (NFL) has funded the U.S. Army Research Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground to come up with a safer helmet. I thought to myself, “The U.S. Army and the NFL—how appropriate; the military of U.S. imperialism partnering with a sport that is seriously injuring people to the point where they are dying.” This brought to mind George Carlin’s routine where he says:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field, general to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

This bit on football was in Carlin’s routine where he compares football to baseball. This is a funny routine. However, one thing about George Carlin is that there is more than a kernel of truth in his humor and the truth in this case is not funny. Football in the United States, and in particular violent tackle football, plays a big role in training and conditioning society, especially boys and men, in the twisted and oppressive values and culture of America.

Concussions in football continue to be a huge topic of discussion in the media. Just today, I heard Mike Golic, a former NFL player on the Mike and Mike sports talk radio show, give a rant on how safe football can be and how the NFL is going “all out” to make the sport safer by going to the military for research for safer helmets and to other organizations to make the fields safer for when the players hit their heads on it. People like Golic, who are defenders of the NFL and football, are trying to counter all the negative publicity that has haunted the NFL since the concussion issue surfaced several years ago.

On December 7, there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football” by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who has studied concussions and is the main character of the movie, Concussion, which is going to be released on Christmas Day. Dr. Omalu discovered the disease CTE1, which is caused by concussions, when he examined the brains of deceased football players.

In a pre-publication of an editorial this fall, the American Journal of Bioethics has called for an end to public school tackle football programs.

The NFL took another huge image hit (pardon my pun) a couple weeks ago when it was discovered that Frank Gifford had CTE. The Frank Gifford story is not only interesting but is sad because he was basically known as the darling of the NFL and was as close to a “poster child” for the league as any player could be.

Frank Gifford was a “pretty boy” and a devout Christian who openly proclaimed his religious beliefs. He was married to Kathy Lee Johnson, a television personality, who co-hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics on ABC with Gifford. He was an All-American football player when he was in college at the University of Southern California. He played pro football from 1952-1964 for the New York Giants. He is on the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team and is in the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames.

Today, most people may know Frank Gifford as one of the three announcers on the Monday Night Football television game of the week. Monday Night Football was must-see television for both sports and non-sports people, particularly when the trio of announcers were Gifford, Don Meredith, and Howard Cosell from 1971-1983. Cosell, an attorney, was the intellectual of the group. Meredith, a former player, was the clown of the trio. Gifford was the straight man. He would always side with the referees whenever the other two felt they made a bad call. Monday Night Football during the period those three were on it played an enormous role in making the NFL popular. Gifford remained on the broadcast until 1997.

When Gifford died earlier this year, his family decided to have his brain examined to find out if he had CTE because they had “suspicions that he was suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma.” When they discovered he did have CTE, they “decided to disclose our loved one’s condition to honor Frank’s legacy of promoting player safety.”

When I heard that Gifford had CTE, the thing that I remembered was the vicious hit he took in a game in 1960 against the Philadelphia Eagles, where Chuck Bednarik hit Gifford around his chest, neck, and head and laid him out where his head struck the ground with an enormous force. Gifford was unconscious for a long time, and he was not able to play the entire 1961 season because of the head trauma he received in that game. This hit has been shown many times in programs about the “greatest (most violent) hits in football” and is still celebrated at the official NFL website. Some people who have read and agreed with what I wrote about not being able to play tackle football safely (“Tackle Football ‘Can’t Be Saved’: Early Retirements Keep the Focus on Concussions in Football,” September 21, 2015, Revolution newspaper) have told me that the way to play tackle football and reduce concussions is to play without helmets. I heard that college football coaches were asking the rugby2 coach to teach the football players to tackle with their heads up.

Then I discovered an article in the Telegraph (at about a study done by The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, which “showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, the severity of injuries continues to rise in the professional game.” And that, “For the third consecutive season, concussion was the most common match injury. There were a total of 86 match concussions (a further eight in training), up from 54 in the 2012-13 season, which accounted for 12.5 per cent of all match injuries.” And this is despite the fact that rugby “players had to undertake a mandatory online concussion module.” What was most astonishing in this report is that “the NFL has a lower rate (per player hours) of concussion than in rugby.”

The answer is an empathic NO! Tackle football may be made safer with better helmets and fields, but it cannot be played safely. And this is at the professional level, where there is tons of money to spend on research to tweak the helmets and make the fields softer. At the high school and Pop Warner youth levels of football, forget about it. These kids are putting their brains and lives in immediate danger playing tackle football.


1 “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published that neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” (“What is CTE?,” Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy) [back]

2 Rugby is a football game that is mainly played in England and New Zealand, but is also played in the U.S.  In rugby the players wear shorts and long-sleeved shirts and play without shoulder pads and helmets. The game is just a physical as football, and the rugby player with the ball is tackled just as is a ball carrier in football. [back]


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