I watched the Superbowl with a group of friends on a 60" High Definition TV, sipping a few beers and compulsively downing munchies. My team lost (but to my mind, second place in a league of 32 teams is not all that bad - kind of a silver medal). I find the organized mayhem of football fascinating, as if J. S. Bach were being performed by a deranged, full contact orchestra. A number of years ago, my then 4 year old daughter Julia called the game "all fall down." She was right in more ways than she knew.
We have been following two tracks in the saga of the NFL: the workers comp claims filed by former players in California (where benefits are easier to secure) and the lawsuits alleging that the league knowingly hid the effects of repeated concussions, resulting in dementia and other serious medical issues among retired players. While there are numerous lawsuits filed across the country, there is a movement to consolidate several of them into one big federal case, under Senior Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia.
The stories of diminished mental capacity that have emerged over the last few years are disturbing - easily reaching the threshold where all of us who view the sport must question our complicity. For decades, the football mentality has been to keep the best players on the field, regardless of (future) consequences.
Touchdown Tony Dorsett
One of the parties to the lawsuits is the former Dallas Cowboy running back, Tony Dorsett. He was a smooth, electric runner on the field, but the mask of his helmet and pads only served to make invisible his considerable pain and suffering:
Dorsett's had surgery on both his knees, and problems with his left arm and right wrist. He says then-Cowboys coach Tom Landry once told him he could play despite a broken bone in his back. Not even the flak jacket Dorsett says he wore beneath his jersey could bring relief, the injury so painful that "tears would just start flowing out of my eyes, profusely and uncontrollably" during practices. "They would see me and just point to the training room. 'Go to the training room, get some ice and heat and come on back out here,'" Dorsett says.
That, indeed, was (and to some extent, still is) the coaching mantra: "Suck it up and get back out there!"
Presumption versus Denial
For many years, the NFL denied any relationship between the violence on the field and the subsequent mental traumas of former players. Much like the company doctors who once denied that smoking caused cancer, the league's doctors insisted that there was no demonstrable relationship between multiple concussions and dementia.
The systematic denial has ended, but the implications for hundreds of retired players are still not clear. I envision that they will eventually reach a settlement, where the league accepts responsibility for virtually any and all mental incapacity in its retirees. Much like the cancer and heart attack presumptions granted to public sector firefighters and police, the league would presume that mental disabilities among retirees are work related, with the burden of proof on a given owner to show that they are not.
While any such settlement will involved the commitment of millions of dollars, the league is so wildly popular, only a small percentage of gross income will be required.
Appetite for Sport
In the meantime, we face half a year without football. Come fall, there will be a Thursday night game every week, along with the full Sunday menu. To be sure, the players don't like the short week of preparation that Thursday games entail; they will lack the usual full week to recover from the bumps and bruises of the prior Sunday game. Oh, well, the public's appetite for America's Game is nearly insatiable. The players will just have to suck it up and get back out there...