America's lethal, unbreakable addiction to the NFL
Pro football is an evil business that destroys the life of the people who play it. But America loves it. What can be done?
In the 1990s, Kevin Turner was living the life that so many American boys dream of when they're growing up. A star running back for the University of Alabama, Turner was drafted by New England in the third round in 1992 and then signed a $4.1 million free agent deal -- big money, back then -- to play for the Eagles three years later. He also got married, had three kids, hit 30 and then just like that -- around the same age as most NFL players -- his career was over.
It was a decade later, when he's just turned 40, that Turner was fooling around with his guitar and realized how hard it had become to hit the right notes. Despite a surgical procedure and numerous doctor's visits, weakness spread slowly through Turner's limbs. He would soon be diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS -- Lou Gehrig's disease. The news was shocking -- but maybe it shouldn't have been. According to one study, former NFL players are diagnosed with the fatal, degenerative disease at a rate of eight times men the same age who didn't play pro football.
Turner himself had little doubt that the brutal hits he took all those years was what caused his illness. He eventually sued the NFL. He told Fox Sports:
Turner realizes a lot of football fans aren't happy with some rules designed to safeguard the players.
"It's nothing like flag football," Turner said. "They don't get it. I would think they would want to watch their favorite players or teams for years to come. You can hit someone who isn't looking and practically decapitate them. It's entertainment to them.
"There are big-time collisions. Let's not take a step back to the Roman era where we're putting football players up there with gladiators. It's a game. It's entertainment. It's a dream of theirs, like it was of mine, but it's not worth their living that last 20 years of their lives with dementia, Alzheimer's or ALS."
Kevin Turner died today, two days after moving into an Alabama hospice. He was only 46 years old. Our hearts go out to his wife, his kids and his other family and friends.
Right around the moment that news of Turner's passing was made public, the New York Times -- which has been a pit bull on story of pro football and concussions -- published a bombshell report that the NFL's major report on head injuries had omitted key data and was badly skewed to make the problem seem less serious than it is. The missing data minimized the problem of concussions in the league during the years 1996-2001, overlapping the times Turner played fullback for the Birds.
The NFL had already been skewered in recent months by the Hollywood movie "Concussion," which made the league look less like a purveyor of fun and games and more like the Mafia..or maybe the wickedly evasive CEOs of Big Tobacco. So here's the bizarre thing that also came out in today's report in the Times -- the similarity between the NFL and the tobacco industry's "merchants of death" may not be a coincidence:
In a letter to The Times, a lawyer for the league said, "The N.F.L. is not the tobacco industry; it had no connection to the tobacco industry," which he called "perhaps the most odious industry in American history."
Still, the records show that the two businesses shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants. Personal correspondence underscored their friendships, including dinner invitations and a request for lobbying advice.
In 1997, to provide legal oversight for the committee, the league assigned Dorothy C. Mitchell, a young lawyer who had earlier defended the Tobacco Institute, the industry trade group. She had earned the institute's "highest praise" for her work.
A co-owner of the Giants, Preston R. Tisch, also partly owned a leading cigarette company, Lorillard, and was a board member of both the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research, two entities that played a central role in misusing science to hide the risks of cigarettes.
It would be almost funny if it were not so tragic. The evidence pours in day after day -- about the shocking number of ex-NFL players found after they die to have suffered from severe brain trauma. Think about the most dangerous professions -- coal miner, cleaning up nuclear reactors. At this point, is there any job in America that seems more hazardous to a man's health than playing professional football? If this were some freak variety of pro wrestling or moto-cross (whatever that is), we'd be out there calling for a total ban. If this were Big Tobacco, we'd say tax the hell out of it, put giant warning labels at the entrance to the stadium and don't get it anywhere near our kids under 18.
But this isn't moto-cross, or cigarettes, or riding a bike without a helmet. It's football, the national game. If you tell most folks that scores of ex-NFL players suffer from chronic brain injury causing memory loss, a decline in motor skills and early death, the response would be: "That's terrible -- this won't affect Sunday's Eagles-Cowboys kickoff, will it?"
It's easy to criticize that moral ambivalence -- except that I feel the same way myself. Football is unrelentingly violent, embarrassingly capitalistic -- and yet it's also, for many, a beloved ritual that bonds family, friends and sometimes entire cities. When I was 14, that most awkward of ages, my dad and I had a chance to get season tickets to see the New York Giants (I know, I know...) at the Yale Bowl, where they were exiled for a couple of years while the Meadowlands was being built. Those long drives to New Haven were the father-son bonding experience of a lifetime. I don't know if it's the reason that my dad and I are close today, but it didn't hurt. Think about what a divided place Philadelphia is on most days, and then think about the joyous moment (probably in some distant century) when the Eagles finally win the Super Bowl.
A few years ago, I fell in love with the story of how the 1948 Eagles won an NFL championship in a game that was played during a raging blizzard at North Philly's old Shibe Park -- so much so that I wrote a short e-book about how it happened. I relished everything about the team -- the true grit of players like the great Steve Van Buren, who took trolleys and the Broad Street subway and finally walked through the snowdrifts to get to the stadium just before kickoff, and the bond between the Birds and their blue-collar fans. But I also had to square that with learning that two of the greatest 1948 players -- Van Buren and the Hall of Fame end Pete Pihos -- lived their final years receiving payments from the NFL's Plan 88, for dementia that may have been caused by playing football, and that diminished their quality of life.
And then you think about Kevin Turner, and wonder: How can we continue to let this happen? And then you hope that science will come up with some magic bullet -- a new kind of helmet, maybe, or some other way to prevent brain injuries. And then you realize that maybe, just maybe, playing football is unsafe at any speed.