The past few days have not been easy ones for the National Football League. Will Smith’s new movie, “Concussion,” opened in theaters on Christmas, flanked by discussions of Odell Beckham Jr. and the league’s institutionalized homophobia and allegations that Peyton Manning, one of the NFL’s golden boys, used human growth hormone. Manning denies the allegations.
But even when it’s having a bad week, the NFL comes out on top. As it dominated broadcast and cable ratings, as usual, “Concussion” grossed just $11 million in its first weekend, a mere fly on the back of the $7.2 billion annual cash cow that is professional football.
The goal of the film — at least one of them — is to inspire empathy. We see the story of Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, much to the league’s well-documented chagrin, and we’re supposed to care about the scourge of CTE, to think twice about what we’re consuming when we watch football and the costs to the people who deliver it to us.
But empathy has its limits. “Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate,” Paul Bloom wrote in the New Yorker. “We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”
Traumatic brain injury gets at the very heart of our ethical worries about football, because our brains make us individual. They’re what make us human. And repeated head trauma changes that.
But it wasn’t just that Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster’s brain had been clogged by the tau proteins that had been building up as a result of as many as 70,000 NFL collisions. He used to duct-tape the cracks in his feet. He had varicose veins. His legs and feet were swollen, mishapen, grotesque.
At the time of his death, Webster’s autopsy revealed that he had multiple herniated disks, a broken vertebrae, a torn rotator cuff, and a separated shoulder. He was super-gluing his teeth back in as they fell out. His body was broken.
Even without brain trauma, should that have been enough to elicit deep concern?
In “Concussion,” Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) explains to Omalu the litany of prescription painkillers and other drugs team doctors routinely issue to players, their bodies in various states of decline, to get them on the field.
“It’s tires and oil,” Bailes says.
For years, Leigh Steinberg, the sports agent who inspired “Jerry Maguire,” has been working with organizations that work to sustain football by reducing the risks of playing it. Creating the magic helmet that can reduce concussions has become a cottage industry, along with developing products and practices to aimed at reducing the risk brought on by concussions, or at least reducing our fears surrounding them.
Steinberg likened it to an “Oklahoma land rush.”
He recently touted the efforts of Tate Techonology, which is developing a helmet that’s supposed to “displace energy that would otherwise go into the head.” Another product, Helmet Glide, purports to “stop the friction of the hit.” A nasal spray called Prevacus aims to stop the brain from swelling after a hit. The King-Devick test is supposed to be better at determining whether head trauma has occurred.
“I applaud the efforts of players to seek justice but one of the effects of it was to put the NFL on the defensive,” Steinberg said. “I think there potentially were things they could have done over these past five years that they didn’t do in fear that it would have been seen as proof that they knew there was a problem, as admission that there was a problem that they knew about and needed to cure. Remember, they went ahead and settled the suit without any admission of liability.”
Acknowledging the limits of empathy and the response from a film like “Concussion,” Steinberg is hoping that economics will drive the NFL to make meaningful progress.
“If we put aside the humanistic motivation of saving the grief and protecting brain, and simply deal with the competitive nature of football, losing a key player, either for games, or for a season, or for a career, because of concussion, makes a major impact on the franchise,” Steinberg said. “There’s a real practical benefit to getting concussion minimized. Right now they’re enforcing a concussion protocol so at least there’s a recognition and you’re seeing players pulled out of games. If there was helmetry, rules changes, they could minimize this — the effect of losing a key player is devastating.”
“Go back some years,” he says. “Steve Young had a couple hits, never played again, when that happened was the most critical player on the 49ers. If something could have been done to prevent that, you have to assume that the 49ers and the league would have been motivated in a major way to do it.”
Are shock-absorbing helmets and sideline treatments the “clean-coal technology” of football, quixotic advances in medicine and technology put in place to make us feel better about watching grown men destroy themselves every Sunday or can they really make a difference? America is addicted to the NFL. What we want is absolution. We want to believe that there’s a way to continue watching a sport that punishes self-preservation and that highlight reels produced by the NFL don’t amount to what Deadspin’s Timothy Burke called “brain damage snuff films.”
Aside from telling the story of Omalu, “Concussion” also hammers the idea home that the NFL is no different from the Big Tobacco, something it shares with “League of Denial,” the PBS Frontline documentary about the NFL’s concussion crisis. They draw parallels between the two, indicting them as corrupt, mendacious peddlers of junk science willing to sacrifice human lives for the sake of turning a profit from a dangerous product. It’s a powerful analogy, connecting the NFL with Big Tobacco, but as much as C-SPAN footage of Linda Sánchez and Maxine Waters sticking it to Roger Goodell and Co. in 2009 reminds us of Henry Waxman dressing down tobacco executives in 1994, it’s probably not enough to get large swaths of the American public to change their viewing habits, or give up fantasy football, or any of the other things that might actually make a financial dent in the way the NFL operates.
“There’s no way to smoke safely,” Steinberg said. “Football can be made safer. It certainly puts stress on the human body, so people will be impacted. Players think it’s worth the risk.”
Additionally, both industries had no qualms about targeting children as a means of securing a future consumer base, and this is what bothers Chris Nowinski, co-founder executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, more than anything.
“I think the NFL is going to do the least amount possible to keep the profits coming in,” Nowinski said. “We’ve been doing this dance for 10 years. We know their moves before they do. Wherever they can cast doubt, wherever they can slow progress and trumpet whatever changes they’ve made, they do just to keep people comfortable watching a game where potentially a majority of the guys on the field are going to have brain damage. Where this is getting really bad is the NFL is pouring more money into marketing the game to children, for playing it, not just for watching it.
“I think when we look back in 10 years, we’re going to say that was the stake that, if the game goes south, undid the game. The NFL needed to say, ‘This is an adult game. It’s a dangerous game, but adults can do dangerous things.’ The fact that they’re trying to recruit our five-year olds into banging heads hundreds of times based on really terrible interpretations of modern science is shameful.”