Football’s explosive image problem found an unlikely spokesman this week.
Bob Costas, the popular NBC sportscaster who has long narrated gridiron exploits for millions from the press box, put the National Football League’s future place in the American landscape in stark terms on Tuesday night as he sat on a University of Maryland panel.
“The issue that is most substantial, the existential issue, is the nature of football itself,” Costas told the crowd. “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains.”
Costas shared the stage in College Park with other well-known names from the sports world, including USA Today’s Christine Brennan and ESPN personalities Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. The panel, part of the university’s annual Shirley Povich Symposium, began with the moderator asking the journalists about the biggest stories in sports.
Costas pulled no punches, diving directly into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the long-term degenerative condition afflicting numerous football stars due to chronic, repeated and untreated concussions.
“You cannot change the basic nature of the game,” Costas said. “I certainly would not let, if I had an athletically gifted 12- or 13-year-old son, I would not let him play football.”
CTE is just one of the many storms battering the league. The 2016 season has been a constant argument over players’ right to kneel during the national anthem in protest; the league and owners have responded with ambivalence, stoking further headlines and controversy and drawing ire from President Trump.
This follows public outrage over the league’s soft-pedaling of domestic abuse by players. Television ratings are also down: The first week of the 2017 season saw an 11.8 percent drop from 2016, the New York Post reported. The viewership has yet to match last year’s numbers.
But CTE, as Costas pointed out, isn’t just a scandal sweeping through the league — it calls into question the very basics of the game.
A neurodegenerative brain disease caused by repeated head traumas, the condition results from an abnormal buildup of protein in the brain that blocks neuropathways. Memory loss, aggression, depression and suicidal urges have all been linked to the condition.
Since CTE was first tracked in the early 2000s by Pennsylvania coroner Bennet Omalu, the league has begrudgingly moved forward with stronger concussion protocols for injured players. Earlier this year, the league signed a $1 billion settlement with former players suffering neurocognitive disorders related to their playing days.
The science behind the condition, however, has only grown. This summer researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and VA Boston Healthcare System published a study finding CTE in 99 percent of the brains of former NFL players donated by their families, The Washington Post reported in July. A Washington Post-University of Massachusetts at Lowell poll published in September showed that 83 percent of fans believed it was “certainly true” or “probably true” that CTE was the result of the game.
This week at the panel, Costas saved his harshest words for the white noise that obfuscates the basic scientific facts about football’s physical threat.
“There is this crazy notion that you hear on talk radio and some right-wing sites that this is just another left-wing conspiracy to undermine something that is quintessentially American,” he said. “There’s a word for things like that, there’s many words. One of them is bulls‑‑‑, because that’s what that is.”
Despite a long tenure in front of American viewers, Costas has not been shy about his opinions in the past. In 2012, the anchor was at the helm of a “Sunday Night Football” broadcast only days after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and took his own life. During halftime, Costas made a comment that many took to be a call for gun control, and a storm of criticism followed.
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