Florio On Henry and Several Reasons It’s Wrong. Plus: Some Ethics

June 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mike Florio is someone who’s done a hell of a lot for the sports blogosphere through his work, so I’m not attacking him or his logic specifically, he’s just serving as an avatar to the NFL writ large. It’s a testament to his work ethic that Florio’s now part of the NFL establishment, and he’s given one of the first responses to the Chris Henry story, so his response is the one to get the fisk.

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So Florio gives his take on the future from the findings on Chris Henry. I’ve transcribed a chunk of it, but just to err on the side of uber-accuracy feel free to check out the video.

A bad response to be sure, but it’s one I feel we’re going to see from a lot of the NFL corners, whether it be the former players turned analysts, NFL leadership and ownership, or anyone heavily invested with the league’s success.

1. When asked about what the Henry brain scan means for the NFL, Mike suggests that “it takes some of the focus off the NFL and pushes it to the lower levels of the sport.”

This is probably the strongest point Florio makes about the whole debacle, and even here he’s only half-right. He’s exactly right that there is culpability at the youth, high school and college levels, that Chris Henry didn’t just injure his brain during his NFL career. That part rings true: most of us know someone who’s received a concussion during a high school game.

But here’s where he’s wrong, and I’ll admit I’m honestly puzzled by Florio’s rhetoric: I don’t understand this distinction he makes between the NFL and other levels, except from the legal perspective (an arena in which Florio’s very well-versed). If we are only discussing legal liability to the NFL in the specific case of Chris Henry, it does matter that he only played a little while in the league. But if we are discussing the problem of severe brain injuries or the disquieting conclusions one reaches when pondering a 26 year-old man having the brain of someone over twice his age, such a distinction is useless.

In fact, the differentiation that Florio makes is actually more damning to the NFL, if some of the damage was caused at levels beneath the NFL, the pro league is all the more in danger. From every single draft season and from every rookie press conference is the speed and power of the NFL extolled. “The game at the pro level is a totally different game from college” is as ubiquitous as “getting ready for the big time.” So if the high school game and Big East game can fuck up a brain unto the point of committing suicide, the league with Dwight Freeneys and Brian Dawkinses should hardly leave the spotlight.

2. High school coaches are the ones who are “still” disinterested in proper brain recovery and suggesting players just “shrug it off”?

I think some ex-Pats players would like to talk to you about Bill Belichick, Mike. Yes, the NFL has been busting its ass to catch up with the science, mandating concussion breaks and pushing precautionary rules into greater prominence, but to suggest that more of the focus would be better assigned to youth football is pretty weak.

3. When asked if we could fundamentally change the game, Mike says “At a certain point football, and this sounds ridiculous, becomes foosball… It’s just not realistic, and that’s the problem. The potential fixes just aren’t realistic. … The concern is, at what point will changes to the game change the game to the point  where its no longer as attractive? And that’s the unspoken concern for a lot of folks who have a vested interest in the sport of football, like we do. It’s a concern that’s out there. At some point, the game will be changed to the worse if its being changed to protect athletes from risks they know and accept when they sign up to play. It becomes a separate issue, a little bit of a political issue: at what point do we tell these guys, “We’ll tell you what the risks are, and you’re allowed to play, but we’re not going to change the sport. And you may suffer some long term consequences, but if you want to play football this is how it is.” I think this is something that isn’t going away and it presents some very thorny issues for folks to work through…”

Here we go.

My first response to Joe Brocato (Florio’s co-host) even asking “can we change the sport?” was one of rage. As I watched him ask it, my chest felt vacuum-sealed, I had that little mini-gag-reflex you have when you’re trying to hold what feels like an angry mob of ghosts from streaming out your mouth. How could someone look at the story of Mike Webster, of a great man reduced to living in train stations, and ask “how do we preserve the sanctity of our game?”? To even ask it in such a way, a way that implies that there is some transcendent ideal of capital-f Football that not even human suffering can touch, is infuriating.

My second response was more rage. These players “know” and “accept” the risks of their profession? Bullshit. Anyone who’s taken a basic economics or game theory class knows just how prevalent incomplete information is in this world. I didn’t transcribe it, but Florio put an emphasis on “may suffer some long term consequences.” Again, bullshit. Any and every player who plays in the NFL has aches and pains long after they hang up the cleats. It beggars belief to suggest that men in excess of 225 lbs could run into each other sometimes in excess of 25-30 mph thousands of times and be no worse for the wear. I’d love for Florio to tell Chris Henry’s mom that Henry knew and accepted what he was getting into with a pro football career:

“It was a big shock when I first learned [Chris was playing football with brain damage],” Henry’s mother, Carolyn Henry Glaspy, told reporters on Monday after watching Omalu and Bailes present their findings about her son.

And now?

Glaspy sighed and said, “Some things make so much sense.”

My third response to all of this was sadness. To be sure, my anger at this kind of argument will probably never really subside too much. I’m too much of a lib-uh-rul to ever just be chill with this level of exploitation. But it is sad that someone as bright as Florio can be so attached to a sport or interest as to say that measurements to prevent men from literally beating their heads into dementia were “unrealistic”. It’s sad that someone can look at overwhelming data of a specific activity (one designed for pure entertainment!) causing people to lose their minds and choose to retreat to the Hey It’s Personal Choice defense.

Florio’s not alone in this. Read the comments of the post, there are plenty of people who simply don’t give a shit about whether the game of football is killing people. Hey, it’s America, they have that right. But I have the right to think these men and women, they who can at once pooh-pooh the threat of brain injury, cheer for big hits, and complain and bitch when these players demand millions of dollars as payment for the sport that the players are “forgetting the average fan who’d do anything to have their jobs”, that they are cretinous assholes.

To be sure, Florio isn’t going as far as those I mention above will. He recognizes this is a BFD, that it could possibly cripple the NFL’s future, permanently. Why else do you think he resorted to the personal choice defense? There’s not another one available.

So, while keeping the freedom-to-cheer in mind, I will close by asking: someone who is deliberately indifferent to the fates of the performers in front of him or her, who places his or her own pleasure in front of the very lives of said performers– how is he or she different from an attendant to the Roman Coliseum?

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