The NFL and Brain Trauma and Suicides

September 21, 2010 § 5 Comments

Things need to be said before we all get on the same page, when people are only still learning about the problem. I’m not going to watch the very enablers hop in front of the reform parade. Names need to be named.

Today here in Denver we’re all trying to figure out what it means when a 23-year old kills himself. When the greatest wide receiver in South Carolina’s history, a father of a young son, decides thinks his answers and his peace can only come from a gunbarrel. The newspapers are still scrambling to get quotes of any meaning. Local radio is nigh unlistenable, jammed full with a bunch of callers slamming McKinley’s “selfish” decision and other ignorant shit in the the air. Steve Spurrier’s reaction probably summarizes it best:

“I can’t understand.” “It’s hard to believe.” First memories are not of the field, but of McKinley’s smile. And you shake your head.

Less than 24 hours before we learned the news of the suicide, at the half-time of the Sunday night Saints-Niners game, Bob Costas droned on NBC for 3-4 minutes about the super grave seriousness with which the NFL is addressing the issue of brain damage and football. He pointed out the Principled Stance and showed that since Jason Witten was kept off the field against his own wishes that the NFL had been, is, and will be at the forefront of player safety. As I was watching this happen on-screen two thoughts screamed into my mind, equally loud.

1. If the NFL is, during prime-time, parading out their aw-shucksiest spokesperson/Pravda-man to talk about brain damage, they are on the precipice, down to one or two bullets, one last day of rations. They are scared of what the public will find, because they know it’s ugly. Bob Costas’s visage is the Doomsday Clock at 11:59.

2. What total bullshit.

Here’s a league that has had years of doctors and players shouting from the rooftops “Football is ruining our brains and bodies!” and the league and coaches’ responses have been near-unanimous: suck it up, sissy. Be a man, play through the pain. You think you have it any harder than a Joe Greene or Jim Brown or Ray Nitschke or Other Player With Gnarled Hand and Gritty Snarl? NFL Films has had as much of a hand in brain damage in the U.S. as the unhelmeted bike rider.

Ted Johnson, with his speed addiction and blackouts. Troy Aikman with his double-digit list of concussions. Mike Webster’s homelessness. Andre Waters, another NFLer who ended it with a gun. Tom McHale with his drug addiction and demise. Chris Nowinski wrote a book about concussions back in 2004. You may not know who Dr. Bennett Omalu is, but the NFL has known for years. We don’t know what drove Kenny McKinley to kill himself, but if his depression was not football-induced his story would be the exception, not the rule.

And here are the two men I don’t want forgotten in the change, caught up in the wash: Ira Casson and David Viano.

The two doctors who managed for years to keep the “science” on the side of management, on the side of the owners. They provided the “research” that enabled coaches to thrown concussed players back into the mix, to give coaches the rationale to take years off of men’s lives. Though both men were forced off the NFL’s brain injury committee last year, their contributions to brain damage are already set in stone.

Those two gentlemen may have Kenny McKinley’s blood on their hands, they absolutely have Chris Henry’s.

As you said, Dr. Casson, when you had eleven cases of CTE in front of you:

Regarding the 11 deceased players whose brains were discovered to have damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy — whose only known cause is repeated blows to the head — Dr. Casson said those represented only “a small number of case reports of neuro-pathological abnormalities.”

And you, Dr. Viano:

Viano was targeted after a report he co-authored with Casson said “it might be safe” for high schools to follow the NFL’s practice of allowing players with concussions to return to the same game, the New York Times reported.

These men who took the oath to fight for health instead dissembled for the rich and powerful. Damn them both.

Long may we remember the men who’ve given their lives for our entertainment. But long may we also remember the men who pushed those men to their deaths.


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