NFL Not Alone In Denying Damage

October began with one of the best sports documentaries in ESPN’s 30-for-30 series – the thoughtful and inspirational story of Eddie Aikau. Fast forward seven days and PBS counters with one of the most disturbing investigations into the dark side of professional athletics. I liked Eddie much better.

League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis didn’t reveal many surprises. Anyone who has been paying attention to the issue of concussions in the NFL is well aware of the dangers associated with repeated hits to the head and the league’s effort to ignore the evidence. Why the nation’s premier sports league would do such a thing also isn’t a surprise: money. Bodies are replaceable, revenue isn’t.

The NFL generates so much income for players, teams, advertisers and agents that something – or someone – had to be sacrificed. This is the real shocking part of the investigation – players were sustaining life-threatening injuries and no one seemed to care.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, even after Steeler Hall of Fame center Mike Webster was awarded a pension for his injuries, dismissed any notion that concussions can lead to long-term brain injuries. He even claimed the issue was a baseless media-created dust storm. Webster, once the toughest member of the NFL’s most successful franchise, had been reduced to a drug-addled homeless man, who at times became so confused that he sat shivering in his truck, unaware that he could simply put a coat on to alleviate the discomfort.

That the league ignored the health of the players in favor of greater profits is abhorrent – but it’s not wholly to blame. The players, their agents and the Players Association are just as guilty.

Lee Steinberg, the agent of choice for many of the league’s top players, spoke of his clients playing with collapsed lungs and their efforts to hide injuries from coaches and team doctors. He even recalled sitting in a dark hospital room with Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, who after getting concussed, kept asking where he was and what happened. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback had temporarily lost his short-term memory.

“It terrified me to see how tender the bond was between consciousness and potential dementia and confusion,” said Steinberg, who didn’t speak of making things better for the players. Then again, they might not have wanted him to even if he was so inclined.

“It’s affected my life, it surely has, but I’m not out there crying about it,” said Hall of Fame center Jim Otto. “I know that I went to war, and I came out of the battle with what I got. That’s the way it is. That’s the way Mike Webster would see it, too. I’m sure he would.”

Not necessarily. In 1997, Webster filed a disability claim with the NFL, saying the repeated blows to his head had caused his dementia. The league’s disability committee, which was headed by the commissioner, hired its own doctor, who confirmed Webster’s brain damage was caused by playing football. Yet even today, the NFL will not acknowledge what its own investigation found.

As part of its $765 million settlement with the Players Association to fund health care for former players, the sides agreed to no admission of guilt nor any connection between head injuries and long-term health problems. The players even gave up the right to further litigation should new information arise. That’s a good investment for a league making $8 billion annually.

According to Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who was featured in the investigation, the brains of 46 former NFL players have been studied, and 45 showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the degenerative brain disease first found in Webster.

“You have to sacrifice your body. You have to sacrifice years down the line. When we are 50, 40 years old, we probably won’t be able to walk. That’s the sacrifice you have to make to play this game,” said Junior Seau in an NFL Films production. Seau killed himself in 2012. His autopsy revealed the linebacker had CTE.

Harry Carson, the Hall of Fame New York Giants linebacker, summed up the sport’s future succinctly. “From a physical risk standpoint, you know what you are doing when you sign your kid up – that he can hurt his knee. What you should know now is your child could develop a brain injury as a result of playing football. It’s not just on the pro level, but on every level of football. The question is, do you want it to be your child?”

The researchers profiled seem to agree children should not play tackle football until the age of 14.

Is that too drastic? In 2006, Eric Pelly was just 18 when he died following his fourth concussion. He too had CTE. Twitter @SteveMurray84