I recently heard outspoken two-time Super Bowl winner Ray Lewis being interviewed on the radio about the game he loves. He said “As long as football is about two grown men running at each other full speed there will be serious injuries involved!” Football has always been a violent sport. Was there really ever any doubt that concussions were an issue? Brain trauma is only coming to the forefront because the NFL can no longer brush it aside. Junior Seau was one of the most beloved sports figures in San Diego football history and at the age of 43 he took his own life. Junior Seau shot himself in the chest so his brain could be examined for trauma. At least eight former NFL players have committed suicide and were later diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. Terry Long, Andre Waters, Shane Dronett, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Jovan Belcher and Paul Oliver all took their own lives between 2006 and 2011. They all played in NFL and they all suffered from severe mental stress associated with repeated trauma to the head. CTE is featured in the Will Smith movie Concussion which follows the story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu and his mission to raise public awareness. Dr. Omalu discovered the disease while examining former NFL player Mike Webster’s brain. He published his findings in a 2005 medical journal. It’s no accident that it took the NFL almost ten-years to acknowledge the disease exists and that it is associated with football. Billions in revenue can skew almost anyone’s perspective regarding morality and the truth.
Baseball was our national pastime for over 100 years but the NFL has taken over and now owns Sundays in the fall. Brilliant marketing, promotion and branding have made the NFL so powerful that it can hold an entire city hostage in order to get what it wants. How many new stadiums have been built in the last ten years? How many teams have threatened to leave their city if a new stadium wasn’t laid out on a platter with tax payer money? Don’t forget we’re talking about sports not curing cancer or fighting hunger. It’s hard to put things into perspective when the NFL makes over $9 billion per year. Roger Goodell, the current commissioner of the NFL wants to grow the league to $25 billion per year by 2027. You can’t grow the league without the best talent and all the headlines about concussion related injuries don’t help attract that talent. With $9 billion at stake it’s actually amazing that Dr. Omalu’s findings ever saw the light of day.
None of this should be a surprise to anyone that watches NFL football regularly. CTE is only the name we’ve given to the repeated head trauma that these players have been suffering through for decades. No amount of padding, head gear or rule changes will be able to alter the very nature of football. It has been violent from the very beginning. In the 19th century the Harvard-Yale college football game used to be referred to as the “Hampden Park Bloodbath” because so many crippling injuries were incurred. There were 19 football related fatalities in 1905, over 100 years ago. Let’s face facts; we are a violent society and deep down we love watching a war between two small armies on the gridiron. Hard hits are part of the game and in 2009 the New Orleans Saints were severely sanctioned by the league for “Bountygate”. Saints players were being rewarded by coaches for taking opposing players out of the game with illegal hits. It is believed that there was even a bounty put out on star players like Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for 1 year and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely. The league made an example of the Saints but aggression has always been rewarded in the NFL. The Saints were the just team that got caught and a scapegoat was needed to placate the press.
NFL football is essentially a modern day blood sport masked under the guise of heroic conquests and failures on the field of play. At least with MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) there’s no pretense and we know exactly what we’re getting into. The NFL is beloved because it is a reflection of who we have become as a society. Baseball has been cast aside because finesse and skill have been replaced by brute force and speed as the two things we admire most. Ray Lewis was right… football will always be a violent injury ridden sport… that’s what makes it football.