This weekend marks the biggest event in professional football, and maybe even all sports, for the entire year. The Super Bowl earns ratings Presidential Addresses envy, and ad space costs more than some people make in years. The entire week leading to the Super Bowl is a spectacle of football and commerce, where the line between the game and “the product” blurs almost entirely.
The annual media day before the Super Bowl is usually one of the largest contributors to this pageantry and pre-game celebration. Players from the two teams who have made their way to the championship field questions from reporters traveling from around the world, and visitors even gather to watch reporters ask questions.
Most years, these questions are softballs about how excited they are to have reached “the Big Game”, what their strategies are, and what they plan to do if they win (Disneyland!). The most difficult questions asked would be about players who may or may not be playing due to physical injuries.
This year, however, the question of traumatic brain injury hangs above the head of all things football. The NFL can no longer swat the question away, and players are finally being forced to answer the questions about the dangers they put themselves in. For the first time at the annual media day, commerce and festivity are being cracked by criticisms from former players, doctors, and even President Obama.
The responses from the players follow two trends. Many players still attempt to dismiss to severity of traumatic brain injury and repeated concussions by arguing that “they knew what they were signing up for.” The others don’t blatantly say the NFL has created a culture and multi-billion dollar business out of treating human gladiators as disposable, but they do show their doubts and worries about the safety of the sport, and the fact that children as young as ten are showing signs of long-term brain damage.
The NFL continuously says that they have set in place numerous levels of preventative measures to try to ensure the safety of players, but the facade they create is questionable even from the sidelines. From the field, it is nothing but a farce.
Joe Flacco told the New York Times, “Just because they fine the guys is not going to stop them from hitting me. I find it tough to fine people who are doing their job.” Fines are a slap on the wrist at most, as players are payed exponentially more to destroy their opponents than they are fined for hitting them in “the wrong way”.
The player speaking out the loudest about the issue is Bernard Pollard, a safety for the Baltimore Ravens, who has not minced words when it comes to violence in the NFL. Recently, he said that the rule changes to keep players safe would bring about the end of the NFL within 30 years.
Pollard plays into the standard “I know what I signed up for” story the other players have been using, but he also says he doesn’t want his child to follow in his footsteps. He also believes there will be a player death on the field at some point without steps made to change the level of violence.
It is also entirely possible players don’t actually know “what they signed up for”. While they expect injuries, the true extent of brain damage from a career in football is only now becoming clear. Pollard said, “You’re going to have concussions. You’re going to have broken bones. That’s going to happen.” But, what Pollard doesn’t mention is the anxiety, early onset Alzheimer’s, and depression that come along with the concussions, and the severe cognitive deficits that can handicap a player. None of these issues go away. They fester with every big hit, getting worse and worse, until one day a player will be walking and suddenly collapse. At that point, it is far too late.
I, like every other journalist I have seen who has been critical of the NFL’s handling of TBI, will be watching the game this Sunday. The Super Bowl at this point is inescapable without a significant public outcry, and a united decision that the public isn’t interested in seeing players maiming each other.
In the US, where football, recreational violence, and piles of money are not only intertwined, but held in the highest regard, that change isn’t coming any time soon. For reasons no one can seem to explain, we just aren’t ready to give up on football. It makes one wonder, how many high profile suicides and deaths of old grid-iron legends will it take before we have had enough?