Stranger, Then | October 17, 2014
October 20, 2014

Sports | January 21, 2013
What stops the NFL?
The farce of 'player safety' in the NFL
Written by | Visual by Amina Batyreva

WARNING: The following article contains potentially triggering material regarding suicide

On December 1, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher drove to his team’s practice facility within an hour of killing his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins. The first person he encountered when he got there was the team’s General Manager, Scott Pioli. Belcher then stepped out of his vehicle with a gun to his head, telling Pioli that he had to kill himself after what he had done that morning. The Chiefs head coach, Romeo Crennel, was quickly enlisted to help, as Pioli tried to talk Belcher out of it. Before the police could arrive, Belcher walked (hid?) behind his car, made the Sign of the Cross, and shot himself in the head.

The next day, the Kansas City Chiefs played football, business as usual. The day after one of their teammates had murdered his girlfriend, and then committed suicide – in front of team personnel – the National Football League (NFL) told the Chiefs to play the game In fact, on the day of Belcher’s death, the NFL told the Chiefs’ opponent, the Carolina Panthers, to fly to Kansas City and proceed as if everything were normal as well. This decision begs the question: what in the world could stop an NFL game from occurring?

The NFL, in response to criticism over the decision, replied that there were grief counsellors readily available for the Chiefs players. While a good gesture, it pales in comparison to what was really necessary: a cancellation of the game. Nothing less would have been appropriate given the situation; making the  athletes play and the coaches coach the day after such horrific events displays a total lack of respect to the mental health of the players. In light of this, it is safe to assert that nothing can stop the profit machine that is the NFL. Its callousness toward human life is necessary to the success of the game. The well being of the players – mentally and physically – is secondary to the business interests of the league. To not play the game would defeat the culture of the NFL – one of playing the game at all costs.

The NFL’s insensitivity toward its players in all regards has been on full display this season. A week after the Belcher incident, a Dallas Cowboys linebacker, Jerry Brown Jr., was killed in an automobile accident. A teammate’s drunk driving was thought to be the cause. Again, the day after the death of a teammate, the Cowboys played football.  A week after the accident, the teammate who had been driving the car was seen on the sidelines during the Cowboys’ next game, the same day that the Cowboys were unveiling memorial helmet decals for their deceased teammate.

The NFL operates under one mantra: keep going. It is the most violent and damaging professional sport in the world. Every single player is at risk during every single play; to cancel a game because of one tragedy would show a concern for the players that the league ignores during every game. The mental precariousness of playing a day after a teammate’s death is a secondary concern to the NFL.

The NFL, before 2009, denied repeatedly that football was dangerous to players’ long-term health. During this period, according to ESPN.com’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the NFL also gave disability payments to players who were suffering from brain injuries caused by football. The league has known for years the damage that football can wreak on a human brain, but in the interest of good PR and not having to pay huge liability payments to retired players, kept this fact under wraps or feigned ignorance for as long as it could, until the scientific evidence could no longer be denied. Since coming clean in 2009, the NFL has aggressively sought to increase “player safety” by fining or suspending players who make dangerous hits to other players’ heads.  While again, a good gesture, it only covers a fraction of the damage being done to players game after game, play after play.

Recent research on brain injuries suggests that it is not always big hits that are the most damaging. Instead, small hits to the head that occur multiple times per game, and cannot be eliminated from the game, are what cause the most damage. The accumulation of these hits leads to serious damage, and to diseases such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Every play and every hit, then, is damaging to a players’ long-term health.

To stop and reflect on the damage wrought by every play of an NFL game would force its end. The culture of the game is predicated on continuation, on “toughing it out” and enduring pain. In a recent story by the Miami Herald, former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Jason Taylor told columnist Dan Le Batard that during the 2006 season, he received a weekly epidural treatment in order to play, and lied to team doctors about his health. When asked if he would do it all over again – all the pain he had to suffer every week – he said that he would do it again even if he had to “sleep on the steps standing up for 15 years.” This is how players succeed – by disregarding their own health. It’s been ingrained into the very idea of playing professional football: all the pain is worth it.  That is why the Chiefs and Cowboys were both ordered to play a day after their teammates had died; that is why on January 6, 2013, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III kept playing despite a serious knee injury that could affect him for years to come. There is no ‘safe’ version of the game of football as presently constituted. But the league is now by far the most popular in America; a multi-billion dollar industry that is loathe to change its insanely profitable ways. The NFL is built around a continuous denial of the danger of the game, one that can only be achieved by never, ever stopping once.

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