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Does the NFL Need to Worry About 'Concussion'?

Publish Date: 29/12/2015
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

[On Concussion] “I’m a football dad. For me, [the role] was really conflicting. When I sat down with Bennet [Omalu] I was hoping, 'Please say something to make me not take this movie. [But] As a parent I felt like I had to be a part of this. Bennet’s quest for the truth… became our quest to deliver the truth, because people have to know.” -- Will Smith

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Sony's Concussion opened on Christmas Day. It is a movie with plenty of star power, including leading actor Will Smith, and a subject matter – the dangers of concussions and other football-related head trauma – that may attract interest from movie goers, regardless of whether or not they are fans of the NFL. A synopsis:

While conducting an autopsy on former NFL football player Mike Webster (David Morse), forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers neurological deterioration that is similar to Alzheimer's disease. Omalu names the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy and publishes his findings in a medical journal. As other athletes face the same diagnosis, the crusading doctor embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma.
A movie daring to attack the sport that 'owns a day of the week' on an issue that has been shown to have fatal consequences. It certainly has the potential to raise serious issues about player safety and draw into question how much the NFL knew about the dangers of football-related head trauma. Although in reality, if past history and established culture are any indication, it seems likely that the movie will do little more than provide lip service, leaving the NFL little reason to worry.
We are all to blame.

Concussions and player safety notwithstanding, the NFL is printing money

If the genesis of the dangers of concussions and related head trauma occurred with Mike Webster's death in 2002 and Omalu's subsequently published findings in 2005 then at worst, the NFL has  been generally aware of the dangers of concussions for 10 years. Of course, the NFL didn't publicly accept Omalu's findings until 2009, and they had already created their own Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBI) in the mid-90's, so the NFL's awareness of the dangers of concussions and other related head trauma is certainly up for debate. During that same "accepted" ten-year time frame, the NFL peaked in popularity and continued to cement itself as America's favorite pasttime. The league brought in a then record $5.3 billion in revenue in 2003. They've since set new revenue records every year since, topping out at $12 billion in 2014; approximately a 240% increase in revenue in a nine-year span.

Concussion - Film

And what of the concussions? Until the NFL finally accepted the veracity of Omalu's reports, they publicly spent their time vehemently denying any such link existed,

On concussions, I think is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly… There is no increase in concussions, the number is relatively small… The problem is a journalist issue. – Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (1994)

[On concussions] “And I think one thing that troubles me sometimes, when I see media reports, is that this is something that, all of a sudden, we’ve started to focus on,” says Goodell. “We’ve had this committee [MTBI] for 14 years. We have done terrific work. And our doctors, our scientists have been working at this diligently. So this is not something that’s come to us new." – Roger Goodell (2007)
“In my opinion, the only scientifically valid evidence of a chronic encephalopathy in athletes is in boxers and in some Steeplechase jockeys. It’s never been scientifically validly documented in any other athletes… Anecdotes do not make scientifically valid evidence. I am a man of science. I believe in empirically determined scientifically valid data. And that is not scientifically valid data.” – MTBI Committee Chair, Dr. Ira Casson (2007)
In 2012, thousands of retired players joined in a class action lawsuit against the league. The suit alleges that the NFL failed to provide proper medical treatment and apprise players of the long term risks of head trauma. A proposed $1 billion dollar settlement approved in April of this year (currently on appeal) has continued to allow the NFL to avoid admitting fault while providing medical care for injured players. But with such a large class, yet to be diagnosed medical issues and rising medical costs, even that admonishment may not be an adequate remedy. In any case, one could argue that the settlement is a mere drop in the bucket for a league that provided its teams more than $7 billion dollars in revenue sharing last year alone.
The NFL is a business. As such, it still operates on supply and demand. Every action that the league takes is done in an effort to maximize revenue and generate profits. The NFL can only continue to make money, while simultaneously avoiding fault over the concussion issue, if the fans and the sponsors continue to ignore the issue and pay for the NFL product.

The NFL made money from big hits because the fans pay for big hits

NFL fans love big hits. The NFL knows fans love big hits. The NFL marketed big hits to the fans, and the fans purchased accordingly. Crunch Course. Bone Crunchers. Thunder & Destruction. These were the titles that were marketed to fans during the '60's, '70's, and 80's. As Deadspin's Timothy Burke points out, many of the people unfortunately featured in those videos have since passed away due to future complications resulting from their video-highlighted and monetized concussions. The NFL profited, and inexplicably continues to profit, from plays which contributed to the deaths of their employees. Even if one could effectively argue that the NFL had no knowledge of the long-term effects of head trauma in the '60's and 70's, they certainly know about said effects in 2015. It is outrageous and an affront to those men and their families that those videos can still be purchased today. Yet, someone must be purchasing the videos, otherwise, you'd think that they wouldn't be available.

Fans don't care about long-term player safety. Fans are looking to be entertained. If their favorite player is injured and needs to leave the game? That fan is far more concerned with the 15-yard penalty and the immediate effectiveness of the backup, not whether or not the player will become depressed and suicidal by the age of 45. Commenters on the very informative NFL Concussion Litigation Blog -- a blog that highlights the various pieces of litigation brought against the league for football-related head trauma evidences that fact,

Oh, boohoo, boohoo……..and what about the soldiers who lost their lives, limbs, sight, mental stability while they were fighting for you guys to have a chance to make big money, possibly become a star, while playing a game you love…….I am sure that nothing–no warnings, no words–nothing would have kept you from playing ball. For heaven’s sake MAN UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The NFL has long operated under the 'NFL players are indestructible warriors' mystique. Anything less than that? Concussions? Depression? Suicidal Thoughts? Man Up.


Other pages you may enjoy:

Warriors play through anything

On December 20th, Denver Broncos safety David Bruton broke his leg during the first quarter of a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Never leaving the game, Bruton played 77 snaps. Comments on his performance via The Denver Post,

"Us being down already and knowing how important this game was, there is no way I was going to come out,...I'd have to have something very, very serious — well, obviously this is serious — but something that kept me out of the game right then and there immediately. That's the only way I would have stayed out." -- David Bruton

"We'll see how that plays in with the remainder of the season," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's amazing what David did, but he's done it all year long. He's a leader, he's a warrior and he gave up everything for his team (Sunday)."

"We had nobody else, so he put the team to his back," cornerback Chris Harris said. "He did whatever he could. He played great. To be able to play with a fractured fibula — to do that, that's amazing right there."

Warriors don't take plays off. The adage you always hear from football announcers during this time of year is "everyone is playing hurt". Concussions, stingers, broken bones... the injury doesn't matter; players want to get back in the game, even if it is at the expense of their own safety.

Concussion doesn't matter

The NFL has continued to set revenue records amidst labor disputes, domestic violence issues, and replacement referees. The concussion issue is a completely different animal. Those aforementioned problems had some sort of viral component (the Ray Rice video) or affected gambling money (replacement referees) or threatened games altogether (labor issues). Head trauma has no added tangible impact on the fans, therefore it doesn't significantly effect the NFL's bottom line. The NFL won't take significant action until the problem hits them in their pockets. Add a group of players that, for the most part, choose to live up to the 'warrior mystique' and you have an issue that doesn't matter.

ESPN's Darren Rovell posed the following question on Twitter, and the answer couldn't be more telling,

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Why the NFL doesn't have to worry about its concussion response. It doesn't affect their business pic.twitter.com/us5pnFCtNx

— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) December 22, 2015

At the end of the day, fans of Will Smith and movie-goers with a general interest will see the movie -- the film did $11 million dollars over the weekend, good enough for 6th place -- but don't expect any wide-spread changes due to Omalu's story.

We just don't care enough.

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