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NFL Players Didn't Know the Dangers of Playing Football and Neither Did Anyone Else

The argument remains that NFL players knew the dangers of playing football, but decades of reports show that no one—players included—knew the full scope of the danger.
October 31, 2014, 1:38pm
Photo by Pouya Dianat-USA TODAY Sports

As a multimillion-dollar settlement looms between the NFL and its former players over the damage playing the game has done to them, the nation's largest brain bank recentlyreported that 76 of the 79 deceased retirees it has studied showed significant brain deterioration. The league itself has reported that players between the ages of 60 and 64 will have a dementia rate as high as 35 times that of the general population. For some, this is troubling news. For others, this is hardly news at all. As a commenter on ESPN's story about the NFL's brain damage estimates wrote, "When you smash your head into things for a living it is bound to be an issue later in life. That is common sense." Repeatedly over the past few years, the plight of former players has been deemed predictable, and thus unworthy of sympathy.

"They knew the risks," goes the refrain.

Yet journalists have been writing about football's dangers for over a century, and if you read their stories, common sense soon yields to concrete evidence: today's NFL retirees had no idea what they were risking.

Read More: The NFL Concussion Settlement Is Pure Evil

They knew, of course, that football could devastate in an instant. With the rules still barely codified, the Chicago Tribune was calling it a "brutal game" in 1892. Paralysis and death from skull fractures were constant concerns. Even without aname for the condition, it was understood that youth players were especially susceptible to death by brain swelling after multiple concussive hits. With approximately20 player deaths in 1905, The New York Timesdubbed football America's "homicidal pastime." Changes to the game's rules were made the next year to make it safer, but ultimately did little to improve the death rate. In 1931, a year of at least 33 deaths, John Heisman suggested the game might not survive another year.

Football was troubled, but nobody had any conception that dangers might lie ahead for those at a safe remove from the playing field. Players didn't know that even if they recovered from one or more concussions—or never had one in the first place—the countless big and little hits could add up to devastate them later. Nothing like the long-term neurodegenerative diseases that have been linked to repeated blows to the head, like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), were imaginable.

Slowly, football's death rate declined, and so did stories about its dangers. The next outbreak of worry came in 1954, when Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham took to the pages of Sports Illustrated with a lament, "Football Is Getting Too Vicious." It started a debate about "roughhouse tactics" that "increasingly mar the good name of football," but to little improvement. Nine years later, Walter Bingham wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated called The War on Ferocity. It wasn't routine football that scared him but extracurriculars—punching, kneeing, kicking, biting. He expresses his disgust that instead of simply lowering one's shoulder and leveling a guy, defenders will "crash into the runner standing up, forearms extended and perhaps even jabbing a bit." The former sounds worse today.

EJ Manuel after suffering a football injury. Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

In the 1970s, stories about football's dangers grew especially fevered and for the first time pondered players' futures. This also was the era in which the first neuropathologically diagnosed victim of CTE, Mike Webster, played. When he was drafted in 1974, the future looked dark, for players and league alike. As an extensive Washington Post series declared that year, "Paying the Price" to play was often a "Lifelong Proposition."

There are dozens of these stories, presenting all of today's rhetoric but none of today's fears. In 1978, for instance, John Underwood wrote a three-part Sports Illustrated series called Brutality: The Crisis in Football. The first installment examines a cancer being ignored by the NFL: "The game is headed toward a crisis, one that is epitomized by the helmet, which is both a barbarous weapon and inadequate protection." The helmet is a menace that changes the way people play, he wrote; it does as much harm as good; children are watching and learning. He quoted players who complained you would "spoil the game" if you eliminated head-shots, and critics who said that without serious change, soccer would be more popular within 10 years. Underwood wrote, "those who despaired of the weekend casualty lists were encouraged to look at the sport's virtues, at the lives and profit statements it enhanced." He wrote of a doctor the league sought to discredit for disclosing dangers. "Suddenly," he wrote, "the league found itself crawling with lawyers."

Much of Underwood's series could have been written now. Except for one glaring difference: In two more pieces and 23,000 total words, the word "concussion" appeared once. Permanent brain damage never came up. When Underwood asked whether the game will "have long-term effects that will grow more painful and restricting with age," he was talking about busted knees, chronic arthritis, and pinched nerves. The hard-shell helmet —created to prevent the head injuries that were understood—was excoriated by Underwood for causing others. Again pre-figuring today's rhetoric, he suggested that it gave players too much courage and was used as a weapon. But he paid little attention to the actual effects on players' heads. Instead, he was upset about how helmets could bruise kidneys and spleens. Echoing Pop Warner in 1931, he argued that headgear should be padded. Yet you can't call his stories entirely shortsighted. His biggest worry about the helmet was its role in causing spinal injuries. The series' first installment, An Unfolding Tragedy, was still on newsstands when Darryl Stingley reached out for a pass and jammed his head into the shoulder of Jack Tatum, paralyzing him for life.

As always, players knew some risks. Even without the first inkling of chronic brain injuries, there were enough dangers for a Los Angeles Times writer tosuggest in 1971 that the game soon will "brutalize itself out of existence." With all the horrors players' bodies were subject to—and the stories list them attentively—it's no surprise they would fail to imagine others unseen. Even a Mother Jones story from 1976 that asked players at the Super Bowl about a statistic saying the game cut 20 years off their lives proceeded immediately from that number to discussing knee problems. The players' fears were likewise far from their heads, which barely get mentioned. Dallas Cowboys linebacker Lee Roy Jordan figured science would protect him: "By the time I'm 55 I feel they'll have learned enough to medically treat me … cut the nerves maybe, and relieve the pain."

Scary as it was, the future for these players was just pain, which they already conquered weekly. Jordan said that if the pain must continue, he could "accept that." "They know that they may become arthritic, they know their wives may always have to help them out of bed," a Chicago Sun-Times writer wrote in 1978, "and still they say the pain of the future will be worth it." Implicit was the idea that players would at least be able to remember their past days of glory. The pain, these stories often suggested, would even help them recall it.

These articles didn't consider the same things we do when players collide, but sometimes they came breathtakingly close. A sentence in a 1971 story began, "The repeated crashing of heads takes its toll," but that toll was pinched nerves. Likewise, a doctor told the New York Sun in 1974 that "The head should never be used as a physical weapon…. It is not so much the head. It is the tiny neck under it." No, it wasn't "the bell-ringing blows to the head or the constant smashing of bodies" causing players' decreased life expectancies, the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1977; it was diet. Headaches, vomiting, amnesia—these didn't suggest then what they do now.

The following decade, while filled with predictions of the game's demise, was no more prescient. In 1988, writers for the LA Times sent surveys to players about their health. Sixty-six percent said they expected the game to reduce their lifespans. The journalists suggested the culprits were poor eating habits, accrued injuries, and "mental anguish." Across 9,000 words, head injuries barely came up. Yet reading it today, it's easy to see omens. Thestory repeatedly mentioned players' thoughts of suicide, which had been carried out by a few retirees. Fifty-four percent of players "cited feelings ranging from abandonment, financial hardship, loneliness, paranoia, helplessness, despair and loss of self-esteem." Several players mentioned Jim Tyrer, a "former All-Pro offensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs who, in September of 1980, shot and killed his wife and then himself," akin to Chiefs linebackerJovan Belcher in 2012.

But people simply didn't have the intuition to link such extreme behavior with brain damage. Instead, a former player says the problem was that Tyrer "never had the success outside the game.… He wasn't perceived as being a winner." Of course, we can't be sure whether it was lack of success, repeated brain trauma, the endless pain these stories discuss, or something else that brought Tyrer to that end, but it's clear that in 1988, one of those options wasn't on the table. The brain was mentioned just once, when a player's deceased wife reported that her husband—and apparently his doctor—believed concussions led to his death by brain cancer at 52. But the story did nothing further with it. Even as the sudden decline of Muhammad Ali sparked a debate throughout the decade over the dangers of boxing, sports writers weren't able to make the connection between repetitive trauma in football and later cognitive troubles.

Neither, of course, were NFL players, even as science was starting to catch on. In 1992, when Jets receiver Al Toon first complained of the lingering effects of concussions, doctors insisted he'd soon be fine. A neurology professor quoted in a 1994 LA Timesstory put the outer limit of concussion recovery at three months, while a neurosurgeon said that he'd only recently stopped thinking accident victims who complained of persistent headaches "were crazy." That same year, however, a neurosurgeon toldSports Illustrated that some in the field were beginning to realize "it isn't just cataclysmic injury or death from brain injuries that should concern people. The core of the person can change from repeated blows to the head." Doctors were inching toward where we are now, where we fear not just concussions, but also the routine brain-battery of each down. "Players are bigger and are being propelled at each other at faster speeds," agent Leigh Steinberg propheticallytold the LA Times in 1995. "We won't know for years what the impact of this will be. We may have an epidemic of Alzheimer's and attendant problems 20 years from now with some of these players."

Meanwhile, the NFL was concocting a more soothing message—assembling, as Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada describe in League of Denial, an inexpert brain traumacommittee to produce bogus studies downplaying and dismissing the long-term dangers of the sport. In 1995, St. Louis Rams quarterback Chris Miller was fretting over what to do in the wake of the many concussions he'd received, torn, the LA Timesreported, "between outside medical theories that the next concussion could kill him, and arguments from NFL doctors that such proof does not exist." His coach called concussions "overrated." Miller trusted team doctors and played, but after more concussions, he retired that year. Five years later, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was stillinsistingthere was no cause for fear. Two years after that, Webster died, unaware of what, exactly, was destroying his brain. Around the same time, the NFL's brain trauma committee published scientific journal articles stating that concussions in professional football "are not serious injuries" and that "many [concussed] players can be safely allowed to return to play on the day of injury."

It's hard to look back and understand how players, writers, and the rest of us missed what seems obvious—that getting hit in the head can be very bad for your future health, even when wearing a protective helmet. NFL players felt the pain of those hits every Sunday. Why wouldn't they imagine such dangers? Why would they or anyone else trust self-interested doctors and scientists to tell the truth about the same league that signs their paychecks?

Routinely, however, society has overlooked seemingly obvious hazards. From smoking toDDT toasbestos to any number of pollutants, there is often an initial stage of widespread ignorance, followed by dissembling, equivocation, and prolongedmanufacturing of doubt by the industries and individuals who profit from the destruction. As recently as last year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell refused to acknowledge a link between concussions and long-term brain damage; around the same time, a league doctorreportedly asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to remove CTE from a fact sheet detailing degenerative brain disease in retired players.

If NFL players really had understood the long-term risks of their sport, then perhaps we could more easily withhold our sympathies—and the league its settlement blood money—with no one thinking twice about the game's past or future. But they didn't know.