Concussion crisis looms over football as NFL returns

[CW: This article makes mention of suicide.]

Devon Gales led with the crown of his helmet. I have been mesmerized by a clip of wide receiver Gales, blocking for his Southern University teammate, since I first saw it three years ago. I found it on YouTube and watched it on repeat, tracing the steps of each player as they sped toward each other.

It’s clear as day in video of the fateful play from the 2015 game between Southern and the University of Georgia. Sprinting with the full force, speed and will of a Division I college football athlete, Gales, playing special teams, tucked his head like a battering ram and prepared to make a block on the Georgia kicker, Marshall Morgan, just below his head.

Then something strange happened. Gales didn’t finish the block. He popped up like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot. The returner for whom he blocked was tackled, the whistle blew and the lanky kicker tossed the much larger Gales to the ground. Gales shook his head like it was going to unscrew from his body and rocket into the sidelines. Then he lay still. Head fixed straight up at the sky, arms spread wide, frozen. The crowd roared, the band played, the Southern offense prepared to take the field, but Devon Gales, for the first time in his life, couldn’t move.

Stories of paralysis in football, like that of Gates, are horror stories, but relative outliers. Rarely in the history of football have athletes gone from powerful and agile to immobile in the breathless instant of one hit. The reality is, heart-stopping stories like that of Gales are lost in the deluge of one word, a much larger reckoning that threatens the entire culture of American football: “concussions.”

After the Vietnam War, the memories of combat cut painfully deep into the psyches of returning American soldiers. To these soldiers, car horns could be sirens, and planes humming overhead could be medic choppers descending to retrieve the dead and dying. During the Civil War, these symptoms were called “soldier’s heart” and railway “spine”; in the First World War they were called “shell shock.” After Vietnam, the soldiers came home to a new name: “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Giving PTSD a name, however, did nothing to remove the shame that hung around the suffering. It was seen as a lack of toughness, proof of thin skin. Too often in America, invisible wounds aren’t considered wounds at all.

It is that same veneer of toughness and dissonance that hangs around the NFL’s concussion problem. The public first became aware of football’s relationship to critical brain injuries in 1994, when then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTB) to explore the correlation between football and severe head injuries.

Despite the steps taken in 1994, the commissioner insisted that the NFL had no real concussion problem. He professed to a panel on sports that year: “On concussions, I think this 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” (PBS, “Timeline: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” 10.01.2013).

Nearly 25 years later, with a different commissioner and a league worth billions of dollars more, the effort made by the NFL on concussions looks just as flimsy. In 2012, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau—one of the hardest hitting defensive players in league history—was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the heart. His brain intact, Seau’s family donated his brain tissue to the NIH, who would go on to find signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries.

The following year, amidst the PR storm surrounding Seau’s death, the NFL announced that it would invest $30 million in the National Institute of Health for brain research. (Thirty million dollars, it should be noted, is a not-so-impressive sum when considering the average value of each franchise is a cool $2.5 billion.) Yet even that underwhelming effort fizzled out. In the summer of 2017, the NFL announced that it would not renew the stipend, ending the research with $16 million still unused (NPR, “NFL, NIH End Partnership For Concussion Research With $16M Unspent,” 07.29.2017). The decision drew backlash from fans and the media, but only a month later the preseason media frenzy drowned it out.

To the NFL’s credit, it has taken steps to try and make the game safer. In particular, new rules aim to lessen the risk posed by kickoffs—the type of play on which Gates was paralyzed. Kickoffs are shorter than before, and the returner is offered better field position for not advancing the ball at all, potentially improving the safety of what is considered the NFL’s most dangerous play. So might limiting full-contact practices, flagging players more aggressively for hits to the head and investing in better helmet technology. These measures should help somewhat, but they are only small changes that won’t affect the game’s violent base nature.

Still, all of this may be coming too late. It’s clear that American parents are beginning to pick other sports for their kids. Basketball, for instance, is a safer and cheaper option—with higher paychecks and more guaranteed money at the top should an athlete make it that far. Many former powerhouse high school teams and Pop Warner leagues are having trouble just filling rosters. So while the NFL may always be here, the athlete pool from which it draws is drying at the source.

Despite declining youth participation, football is still incredibly popular to watch. No other American sport can touch it, actually. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans call football their favorite sport, with the next closest—the NFL’s supposed ratings rival—the NBA, coming in at just 11 percent (Gallup, “Football Still Americans’ Favorite Sport to Watch,” 01.04.2018).

This all leads to where I was on Sept. 6, the first night of the NFL season. With the Philadelphia Eagles kicking off against my hometown Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football, I was in my dorm, holding the Lathrop MPR hostage with an HDMI cable and a livestream. Ironically, it turned out to be a pretty pathetic season opener. Both sides botched opportunities, committed poorly timed turnovers and struggled to pull off any offensive fireworks. Yet there I was, yelling at my team, talking smack to my Eagles-fan friend and throwing popcorn in the air when the Falcons scored.

Because, as it turns out, I will wince when our running back lowers his head to “run through a guy,” and tense when a quarterback lofts a pass down the middle to set up his receiver to get hit, but I will not stop watching football. For now, at least, the NFL is running full steam ahead. It is making money hand over fist, drawing in new fans with new narratives for a new season to come, it is Devon Gales running with the full strength of American football fans behind it. But should it drop its helmet and lose focus of where it and the public are going, it may find itself coming to a quick and violent end, and the league will be the last to see it coming, just like Devon himself. Until then, I’ll keep watching, although it seems I’m running out of excuses.

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