On head trauma, Good­ell couches ne­glect in non­sense

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - Sally Jenk­ins

san fran­cisco — Please be care­ful Sun­day sit­ting on your sofa watch­ing the Su­per Bowl. Please. As NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell in­formed us at his an­nual state of the game ad­dress, foot­ball might be haz­ardous, but “there are risks in life. There are risks sit­ting on a couch.” In­deed there are. You could get your head caught in a pull-out sleeper.

Or as one Twit­ter wit wrote, “Gotta watch out for those deadly couch con­cush­ions.” It’s not funny, ac­tu­ally. It’s not funny at all. It would only be laugh­able if it weren’t so dan­ger­ous. Good­ell didn’t say some­thing ill con­sid­ered be­cause he’s a blockhead. The re­mark was part of a league strat­egy com­pa­ra­ble to the to­bacco in­dus­try cov­er­ing up the harm­ful ef­fects of teenage smok­ing. Asked whether the NFL is com­fort­able en­dors­ing tackle foot­ball for kids,

Good­ell said, “I’d want my son to play foot­ball,” and con­flated the dan­gers of brain trauma with the health ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise— as if dis­cour­ag­ing kids from play­ing tackle foot­ball is tan­ta­mount to en­cour­ag­ing them to stay in­doors and get di­a­betes. It was non­sense. Disin­gen­u­ous, will­fully de­cep­tive non­sense, and he knows it.

“No­body is say­ing kids shouldn’t ex­er­cise; we’re say­ing don’t hit them in the head,” says Chris Nowin­ski, co-founder of the Con­cus­sion Legacy Foun­da­tion and a co-di­rec­tor of Bos­ton Univer­sity’s Chronic Trau­matic En­cephalopa­thy Cen­ter. “He’s de­fend­ing an in­de­fen­si­ble po­si­tion.”

Good­ell was re­spond­ing to a ques­tion about the deaths of seven teenagers from on-field trauma this sea­son, but also speak­ing in the larger con­text of the NFL’s on­go­ing CTE cri­sis. Agrow­ing body of sci­ence shows CTE is caused by the neu­ro­log­i­cal toll from years of sub-con­cus­sive hits. The NFL’s own fig­ures show that one in three for­mer play­ers will de­velop cog­ni­tive dis­eases, and at much younger ages than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. That is not your av­er­age risk. It’s an as­tro­nom­i­cally high dan­ger.

The sci­ence is clear: You get CTE from re­peated head trauma, and it’s there­fore ad­vis­able to re­think whether we should limit con­tact for the young.

But Good­ell takes you andme for stupid. The com­mis­sioner’s an­nual ad­dress is a per­for­mance with a back­drop of tri­umphal mu­sic and glit­ter­ing gold shield and shin­ing tro­phies. You end up feel­ing like you’re sit­ting in a Ro­man prae­to­rium lis­ten­ing to an army im­per­a­tor. There are planted ques­tions, clearly stage-man­aged pro­pa­ganda mo­ments, all cal­cu­lated to dis­tract or sew con­fu­sion and doubt over brain sci­ence.

Which is per­haps why the NFL ended Good­ell’s ses­sion so abruptly, just as a roomful of re­porters be­gan to bore in on him on health is­sues and ask about Calvin John­son’s re­ported de­ci­sion to re­tire at the age of 30. Sev­eral play­ers have now walked away in their prime hop­ing to con­serve their minds and bod­ies, in­clud­ing Jake Locker, at 26, and Chris Bor­land, at 24.

Good­ell in­toned that he wants “young men to lead long healthy lives.” He of­fered up tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances that sup­pos­edly make the game safer. He droned preachily about the virtues of the game, “the dis­ci­pline, the team­work, the per­se­ver­ance.” “Those are val­ues and those are skills,” he said, “that will lead you through life, and I be­lieve foot­ball is the best to teach that.”

It’s not work­ing. No one be­lieves Good­ell, least of all moth­ers, de­spite the league’s brazen Mommy mar­ket­ing. In re­sponse to Good­ell’s re­mark that foot­ball is a bet­ter teacher than other games, ten­nis great Chris Evert, who has three sons, tweeted: “I can name a few. And they’re safer.”

Not even his own con­stituency is buy­ing it. Mike Ditka has said he wouldn’t let a son play foot­ball be­cause he has toomany friends who are de­bil­i­tated. Brett Favre, too, has con­fessed anx­i­ety over whether his young grand­sons should play tackle be­cause, as he told ESPN, “I don’t think the cu­mu­la­tive of play­ing 20 years of foot­ball, plus in col­lege, plus in high school, has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on you.”

We all know the truth: The NFL has no moral cen­ter on this, no de­fen­si­ble pos­ture, just mar­ket­ing. Good­ell is do­ing the bid­ding of own­ers try­ing to max­i­mize rev­enue and duck the true cost of their busi­ness. “Let’s re­mem­ber that the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion is just meant to en­hance the bank ac­counts of 32 fam­i­lies,” Nowin­ski says. “They’re try­ing to use our chil­dren tomake money.”

At some point, the league is in for a reck­on­ing. When­play­ers re­tire at 25 and even your own leg­ends don’t buy your bull, you’re ask­ing for the bot­tom to fall out of your busi­ness. You’re also ask­ing for a fu­ture of end­less lit­i­ga­tion and per­haps en­forced regulation.

But there is one mar­ket­ing strat­egy the league hasn’t tried: truth and trans­parency. If Good­ell were a good, strong com­mis­sioner, in­stead of pos­ing as a Ro­man sen­a­tor, he would lobby the own­ers to get out ahead of the health is­sue once and for all by lev­el­ing with play­ers and the au­di­ence. In­stead of telling us foot­ball is bet­ter than couch pota­to­ing, here is what he should have said:

“The emerg­ing sci­ence is emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult to ac­cept for all of us who love foot­ball, and dis­turb­ing for any par­ent. While the game has un­de­ni­able ben­e­fits, those are ob­vi­ously coun­ter­bal­anced by grave phys­i­cal costs. We there­fore en­dorse the rec­om­men­da­tion of brain re­searchers that par­ents think very se­ri­ously about with­hold­ing chil­dren from tackle be­fore the age of 13— flag foot­ball is a great game, and it was good enough for the Man­nings. Also, I will rec­om­mend to our own­ers thatwe study the fea­si­bil­ity of ex­tend­ing life­time health care to all of our play­ers, given our new­found un­der­stand­ing that their in­jury rate is 100 per­cent and one-third of them will have to cope with brain dis­ease. They have played the game with self-sac­ri­fic­ing fi­delity to their teams. We are de­ter­mined to show them the same sac­ri­fice and fi­delity.”

That would be a com­mis­sioner’s ad­dress worth at­tend­ing.

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