Seven hundred sixty-five million is a big number. With a dollar sign added in front, it is, in most contexts, a lot of money.
Seven hundred sixty-five million was the number of dollars received in a settlement by more than 4,500 former NFL players who sued the league over concussion-related brain injuries.
Again, generally such a sum would be worth celebrating, especially when the money will be committed to compensating former players and their families, as well as advancing examinations and research into links between the beating players take on the field and the dementia and cognitive disease many suffer because of it.
However, $765 million (paid over 20 years) is dwarfed the $9.5 billion the NFL earns in annual revenue or the $27 billion broadcast TV deal extension it recently signed. The deal is even worth as much as the league’s least valuable team, the Oakland Raiders. Plus, it’s only a fraction of the reported $2 billion figure the players had originally pursued.
On the upside, the money won will go to helping many former players deal with debilitating diseases such as ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s among others. However, those payments are of little condolence to the families of Junior Seau (who committed suicide in 2012) or the 32 other former NFL players whose postmortem brains showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease linked to experiencing successive head injuries. Nor is that settlement of much comfort to aspiring NFL players like Owen Thomas, who committed suicide at the age of 21, or Nathan Stiles, who died at the age of 17 after taking a hit in his high school football game. In both tragic cases, these young athletes were diagnosed after-death with CTE.
Literally adding insult to injury, one of the key terms in the settlement the NFL made with its former players was that – though it would pay the money – the league would not admit any liability, nor would it recognize that any of these injuries were in any way related to their participation in football. Essentially, NFL owners told their players: “Take the money. It’s not our fault. Now, shush.”
In a recent column, writer for Esquire and Grantland.com Charlie Pierce compared this strategy to historical defenses from industries such as tobacco in order to avoid regulation:
“Keeping the truth to yourself is not really lying. This is the way American industries, including the industry of mass entertainment known as the National Football League, work these days. There is nothing you can do to make them change the way they do business unless you hit them so hard that they bleed from the teeth…And since that almost never happens, there is no crime against the public safety that ever really gets solved.”
(American investment banks similarly have a recent history of settling suits without any admission of wrongdoing, inhibiting future government regulation. And we had just had the five-year anniversary reminder of how that turned out in the public interest.)
So as the league dodges that burden of guilt, as a football fan, I increasingly feel the weight of the accumulating population of crippled former players. As much as I am appalled by the effects this game has on its players and dismayed by the manner the league reactively treats those players as these issues are thrust further into the public forefront, I still keep spending my Sunday afternoons enjoying the game that simultaneously destroys.
Last week’s opening kickoff immediately evoked strong nostalgic memories of New England autumn afternoons spent watching hours of football with family and friends, only broken by TV timeouts, in which we would run outside and try to imitate the extraordinary athletes we observed on the field; passing our own Wilson football and attempting diving catches into piles of fallen leaves and, as he seasons progressed, heaps of fresh snow. I don’t think this relationship to the game – though I personally never played – is unique from that of many others.
NFL football has served as one of the most enduring connections for me with many friends and close relatives; a common interest that has stayed the same, even others and myself have changed. I love the annual camaraderie of competing with friends in a fantasy football league. And who can resist the completely over-the-top quasi-holiday that is Super Bowl Sunday? As commercialized and overhyped a spectacle it is, it’s also the pinnacle of the most customarily engrained and popular pastime in American sporting culture.
But as I look closer at the types of individuals playing the game and the ultimate effects on their lives, the more football seems more gladiatorial than playground sport.
The league makes its money off individuals of predominately lower socioeconomic background, for whom athletics may be the only way out of disadvantaged situations. As more information relating participation with debilitating cognitive diseases, what upper class suburban parents are going to encourage their kids to make a life playing football? I know one particularly influential individual who has expressed serious reservations about it.
Yet I (we) keep coming back for more.
Prolonging the maintenance of a sport whose future should maybe be in question, as it becomes harder and harder to reckon our enjoyment of a game that has such negative effects on many of the individuals who participate.
Sure, many have made a great life from playing this sport, but how many, like Stiles and Thomas, who haven’t are we overlooking each Sunday as we join together on the couch with wings, chips and guacamole to watch our favorite teams. Furthermore, for those who do make it to the top level, the median salary is $770,000, yet the average career length is roughly 3.5 years. And with life expectancies in the “mid-to-late fifties.” Shouldn’t we care more?
While the league has said it is committed to improving player safety, and the money committed to exams and research is a small step in the right direction, it has simultaneously pushed for longer seasons and neglected to accept any responsibility for the game’s negative effects on the individuals that the league made billions of dollars from.
What responsibility do us fans have to impose our influence for the sake of those we enjoy watching on Sundays? While I certainly value the enjoyable and unifying presence of the NFL in my life, without a doubt I value the wellbeing of the individual humans behind the helmets and pads. It would be incredibly selfish not to, and it is incredibly selfish and obstructive for the league and its owners to shield itself from its accountability to its employees.
So as giddy I am over my beloved Miami Dolphins’ 2-0 start to the season, I’m simultaneously conflicted over supporting any league that profits immensely from encouraging individuals to risk their futures trying to make a life playing a dangerous sport and then hangs those same individuals out to dry.
This article was written by Nikolas DeCosta-Klipa. Email him at ndecost1[at]ithaca.edu