Partially Deflated Footballs . . . Permanently Damaged Brains

By: Kurt Olson, Professor of Law, Massachusetts School of Law


Judging by the media, you might think the most important sports story of the past year involved deflated footballs.  What seems to have slipped by unnoticed however is a study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University identifying the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It was found in 96 percent of NFL players they examined and 79 percent of all football players. The disease is widely believed to stem from repetitive trauma to the head, and can lead to conditions such as memory loss, depression and dementia. Will this discovery lead to a sudden, precipitous decline in the NFL’s popularity?

Not likely.

The NFL is a billion-dollar industry, which continues to rake in enormous profits, and has plans for expansion into Europe and beyond. With the added incentive of DraftKings, FanDuel, and other fantasy football web sites, the future of America’s game has never been brighter, or more popular.

And that popularity is taking a toll on every player with every hit.

It’s not surprising that the league won’t take player safety seriously when the most re-tweeted plays are the ones involving bone-jarring collisions between 300-pound behemoths? The plays that make T.V. viewers shake their heads and say, “That guy really got his bell rung,” or “I think that dude just about got his block knocked off,” or “That team really punched them in the mouth,” or “He’s going into beast mode now,” or my personal favorite: “He’s delivering some Blount-force trauma on those linebackers now!” Those old enough to remember Joe Theismann’s compound leg fracture or Darryl Stingley’s career-ending, life-threatening, broken-neck collision with Jack Tatum know that “ringing someone’s bell” can have real human consequences. And those consequences are on display in almost every football game as another player is carted off the field on a stretcher or golf cart.

And we keep watching.

The Romans liked to call it Bread and Circus because if an empire doesn’t provide social services, it has to provide entertainment to keep the natives from getting restless. It’s not just the NFL; our culture (using that term loosely) is addicted to violence. People don’t go to NASCAR to see really fast cars zoom around the track at 200 mph; they go because the likelihood of a fiery crash always looms. The NHL will never go to the extreme of outlawing brawls on the ice because casual fans tune in to see them “drop the gloves and really go at it” on skates. When Wide World of Sports used to tout the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, everyone’s favorite scene was the skier tumbling ass over tea kettle down a precipitous slope after a terrifying high-speed crash.

This culture of violence is everywhere and we are becoming desensitized.  From the carnage when another of our schools is besieged to a couple of rabid twenty-something’s beating a 70-year-old man after an incident of road rage, we keep watching and seem helpless to make it stop.

So, as the NFL pays lip service to “player safety,” and spends millions to investigate who deflated Brady’s footballs we need to sit up and take notice.  We need to pay attention when a really good guy like Junior Seau puts a shotgun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Just one of countless players suffering from severe CTE-induced depression, his death should have been a wake-up call.  But it wasn’t, and still we kept watching.

We believe that the NFL can take real steps to improve player safety without destroying the popularity of the game. As a society we must demand that they do just that.  The data is in, the results are clear and those of us being entertained by the culture of violence need to do our part to make it stop.

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