“You have a broken back. But you can play with it.” These words were spoken to Tony Dorsett, in a Monday meeting after a game in which he took a late, hard tackle that ended with a knee to his back. In the middle of renegotiating his contract, Dorset absorbed this surreal news and returned to the field wearing the flap jacket team doctors recommended to absorb the impact of the blows he would surely take. He considers himself lucky. He can’t run today, but he can function.
That is a lot more than many retired NFL players can say. A 2009 documentary, Blood Equity (available on hulu.com) uncovers the ugly story of how the NFL player’s union has turned its back on the men who have made billions of dollars for the league. This betrayal is often the last act in a series of ruthlessly exploitative decisions – in which team doctors underrepresent the nature of injuries to players, robbing them of the chance to make informed decisions about their own health, in which coaches opt to field players with concussions, torn ACLs, and, incredibly, in Dorsett’s instance, a broken back. These players suffer from a range of horrific disabilities – crushed disks, destroyed rotator cuffs, useless knees. But these problems pale in comparison with the frightening dementia caused by the repeated blows to the head and body that make for such fantastic television.
We meet a lot of players in Blood Equity (Mike Ditka is particularly moving in critique of the player’s union), but some of the most painful stories come from their families. Garrett Webster’s father was “Iron Mike” Webster, a legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The younger Webster sums up the suffering of his father by saying he wished he’d never played the sport, because then his dad would at least be here. Webster died of a heart attack at the age of 52. By that point, he had lived with so much back pain he would taser himself, hoping to make himself pass out. Or he would drink. He couldn’t remember how to make breakfast, eventually, he couldn’t feed himself. His dementia was so acute he could hardly function and he lived in poverty. By the time he got a lawyer, Jeanne Marie Laskas writes, the hall of famer “was living on Pringles and Little Debbie pecan rolls [and] was occasionally catatonic, in a fetal position for days.”
Laskas’s story for GQ (“Game Brain”) focuses on what happened when Mike Webster died. His decline made headlines in Pittsburgh where people wondered how a man who had been so lionized could end up so horribly abject. Bennet Omalu, a local pathologist figured Webster must have been sick, and got permission from Webster’s family to analyze the player’s brain. Laskas writes that the scientist found
Brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning. (Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Game Brain”)
Omalu wrote up his findings in an article (“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player“) which he published in 2005 in the journal Neurosurgery. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) is a disease caused by repeated blows to the head, and occurs with shocking frequency in NFL players. “Game Brain” recounts the NFL’s reaction – its doctors went bullistic, and demanded that the journal print a retraction. Omalu became fully engaged in a battle with the billion-dollar business of football, and opened a pandora’s box of trouble for not only the NFL, but for American football culture more broadly, as it must now consider the long-term impact of the thousands of jarring blows absorbed by high school and college players (see “Football and Progressive Brain Damage” in Science Daily).
Several months ago, the New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s “Offensive Play”. That article also offers a disturbing catalog of the debilitating injuries that hobble NFL players. Gladwell makes a provocative turn and calls out the NFL and the sports media for the way it handled the Michael Vick affair. Given what we now know about the severity of the injuries sustained by football players, and the ruthless exploitation of the athlete’s love for the game, what makes us so different from the dog-fighters?
Galdwell points to “gameness” as a quality prized in fighting dogs and in athletes. “Gameness” measures the dog’s willingness to keep fighting even if wounded, to fight to please its master at the cost of its own interest. Following this line of thought, Gladwell recounts Kyle Turley’s experiences playing for the Packers:
Turley…was once in the training room after a game with a young linebacker who had suffered a vicious hit on a kickoff return. “We were in the cold tub, which is, like, forty-five degrees, and he starts passing out. In the cold tub. I don’t know anyone who has ever passed out in the cold tub. That’s supposed to wake you up. And I’m, like, slapping his face. ‘Richie! Wake up!’ He said, ‘What, what? I’m cool.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a concussion. You have to go to the hospital.’ He said, ‘You know, man, I’m fine.’ ” He wasn’t fine, though. That moment in the cold tub represented a betrayal of trust. He had taken the hit on behalf of his team. He was then left to pass out in the cold tub, and to deal-ten and twenty years down the road-with the consequences. No amount of money or assurances about risk freely assumed can change the fact that, in this moment, an essential bond had been broken.