Give Obama an “F” For His First Public Words on the Football Concussion Crisis

by Irvin Muchnick on March 5, 2012

The President of the United States has spoken on the football concussion crisis. With the utmost unseriousness. I’m thumbing through my thesaurus for the antonym of gravitas. Interviewed last week for Bill Simmons’ “B.S. Report” at, Barack Obama made his obligatory pitch for expanded college football playoffs and his obligatory riffs on the Chicago Bulls and March Madness. Asked about concussions, Obama allowed:

Concussions is a tough one. When you see what’s happened — I actually knew Dave Duerson, and used to see him at the gym sometimes, and [he] couldn’t have been a nicer guy. And when you think about the toll that NFL players are taking, it’s tough. Now, the problem is, if you talk to NFL players, they’re going to tell you that that’s the risk I take; this is the game I play. And I don’t know whether you can make football, football if there’s not some pretty significant risk factors.

Part of the problem is just the speed and the size of these guys now is — you watch the old tapes from the ’50s and the ’60s — they look like they’re going in slow motion. And now, what, they just had the Combine and they’re talking about some guy who is like 340, who runs a 4.8 —

In the video, the camera cuts back to Simmons – who has built a superfan persona into a mini-empire – sitting there with a shit-eating grin. No follow-up questions on the Congressional hearings that have analogized the National Football League to Big Tobacco; on the dozens of lawsuits by hundreds of retired players; on the journalistically elemental point that we are talking about the prevalence of traumatic brain injury in this sport because it affects millions of American kids at the feeder levels: in the Pop Warner and in our public high schools, where informed consent and risk are a slippery slope toward material decline of gross national mental health.

B.S. Report, indeed.

And thanks a bunch, Mr. President, for making sure your fellow citizens know that you rubbed shoulders with the great Dave Duerson, and for not wasting a moment of their time reflecting on the meaning of his suicide after years of denying the reality of the long-term brain damage suffered both by himself and by other NFL veterans whose disability claims he had helped reject while serving on the NFL retirement fund board.

In 1962 John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch at baseball’s all-star game in Washington. After mugging appropriately for the cameras, he used his broadcast interview to plug the new President’s Council on Physical Fitness. His point was to remind us that, while on this day we were all fans and spectators, the next day we would resume acting as participants in our lives and our futures. In the chief of state’s expression of interest in professional sports, there was at least the faintest hint of a communal philosophy … some care in public presentation … a smidgen of intellectual and moral heft.

That was then. Obama – along with all the other cardboard-cutout presidents you and I create – is now. I’ve written about how I believe those who compare this moment in football history with President Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention to spur the banning of the “flying wedge” 100 years ago have it wrong; these critics grossly underestimate the greater influence of football in today’s culture, even as they grossly overestimate the solutions that have been proposed to fix the sport. But as Obama’s useless preening on the concussion issue shows, there’s another reason to be worried. Today, only celebrity-sniffing hand-wringers need apply for the Oval Office.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was criticized for going years without uttering the word “AIDS.” But if Obama has just shown us the best he can come up on the public health ramifications of concussions, I’d prefer that he keep his mouth shut, too.

Irvin Muchnick blogs at

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