Never Mind the Lockout – Make NFL Pay Its Fair Share of the National Sports Concussion Tab

by Irvin Muchnick on March 7, 2011

File the National Football League labor negotiations under the heading “game within the game.” My best guess is that since veteran players, in particular, hate offseason minicamps and summer training camp anyway, this sucker remains months away from resolution. Don’t be surprised if the first few games of the 2011 season have to be scrubbed before the owners have made their point; and you’d need more than a feather to knock me over if the immediate upshot were a loaded-up January-February 2012 playoff schedule to prepare the television audience for the new tradition of an 18-game regular season starting the following fall.

It’s an understatement to say that the fate of the next edition of the NFL market-a-thon shouldn’t top our list of collective worries. Last week I saw this astute post on Twitter: “Maybe a country so obsessed with the NFL combine could use a year off from pro football.” I expressed a similar sentiment in this space six months ago (“Why a 2011 NFL Strike or Lockout Would Be the Best Thing for America,” Beyond Chron, Sept. 20, 2010) – except that I wasn’t commenting on priorities willy-nilly. I was, and I still am, talking about the national sports concussion crisis, reflection on which would be aided by an enforced shutdown over the failure of owners and players to peacefully divvy up their $9 billion annual pie.

If you look at the list of issues dividing the league and the National Football League Players Association, benefits for retired players take up a token parking space under revenue distribution, the 18-game schedule, and other bread-and-butter items. Don’t fool yourself. The overwhelming majority of active players couldn’t give a hoot about their forebears. Nor do they have a sophisticated grasp of their own needs post-NFL, unless you count their vague and misguided sense that another million or two a year in their contracts today will take care of them forevermore.

And Commissioner Roger Goodell and his employers, who pony up the equivalent of taxicab money for disability claims (a total of $7 million under the “88 Plan” since 2007) and for research on head injuries and safety (a total of $20 million since the concussion alarm first sounded in the mid-1990s) know that full well.

If you think of the NFL as a mini-tobacco industry, fraught with the potential of catastrophic litigation, you can see that its main interest in funding research is to continue kicking the can of public awareness of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy down the road, the better to expire statutes of limitations and dilute exposure. (This analogy was well captured by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of California when she grilled Goodell at the 2009 hearings of the House Judiciary Committee.)

In the context of an NFL season in jeopardy, fans and non-fans alike still fail to appreciate a problem whose scope is well out-of-bounds of anything a guild of professional athletes is prepared to bargain. Thanks to the league’s enormous popularity and influence, both cultural and commercial, it’s the tip of a public-health iceberg. For every nationally televised pro football concussion, accompanied by new and more stringent medical management procedures (which either are or aren’t observed), there are thousands of less-scrutinized traumatic brain injuries at amateur levels – all without informed adult consent and very many without proper treatment and follow-through. No one has bothered to tote up the national bill for curtailed or damaged young lives, for fallen academic achievement, for ultimate reduced American workforce productivity in an increasingly competitive global economy.

The free ride the NFL enjoys in this area makes Bushie capital-gains tax levels seem downright confiscatory by comparison. And for those of us who voted for change we can believe in, there’s no prospect of help here from Jocksniffer-in-Chief Obama, who has invested his rhetorical skills on behalf of the abolition of the Bowl Championship Series so that the U.S. can crown its sorely needed true national college football champion.

I credit Missouri-based blogger Matt Chaney (linked at Illinoisan Dustin Fink’s Concussion Blog, http://theconcussionblog.com) with being the first to notice how even the campaign for state-by-state legislation mandating improved concussion management in high school sports plays right into the NFL’s cost-shifting hands. Governments at all levels are running deficits, teachers are being handed pink slips, school libraries and ancillary services face cuts – yet the tiniest athletic programs are being burdened with costly new protocols?

Let the billionaires and millionaires scrum over how the Miller Lite and DirecTV checks get laundered. The real costs to our society of the NFL, as it is currently played and structured, remain deep in the cerebellum of the national unconscious, with a capital “U.”

Tomorrow, Irvin Muchnick’s blog, http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com, will break another story about leading doctors’ relationships with football helmet companies. He is author of author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death (http://benoitbook.com).

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