NFL Too Big to Fail – That’s Our Real National Concussion Problem

by Irvin Muchnick on June 10, 2011

In sports, as in everything, we love our scandals served on a tabloid plate: the jock DUI’s, the strippers taunted with $100 bills, the sexting, the dog-fighting rings, and most recently, the “amateur” football players for whom the National Collegiate Athletic Association prohibition against “extra benefits” turns out to cover not just cars but also tattoos.

What we don’t enjoy so much is contemplating life and death. That is why the sports-industrial complex can succeed in feeding the public appetite for the concussion pandemic by substituting pablum for information. Most of us just want this thing to go away, and the National Football League and its circle of friendly media have devised an easy way out: state legislation making youth football “safer” – with the assistance of a “solution” that, it just so happens, was packaged and sold by NFL doctors.

Back in 2003 I wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, “Welcome to Plantation Football,” about the injustice of not paying the performers who do the dirty work of a multibillion-dollar industry carrying the brand names of America’s institutions of higher education. That piece can be viewed at

But today, no matter how noble the sentiment behind ending the central hypocrisy of the NCAA, our No. 1 national sports issue is not whether and how much to pay college football and basketball players. It is not President Obama’s populist-pandering threat to lower the antitrust boom on the Bowl Championship Series. And, Lord knows, it is not the crusade by Senator Tom Udall – egged on by the New York Times – to strike fear in the hearts of football helmet manufacturers.

The No. 1 issue in sports is the set of willfully ignored corollaries of the groundbreaking work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, now the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California. Over the last decade, Omalu has been the researcher most responsible for identifying and defining the post-concussion syndrome known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That such a disease, long associated with boxers, also was widespread among athletes in other contact sports (primarily football) had remained a secret hidden in plain sight for more than half a century.

Now Omalu is espousing a position totally at odds with the pushers of neurocognitive testing to help determine when concussed athletes can return to play. Omalu says anyone who suffers a concussion should sit for three months, period. The reason is that a concussion, often involving violent head rotation, rather than (or in addition to) a blow to the skull, can cause tearing of brain tissue all the way down to the brain stem, and it can take 90 days for brain fluid to return to normal.
Omalu, along with others, also comes very close to calling for an out-and-out ban on youth football. Growing brains should not be subjected to a diet of concussive and subconcussive blows, any more than growing arms should throw baseball curveballs – and the stakes of the former activity are a lot higher. As awareness and reporting improve, I am convinced we are going to see ramifications of traumatic brain injury in American youth going to the root of indexes of academic performance, workplace productivity, and criminal behavior.

This leads to a problem no easier to solve than the ingrained and corrupt ways of Wall Street. There was a time when a heavyweight boxing championship fight could galvanize the land, not just with a million pay-per-view buys but as a truly unifying cultural experience. That day passed, and we became more aware of “punch-drunk syndrome” – the forerunner to CTE – and boxing dipped in spectatorship and influence.

In the America of 2011, only football’s Super Bowl is a comparable national hearth, blending hard-core, soft-core, and kitsch. Except that now we are learning that football, especially in the steroid era and with the sophistication of industrial training and the might of global marketing, literally involves armies of athletes daily and systematically inflicting CTE on each other. But we’re stuck. The NFL has become too big to fail. I am hoping that the enforced interlude of a pro football lockout could help bring us to our senses, but the likelihood is that not even that would turn the trick.

For if we were to eliminate football under, say, age 18 (and is that really what Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute means when he talks about “changing how football is played”?), what will happen to the high school and youth leagues that develop skills and grease recruitment to college and the pros? Who will hire the coaches? Dress the cheerleaders? Market the lines of pint-sized blocking sleds and shoulder pads? In Miracle on 34th Street, the political adviser to the judge, who was trying to decide whether to declare Kris Kringle insane, ticked off all the categories of Christmas-related constituents who would be up in arms. But Santa Claus is a kindly myth – football is head-delivered death.

And without that intergenerational thread, how will the NFL carnival, with its sexually predatory quarterbacks, its diva wide receivers, its human-missile defensive secondary personnel, remain a national obsession? Especially when the legal bills start piling up. Wrongful death goes for seven figures. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen once observed, a million here and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Such is the crisis of our football economy, whether anyone out there wants to talk about it seriously or not.

Irvin Muchnick (;; is a regular Beyond Chron contributor.

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