Categorized | Featured, Football

Culture Shock

By Leonard F. Schoenberger

Jack Youngblood: NFL icon.

In 1989 NFL Films produced a videotape titled “The NFL’s Greatest Hits.” The league and the company meant it literally. Executive producer Steve Sabol claimed his company eventually stopped selling such material because the videos focused too much on the violence in pro football.

In 2007, however, NFL Films released another video “Moment of Impact”. These words are on the back cover of “Moment of Impact”: “First you hear the breathing, then you feel the wind coming through your helmet’s ear hole. Suddenly you’re down, and you’re looking through your helmet’s ear hole. Pain? That’s for tomorrow morning. Right now you’ve gotta focus – focus on the play and try not to focus on the next moment of impact.”

Sabol was still running NFL Films in 2007, and the images in “Moment of Impact” were as obvious as the title suggested. The NFL owns NFL Films. And the league’s other media partners, CBS, NBC, ABC and ESPN have been just as culpable over the years when it comes to sustaining the league’s violent image.

Network highlight shows, halftime shows and post-game shows for years have celebrated and repeatedly shown the day’s most violent hits and tackles and some of the league’s most aggressive players have been routinely celebrated as folk heroes without much thought given to the subliminal messages of the pictures and the accompanying admiring words of many announcers.

Through the years the NFL and the networks and many print media outlets equated violence and playing in pain with manliness and the American way. The trickle down effect started with the pros, moved to the colleges, to the high schools and down to the youth leagues. And now the damages are finally being quantified.

In December 2009, after dozens of negative news stories about former NFL players whose lives were being affected by concussions and other injuries, the NFL acknowledged the possible long-term effects of those injuries, particularly concussions, and announced new guidelines for dealing with players who suffered concussions.

It was an astonishing admission after decades of denials about how injuries affected players over the years. “The recent acknowledgement of the NFL is a big testament to how far we have come in the game. That was huge, it almost felt like a confession,” says John Ed Bradley, author of “It never Rains in Tiger Stadium” and a former All-Southeastern Conference center for Louisiana State University in the 1970s.

“There is a saying we had. You have to learn to distinguish the difference between pain and injury,” says Patrick Toomay, a defensive end who played ten seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1970 to 1979 and who wrote two books about his experiences as a pro football player.

Sabol understands what Toomay is saying: “The idea that you play in pain is part of the game. There is not one player who is not playing in pain.”

Youngblood as a member of the LA Rams. Photo credit: Pro Football Hall of Fame

A video section on the NFL’s website is devoted to film celebrating the ethos of playing hurt. One category is entitled “Top Ten Gutsiest Performances.” The gutsiest performance of all time, according to the site, is former Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood playing on a broken leg in the 1979 playoffs, including Super Bowl XIV. The video opens with Muhammad Ali’s former trainer Angelo Dundee stating that playing in pain has always been part of the game and that Youngblood went far beyond his “call of duty” when he did so.

In the 1979 NFC divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, Youngblood broke his leg just above the ankle. In the original footage a viewer can see Youngblood writhing on the field after the tackle.

He then went to the locker room, and according to the Web site, told the trainers to “tape this thing up.” The trainer refused to tape the ankle. Youngblood recalls telling the trainer: “You gonna do this.”

Looking back Youngblood says in the video that he felt it was his responsibility as the team’s captain to go back out and play because there were not many chances to reach the Super Bowl. The Rams won the game and went on to play in Super Bowl XIV where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19.

In the video Youngblood recalls that people were telling him that he wouldn’t be ready to play in the Super Bowl and shouldn’t play. Youngblood replied: “Why? I guarantee you I’ll be ready to play.”

Youngblood is glorified as the embodiment of toughness. Joe Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Vice President of Communications, drew the common analogy between football and war, stating: “If you want to be in the trenches with somebody, you want to be in the trenches with Jack Youngblood.”

Playing in pain and with injuries is considered “normal” by Norm Hitzges, a Sports Radio 1310 KCTK anchor in Dallas. “We’ve had players play with serious injuries before. But to play at that level – that takes it down into a whole other area,” he says in the video.

After winning the Super Bowl, Youngblood even went on to play in the Pro Bowl, generally considered an exhibition game that ended the NFL season. The original TV commentary of that game refers to Youngblood: “That’s what it’s all about. Under a lot of pain, coming out and playing …”

The number ten video of the “Gutsiest Performances of All Times” features Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback, Donovan McNabb. In a regular season game in November 2002, McNabb broke his ankle while being sacked. He stayed on the field and the Eagles won 38-14 against the Cardinals.

The video claims that Eagles fans don’t regard their quarterback as tough enough. In the eyes of radio reporter Jody McDonald that performance changed perceptions about McNabb’s toughness. “Don’t confuse the fact that he is not a tough guy and willing to go out and sacrifice his body,” McDonald says in the video.

That McNabb refused an x-ray during the game and returned to play only to find out after the game that he had played on a broken ankle is glorified in the video. “He had to know something was wrong. You wanna tell me that’s not as gutsy as it gets,” WIP radio’s Howard Eskin says.

Then it’s McNabb’s turn. “I love pain,” he says in the video. “I may be a little different than others but for me, pain doesn’t affect me.”

As recently as January 2010, a video entitled “Huge Football Hit,” posted on YouTube more than three years earlier, still received daily comments. The video depicts a hit on former University of Georgia wide receiver Reggie Brown by Auburn’s Junior Rosegreen in a 2004 college game. Just after catching a pass down the middle close to the 10-yard-line, Brown took a hit by Rosegreen who was running at full speed. The head-to-head collision left Brown motionless on the field. Instead of checking on Brown who was obviously unconscious, Rosegreen and his teammates celebrated his hit, jumping around on the field obviously fired up.

Since being posted in 2006, the video has received almost nine million views. More than 17,000 people commented on it, including such statements as “not even a big hit, just helmet to helmet,” by user lh141 as recently as January 15, 2010.

“Helmet to helmet isn’t dirty, it’s football, if you are not strong enough to take the hit, don’t play,” said user xColdKillx on the same day.

These particular videos are not produced or placed on YouTube or other video platforms by the NFL, the networks or college conferences. The networks, however, are eager to oblige audiences looking for violence on the football field.

After taking over Monday Night Football, ESPN produced a half-time show called “Jacked Up!,” hosted by Tom Jackson, a former Denver Broncos linebacker. The show highlighted the five hardest hits of the previous week. “… Players were trying to hit opponents to end up on “Jacked Up!,” that’s how far it went,” said former Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers running back Eugene “Mercury” Morris who played in the NFL from 1969 to 1976.

The show was criticized for glorifying hits, but Vince Doria, ESPN Senior Vice President and Director of News defended the program in a statement. “We make it a point to show clean hits, involving no serious injuries,” he said. “We’re spotlighting hard hitting – which is a prominent part of the game. It is video entertainment, and we’re in the entertainment business. I don’t see it glorifying violence.”

Former ESPN ombudsman and The Washington Post sports editor, George Solomon, criticized Doria’s statement in a column in December 2005. “Borderline, in my view,” Solomon said about Doria’s words. The show was discontinued after 2006.

It was common, in Morris’s days as well as before and after, to hear announcers use words such as  “getting dinged” or “he got his bell rung” when a player suffered a hit to the head.

“I think commentators pretty uniformly bought the notion of playing in pain and getting back into the battle,” says former The New York Times Sports Editor and ESPN ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber.

Malcolm Moran, director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University, traces those characterizations back to the 1950s and ‘60s when coaches such as Paul “Bear” Bryant of Texas A&M and then Alabama dominated the game along with Woody Hayes of Ohio State. Hayes’s role model was General George Patton, one of America’s prominent World War II heroes.

Bryant took over as head coach of Texas A&M in 1954. The Aggies had won their last national championship in 1939, and Bryant was hired to produce a winning team. His first move was to hold a training camp in the small town of Junction, Texas.

Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys.

During the training sessions, Bryant did not allow any water breaks although the temperatures topped 100 degrees almost every day. “If he were coaching now they would put him in jail,” says Jim Dent, author of “The Junction Boys,” the book about the camp. “Back then he got away with it because a successful coach was untouchable, he was like God.”

Of the more than 100 players that started the camp only about 30 were left ten days later. People at Texas A&M were desperate for success so nobody questioned Bryant’s methods which bordered on the brutal. “He had been a successful coach at the University of Kentucky and he was the great hope,” says Dent. “He could have walked these boys all the way to New Mexico.”

Reporters came out to Junction but Bryant was such an imposing figure that nobody dared to question his methods and the ultra-physical practices. “The media didn’t say anything,” says Dent. “Their mentality was: go along to get along.”

Moran sees the lack of questioning and criticism by the media of the time as part of a different culture when reporters seldom questioned the methods of coaches whose win-at-any-cost philosophy would be challenged today. “Many reporters and editors just reported the surface, quoting people without paying attention to the larger context and questioning their practices. That goes back to McCarthyism, and the equivalent was happening in sports,” Moran says.

When football – it was predominantly college ball until the 1920s – began in the late 19th century, newspapers were the prevailing media. They soon started covering Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Army, Navy and Notre Dame.

Michael Oriard, the author of “Reading Football,” the definitive history of the media’s impact on selling the sport, argues that college football basically created the “Sunday paper.” When the newspapers first reported on football, he said, the coverage focused on physical toughness and “building character.” The newspapers “delivered” the violence of the game to the people.

Michael Oriard (right), former KC Chief. Photo credit:

That early coverage contributed to the glorification of the sport as rough and manly. Violence was considered part of the game and the notion of playing in pain became a “natural” outgrowth of the way it was perceived. “A lot of the things seem natural because we have just become accustomed,” Oriard says. “The media nowadays reinforce what people already think they know just because it is in the nature of things.”

Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS sports, dates the origins of the glorification of football violence to an era before the game began. (Rutgers and Princeton played the first game of intercollegiate football in 1869).

“The U.S. is a unique sports culture,” he says. “We have a history of violence in our country. We have always been an aggressive culture that pushed out into the wilderness, used guns to protect and defend the property and land. We found ourselves at the end of 19th century without any more land and people to conquer but still had an aggressive population. We have transferred that into sports.“

Oftentimes a football team was referred to as an army by sportswriters and broadcasters and the individual player was often considered a warrior. In the 1920s Grantland Rice described the Notre Dame backfield as the “Four Horsemen,” referring to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a biblical reference.

In a story for The New York Herald Tribune on October 18, 1924 Rice wrote: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

Robert Lipsyte, a former The New York Times sports columnist and an author of several influential sports books, sees this metaphoric language continuing long after World War II. “In the 1950s and 1960s, professional football began to grow and it became our version of war,” he says.

The metaphor of football as the “civil” version of war has always been there. Schreiber, also sees this parallel and points out that head injuries are a big issue not only in the NFL: “The two areas in which concussions are now an enormous issue and where there has been reluctance to deny long-term effects are the NFL and the military.”

Playing through pain became the dominant philosophy in football from its earliest days. “Some things should be sucked up,” says Chris Nowinski, a former defensive tackle for the Harvard football team and a pro-wrestler. He retired in 2004 from pro-wrestling after several concussions and co-funded the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) in Boston in 2007. Together with Dr. Robert Cantu he is studying the effects of concussions and brain injuries in sport.

In 2008 SLI teamed up with the Boston University School of Medicine and formed the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE). Dr. Ann McKee, a degenerative brain disease expert and co-director of CSTE, studied the brains of deceased athletes.

She analyzed twelve former college and NFL players including Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur, Wally Hilgenberg, Tom McHale, and John Grimsley. All showed signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease. CTE, caused by repetitive traumatic hits to the head, including concussions, was believed to only affect boxers.

This research, as well as a number of stories about Nowinski’s research in The New York Times, contributed to the House Judiciary Committee holding hearings on head injuries in the NFL. McKee, Cantu and Nowinski testified.

All now serve on the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, a group founded by the NFL Players Association as a response to criticism of the way the NFL dealt for years with head injuries. The NFL is now supporting the research done at Boston University by Cantu and Nowinski who had for a long time been an outspoken critic of the NFL’s stance on concussions.

The concept of playing hurt or playing in pain is so ingrained in the athletic culture that even Nowinski said, “I once injured my ring finger. I probably just overstretched the last knuckle but it was amazingly painful.” Then he added, “you should play through such things, if you can’t make it worse.”

In Super Bowl XLIV, on February 7,2010, between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney played eventhough he had torn a ligament in his right ankle two weeks earlier in the AFC championship game against the New York Jets.

Before the Super Bowl it was unclear whether Freeney would be able to play. The Colts did finally start him in the game and he went on to sack the Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees once but could not prevent the Colts from losing the game 31-17.

In Freeney’s case it was a torn ankle ligament, not a head injury. Garrett Webster, 25, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster who suffered debilitating brain injuries during his career, thinks the decision to play should be put in the player’s hands but the team should be cautionary, too. “If the world is watching you, you have the impression that you can do anything,” he says.

Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

“The team should have the player’s best interest at heart and think about the long-term effects. Freeney had one sack but other than that he didn’t have a great impact on the game. Was it worth it for one sack?” asks Webster.

Moran blames coaches for trivializing injuries. He says they often praise players who quickly return to the field. Reporters also often write glowing stories about such players and announcers glorify such behavior without questioning the long-term effect.

“A lot of people watch football to see a death-defying degree of contact. It’s our gladiatorial sport,” says Schreiber.

Nowinski thinks that TV has helped to make hits and injuries more exciting. “The replays of these incredible collisions are a big element on TV,” he says. Without the helmets these players would die. The crunch sells, and TV brings the crunch into the living room. Football comes across on TV and not in print.”

The biggest problem coming along with the “crunch” is the head injury. The extent of a concussion is hard to judge. There may be no immediate effects of a hit to the head but the numbers of concussions that an average football player sustains throughout his career can lead to long-term problems.

On February 5, 2010, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Deborah Blum, a science journalist, entitled “Will Science Take the Field?” In the article Blum raised the question why it took so long to realize that repeated blows to the head cause long term damage. She pointed out that a study by Dr. Harrison Martland, published on October 13, 1928 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, already showed the possible effects of repeated head trauma.

Yet it took such prominent cases as Mike Webster’s to bring the topic to the public’s attention. Webster died in 2002 at the age of 50 due to the long-term effects of head injuries during his career. He had been diagnosed with brain damage in 1998 and applied for assistance from the NFL retirement plan. He had been awarded benefits worth about $600,000. After his death his family sued the NFL to get higher benefits, arguing that Webster was disabled upon his retirement because he suffered severe head trauma. On December 13, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., affirmed a Baltimore federal judge’s 2005 ruling that the league’s retirement plan must pay benefits reserved for players whose disabilities began while they were still playing football.

Garrett Webster thinks that legal action is the only way to force change in the NFL because it provides evidence. “It’s not because of Harry Carson [formerly of the New York Giants] doing an interview or because of somebody else saying he had problems,” says Webster. “It’s because we won this lawsuit proving the NFL abused its power.”

Sportscasters could raise more awareness about the issue but Jim Cohen, the former sports editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, sees them being too close to the game. “Many sportscasters are fans first and reporters somewhat after that,” he says. “As fans they tend to share traditional values and perceptions with other fans, including the acceptance of football as a rough sport, without considering any deeper issues related to that.”

Lipsyte does not see a cultural shift. “For a while,” he says, “there will be more sensibility but it’s going to be hard. Your broadcasters are former athletes who are conditioned by the system, so I think it will be hard for them to give it up.”

Schreiber is not optimistic about a change in the language either. “ … I think it’s a slow process,” she says.

Lipsyte sees the challenge in redefining the game. “I think they [sports anchors and analysts] will have to re-educate what football is about,” he said. The game has changed a lot during the last years. Players have become bigger, stronger and faster, the collisions therefore even harder.

“We are moving towards a 400 pound linesman hitting a 250 pound running back. If they collide that is going to hurt. How that is going to [change] while downsizing the violence is going to be interesting to see and muting the violence in the language is going to be hard, too.”

The metaphor of a football player as a warrior was part of football early on. Former Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker E.J. Holub recalls the days when he was playing in the American Football League in the 1960s. “Football players were like gladiators,” he says. “The question was who got the bigger roar when getting hurt.” Even after eleven knee surgeries Holub was still playing. “Before I had surgeries in the off-season, they would drain blood out of my knee during half-time and I would play,” he said.

Morris feels the game was different when he played for the Dolphins. “Now it is an entertainment and the players become entertainers,” he says. “They will do whatever it takes to be entertaining.”

Pilson does not see a difference today compared to earlier eras of sports. “A lot of what pro-football is about can be compared to ancient Rome and Greece,” he said.  “Look at the heavy armor and equipment, it’s fight until the other one dies.”

The TV networks can focus more on strategic aspects of the game but that’s not what the public wants to see says Pilson: “We as a society have glorified controlled violence as part of our way of life. The media only reflects the taste and appetite of the country.”

For years the media did not dig into the consequences of injuries, such as concussions. Instead they were merely likely to glorify a player, like Holub for enduring pain or glorifying a coach like Bryant for pushing players to harmful extremes.

Nowinski believes that the sports media did not consider it their responsibility to educate people. Rather than raising the issue, they limited themselves to a mere coverage of the games. “How many people did want to make that an issue?” he says.

“When I brought up the issue of concussions in 2006, the people least interested were the ones on TV. I had interviews cancelled with heads of networks because they did not want that part of the game known,” says Nowinski. Morris also criticizes sports media outlets for not doing enough critical reporting on such issues. “The media has to stop “cheasing” with the NFL. They do that because they are afraid to lose the connections and not be part of the business anymore,” he says.

Nowinski says he was really surprised that the NFL did finally change its position on the long-term effects of concussions. He says he believes that it was due to an individual effort, namely by Alan Schwarz of The New York Times, that the topic began to resonate. He believes Schwarz could only do that because he was a baseball reporter and therefore had “nothing to lose” in the football business. “If I had another health problem in sports,” says Nowinski, “I wouldn’t go to the sports media to change things.”

The individual player is under enormous pressure to perform. “You are identified with your performance, that’s who you are,” says Toomay. “You are an image.”

Bradley says that players create most of the pressure themselves: “It is about the moment when they ask themselves ‘who am I’ at night when they look in the mirror.”

Players have an ingrained ideology that makes them want to play whether injured or not. Dent says football players, more than athletes in any other sport, are conditioned to play with pain. “These players think they were put on the earth to play ball,” Dent says. And because of that they always seem to fear losing their starting position once they stay out because of an injury. “This is part of the mentality of football,” says Toomay. “They were taught not to complain about injuries, and that attitude is still very much around.” As Bradley explains, “There is no place for physical reticence in football. You can’t prevail if you physically shy away.”

Kim Wood, who played from 1965 to 1968 at Wisconsin, and was the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1975 to 1995, understands Toomay’s and Bradley’s thinking. He says that many football players “don’t think in general and they don’t think of consequences. They are insulated. They feel invincible; they are tough guys to start with … They are conditioned to respond in a certain way. Most players when they get to the NFL have played twelve, thirteen years. Conditioning of the mind and the body starts at a very young age.”

He, however, sees the current debate about concussions and injuries as a possible threat to the game and during an an hour and a half phone interview he questioned whether the game might actually be dying. He cited legal challenges as one reason. “Now we are moving into areas of awareness that [are] very strange,” he said. “We are sailing into unknown waters. The future of the game is bleak and dark … Playing football is like working in an asbestos mine … Playing the game as it is now severely damages everybody. The game will have to change if it’s going to survive.”

He said rules, as well as equipment will have to change. “[The league and players] have to do everything possible to diminish the forces on the brain, better helmets, mouth guards, train muscles of the neck and shoulders to a maximum degree. It’s not being done. Very few teams work the neck …”

Kim Wood sees trouble ahead for football. Photo credit: Ben Alvarez

Wood also questions some of the science involved in the debate about concussions and the brain. He specifically claims that there have not been enough studies about the effects of steroid and human growth hormone use on the brain. He said some of the players whose brain injuries have led to the current reforms may have been using performance enhancers and that use has to be studied thoroughly.

Nowinski acknowledges that the use of steroids and human growth hormone could contribute to the damages found in the brains of former players. “It could maybe contribute but it could not be the cause,” he said. “It’s hard to rule out anything until somebody has done a study. I believe it’s a red herring.”

Rick Telander, a senior sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who played cornerback at Northwestern University and went to training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, also sees the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs as a threat to the players’ brains. “Even if it [steroids] might not be directly damaging the brain, there could be a connection,” he said. “Steroids and other drugs make the players bigger, faster and stronger and therefore the collisions and hits to the head become harder.”

He says the NFL will have a hard time fending off lawsuits from former players. “The NFL is facing a similar task as the tobacco industry did,” he said. “But for the NFL it will be tougher because it is a closed system. They can’t just move their product [football] to another country but will have to address the issues within the league.”

Wood sees the entire game endangered. “Football,” he says, “is going down, but not without a fight … The NFL will be brought to the knees over 20 years. … I know that there are many lawyers trying to ‘recruit’ former damaged players … That will bring everything into question.”

Brent Musburger, a sportscaster for ESPN and ABC, however, does not see the game’s future as bleak. He thinks it will remain America’s number one sport. “That talk about concussions,” he says, “has just emphasized the danger of the sport, which is much of the appeal for the fans.”

Also, Musberger does not see a shift in the way we perceive football. “If you look at the TV ratings, there is no erosion since the concussion debate broke,” he says.

Sports anchors might not use terms such as “he got dinged” or “he got his bell rung” anymore but Cohen, a former vice-president for ESPN, says that sportscasters generally give little thought to what they are saying, and he doesn’t see that changing in the future.

Telander says that if anchors used more drastic words, people would realize the seriousness of hits to the head. “If you called it a ‘bleeding brain’, I don’t think people would find it as humorous,” he said.

Solomon, who teaches a course in sports and culture at the University of Maryland, does not see change coming either. He says that despite the extensive recent coverage of concussions, the appeal of football is ingrained in the American culture.

“When TIME Magazine ran a cover story on concussions during the week of the Super Bowl,” he said, “I talked about the issue with my students. I asked all 17 of them whether they would let their children play football. All of them said yes.”

Even with the dangers of head injuries becoming more and more obvious, football players seem to have few regrets. “Anybody who plays the game at a high level, whether it’s in the NFL, the colleges or even the high schools remembers that as a highlight of their life,” says Solomon.

Players accept the fact that injuries could shorten their lifespan. “Look at Steve Young or Troy Aikman,” says Solomon, “they had multiple concussions. But if you asked them if they would do it again, they would say yes.”

And young men will continue to play football despite the dangers. “Many players are concerned,” says Telander. “But look at boxers, they have every reason to be concerned but they keep going.” Boxing, however, has become a marginalized sport. Football hasn’t. About 1.2 million play in high schools, according to, and another three million kids younger than fourteen play throughout the country. Even if the NFL enacts stricter guidelines, these kids are the ones in danger. “McKee told me that there might be the more damage done to the brain, the younger you are,” said Telander.

Telander saw the past. Will it be the future?

In the October 28, 2009 Congressional hearing on concussions, chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., pointed out the importance of the issue. “I say this not simply because of the impact of these injuries on the 2,000 current players and more than 10,000 retirees associated with the NFL and their families,” he said. “I say it because of the effect on the millions of players at the college, high school and youth levels.”

The NFL won’t be able to avoid facing the issue and will have to find ways to make the game safer. Most likely this will happen through further rules changes and better equipment. However, even with the most advanced technology, the head will always be vulnerable. “It’s like making your car safe and then ramming other cars,” says Telander.

He visited McKee at her practice in Bedford, Mass. on March 5, 2010. She had received a delivery of two brains from former NFL players. Telander, who was working on a story on concussions, saw her slice a segment of one of the brains to analyze it. “It was a horrifying experience,” he said, “but humbling at the same time.”

Telander is worried about his own brain and thinks lasting change has to start in the minds of the people. “You can have a heart transplantation nowadays but you can’t have one for the brain,” he says. “You only have one brain. This is who you are. Once people begin to understand that, it would be a great start.”

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