When Denver Bronco wide receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide, the first questions were about whether football-related head injuries led to the depression that took his life. When the recently retired Junior Seau drove his car off of a cliff the day after being arrested for spousal abuse, questions about whether head injuries sustained during a twenty-year career affected his actions, soon followed. Such conjecture is not only legitimate; it’s necessary and urgent.
This season a typical NFL game is starting to look like a triage center. On concussions alone, a reader at deadspin.com compiled the following list of players who have borne the brunt of a brain bruise in 2010:
Pre-Season: Ryan Grant, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Joseph Addai, Mark Clayton, Nick Sorensen, Aaron Curry, DJ Ware, Louis Murphy, Scott Sicko, Mike Furrey, Darnell Bing, Freddy Keiaho
Week 1: Kevin Kolb, Stewart Bradley, Matt Moore, Kevin Boss, Charly Martin
Week 2: Clifton Ryan, Jason Witten, Randall Gay, Craig Dahl, Zack Follett, Evan Moore
Week 3: Anthony Bryant, Cory Redding, Jason Trusnik
Week 4: Jordan Shipley, Willis McGahee, Jay Cutler, Asante Samuel, Riley Cooper, Sherrod Martin
Week 5: Aaron Rodgers, Darcy Johnson, Jacob Bell, Landon Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Rocky McIntosh
Week 6: Josh Cribbs, Desean Jackson, Mohamed Massaquoi, Zack Follett, Chris Cooley
In assessing the list, the most striking aspect is its randomness. There is a mix of star quarterbacks, shifty running backs, burly tight ends and anonymous linemen. All play different roles in the game, and all wear different kinds of equipment. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, after a weekend where he says he saw “six or eight shots where you wondered, ‘Is that guy getting up,’ “proposed some solutions: “It’s time to start ejecting and suspending players for flagrant hits…. Don’t tell me this is the culture we want. It might be the culture kids are used to in video games, but the NFL has to draw a line in the sand right here, right now, and insist that the forearm shivers and leading with the helmet and launching into unprotected receivers will be dealt with severely. Six-figure fines. Suspensions. Ejections.
King’s suggestions are not unlike those who told 1950s children to hide under their desks case of nuclear attack. The hits that cause concussions aren’t just the kind of helmet-to-helmet collisions that make King shudder but often come from routine tackles. Frequently, brain bruises aren’t even diagnosed until the game has ended. In other words the most devastating hits are often the most pedestrian. This was seen in utterly tragic fashion during Saturday’s college contest between Rutgers University and Army. Rutgers linebacker Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the waste down on a play described as a “violent collision.” But if you look at the replay, the only thing “violent” about the play is its horrific outcome.
It’s also not, as King writes, “the culture” that celebrates this violence. It’s the NFL itself. The video games that the NFL promotes and sponsors deliriously dramatize brutal tackles. Highlight shows on the NFL Network relish the moments when players get “jacked up.” Anyone who saw HBO’s Hard Knocks, their behind-the-scenes look at the New York Jets preseason, heard it loud and clear. Whenever a player would “jack-up” the opposition, Coach Rex Ryan would whoop and yell, “That’s a guy who wants to make this team!”
Here’s the reality check to Peter King and all who want their violence safely commoditized for Sunday: there is no making football safer. There is no amount of suspensions, fines or ejections that will change the fundamental nature of a sport built on violent collisions. It doesn’t matter if players have better mouth guards, better helmets or better pads. Anytime you have a sport that turns the poor into millionaires and dangles violence as an incentive, well, you reap what you sow. It is what it is. I think it’s a waste of time to feel “guilty” about being a football fan. If people are disgusted by the violence visited on these players, they should vote with their feet and stop watching.
If people are at peace with the fact that they are enjoying something that wrecks people’s bodies, then that’s their business as well. But for goodness sakes: if you are to remain a football fan, at least support the players in their upcoming negotiations with ownership. Reject the idea of an eighteen-game season as “good for the game.” Reject the idea that players need to have their pay cut for the league’s “financial health.” Reject the idea that owners shouldn’t have to contribute to the medical well-being of players after they retire. Recognize the humanity of the carnage on the field so you can do something to support the humanity of players when the pads come off. That’s what I pledge to do… for now. But in the interests of full disclosure: I might be a Desean Jackson-Dunta Robinson moment away from ditching the game for good.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world, with over 150 camps in 30+ U.S. states and Canada. We discuss problems in youth sports today, including single sport specialization, the growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the high drop-out rate in competitive sports, and the growing mental health challenges young athletes are dealing with today.
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Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon