Quick Review: League of Denial

I had a chance this past week to read the book League of Denial and see the PBS documentary by the same name. Some thoughts about the story of the NFL and concussion research (focusing mostly on the book which provides a more detailed narrative):

1. I know some fans are already complaining of “concussion fatigue” but it is hard to think of football the same way after hearing this story. For decades, we have held up players for their toughness and yet it may be ruining their brains.

2. The human story in all of this is quite interesting. This includes some of the former football players who have been driven to the edge by their football-related brain injuries. At the same time, the story amongst the doctors is also pretty fascinating, the chase for fame, publishing articles, and acquiring brains. Running through the whole book is this question of “who is really doing this research for the right reasons?” Even if the NFL research appears to be irrevocably tainted, are the researchers on the other side completely neutral or pure of heart?

3. The whole scientific process is laid out in the book (glossed over more in the documentary)…and I’m not sure how it fares. You have scientists fighting each other to acquire brains. You have peer-reviewed research – supposed to help prevent erroneous findings – that is viewed by many as erroneous from the start. You have scientists fighting for funding, an ongoing battle for all researchers as they must support their work and have their own livelihoods. In the end, consensus seems to be emerging but the book and documentary highlight the messy process it takes to get there.

4. The comparisons of the NFL to Big Tobacco seem compelling: the NFL tried to bury concussions research for a few decades and still doesn’t admit to a long-term impact of concussions on its players. One place where the comparison might break down for the general public (and scientific research could change this in the near future): the worst problems seem to be in long-time NFL players. When exactly does CTE start in the brains of football players? There is some evidence younger players, college or high school, might already have CTE but we need more evidence of this to be sure. If that is established, that perhaps kids as young as junior high already have CTE and that CTE is derived from regular hits at a young age (not the big knock-out blows), the link to Big Tobacco might be complete.

5. It is not really part of this story but I was struck again by how relatively little we know about the brain. Concussion research didn’t really take off until the 1990s, even as this had happened with football players for decades. (One sports area where it had been studied: boxing.) Much of this research is quite new and is a reminder that we humans don’t know as much as we might think.

6. This also provides a big reminder that the NFL is big business. Players seem the most aware of this: they can be cut at any time and an injury outside of their control could end their careers. The league and owners do not come off well here as they try to protect their holdings. The employees – the players – are generally treated badly: paid well if they perform but thrown aside otherwise. This may lead to a “better product” on the field but the human toll is staggering.

7. How exactly you change people’s opinions, both fans and players, regarding concussions will be fascinating to watch. It will take quite a shift among players from the tough-guy image to being willing to consider their futures more carefully. For fans, they may become more understanding as their favorite players consider what concussions might do to their lives. Will the NFL remain as popular? Hard to say though I imagine most fans this past weekend of football had little problem watching lots of gridiron action Saturday and Sunday.

SI columnist doesn’t like having “sports sociologists” commenting on football and concussions

A Sports Illustrated columnist takes issue with some recent comments from a sociologist about the future of football considering the growing knowledge about concussions:

Jay Coakley, a “sports sociologist” at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, recently said to a New York Times reporter, “”Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting.”

A few things about that:

(1) Can we do a story on this topic now without input from a “sports sociologist”?

(2) That’s crazy.

That puts the NFL in a nice, hedge-rowed suburban box. That’s not where the NFL lives.

I haven’t done a study. Maybe someone has. But I’ve covered the NFL for close to 30 years. It is not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A majority of its players — and certainly, its stars — did not grow up with free and easy access to golf courses, tennis courts or any of the other options that parents evidently will be turning to now. I did a book with the former Chad Johnson. He grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, host of the pre-Super Bowl riot in 1989. Chad wasn’t exactly hanging out at Doral, practicing flop wedges.

Chad is more typical of the league than not. This isn’t to say parents or guardians of kids playing football in places like Liberty City are OK with their charges getting concussed. It’s to say that opportunities there are constricted, but the talent is not. If you want to declare, as Coakley did, that football faces UFC-status, you must also ignore the sociology of the game. Which is a strange thing for a sociologist to do.

A few thoughts:

1. I’m not sure what this writer has against sociologists. Jay Coakley is a sociologist who has written a lot in the sociology of sports, including being a co-author for a textbook on the subject that is now in its 11th edition. Perhaps the writer doesn’t think sociologists are qualified to talk about this specific subject? Perhaps the writer doesn’t think academics can really talk about sports? Both of these ideas seem silly: sociologists of sports do study things such as these and perhaps have more data and evidence to argue on this topic than the accumulated observations of journalists.

2. The writer argues that Coakley is suggesting football is more of a suburban sport (remember: a majority of Americans live in suburbs) while he suggests more NFL players come out of more desperate urban situations and will continue to see football as one of the only ways out, concussions or not. Both commentators could be right: perhaps there will always be some people who will want to play football while those with other options, given their class and income, choose other sports or vocations. But, having a sport with only lower-class urban residents could still change the sport; at the least, talents like Tom Brady would never become part of the game.

If concussions are costly, why still play football?

At various levels, football organizations seem to be taking concussions more seriously. The effects on players, particularly long-term effects due to repeated incidents, can be devastating.

In an article from the Kansas City Star, a doctor asks a sociological question that I haven’t heard raised within this debate over concussions and what can be done:

“Why would people still play football?” says Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist and co-founder of the institute. “But I must warn you: That is a sociological question.”

This is a great point – is there anyone seriously advocating football is too dangerous for players? If the risks are high for players, should they turn away from football? For players, what makes the risk worth the potential rewards?

The article suggests several reasons for continuing to play such as potential fame, income, and the thrill of playing. But outside of the thrill of playing (which might be quenched elsewhere), these are cultural reasons; these are things endowed upon football players by millions of adoring fans. If the fame and money weren’t there, how many would still play knowing the risks?