In 1970, when the U.S. Air Force transferred my Dad and our family to the Pittsburgh area, it didn’t take me long at all to become a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I’ve remained a stalwart lover of the black and gold ever since.
It wasn’t easy at first, because back then the Steelers were terrible. They went 1-13 in 1969 and 5-9 in 1970. But eventually, with a brutal defense led by men such as “Mean Joe” Greene and my personal favorite, a hard-bitten linebacker by the name of Jack Lambert, they turned it around. By the end of the ’70s, the Steelers had won four Super Bowls in a six-year period, becoming in my mind the greatest football team of the modern era. And they did it by being tough.
The center of that team, literally and in some ways figuratively, was a man named Mike Webster, now in the NFL Hall of Fame. Webster was as tough as they come, playing in 150 consecutive games at one of the most physically draining positions in the game. But what none of us knew for a long time was that “Iron Mike” was paying a very stiff price for our entertainment.
Once he left the game, he suffered from serious dementia and other symptoms of brain damage. He found he could no longer function socially. He went into isolation, refusing help or even contact with his former teammates. After his death in 2002 at the age of 50, an autopsy determined that Webster suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy — in plain talk, serious brain damage caused by repeated multiple blows to the head.
And it was far from an isolated case. Webster was one of the first on what has become a dismayingly long list of players — a list of hundreds, perhaps thousands — to be suspected of suffering such damage.
For years, though, the National Football League and even its players union refused to admit the problem existed. It fought claims by Webster’s heirs that he had been disabled by his years in the trenches, a battle that the league eventually lost in court. Even after that loss, the NFL continued to turn a stoically blind eye to conclusive medical evidence of serious, trauma-induced brain damage in player after player. When it grudgingly changed its rules to protect its quarterbacks, it did so less to protect their health than to keep its most marketable, expensive commodities on the field.
But the quiet carnage continued.
Just last year Dave Duerson, a one-time defensive star for the Chicago Bears who was suffering from mental-health issues, committed suicide by putting a bullet through his chest. In a text message to his family, he told them that he did so to preserve his brain as evidence of what a career in the NFL had done to him.
An autopsy confirmed Duerson’s self-diagnosis: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, same as Webster and others.
“The pathology was severe in areas of the brain that influence impulse control, inhibition, emotion and memory,” Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston neurologist said after studying Duerson’s brain tissue.
That echoed the sad path of Shane Dronett, who helped lead the Atlanta Falcons defense to Super Bowl XXXIII, the highlight of the Falcons’ franchise to date. After struggling with mental-health problems, Dronett committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 38. He too was diagnosed post-mortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (While symptoms of the condition are well-known, its presence can be confirmed only by autopsy.)
As a result, as many as several hundred former NFL players are now listed as having filed suit, charging negligence among other things and seeking damages from the hugely profitable league. Dronett’s estate is among those listed as suing, as are Tommy Nobis, the Falcons’ first-ever draft choice and star, and longtime Falcons Fulton Kuykendall and Lester Archambeau.
Under immense legal, political and medical pressure, the NFL has belatedly responded. In recent seasons it has begun to change its rules to better protect its players, fining players who violate those rules and most importantly treating concussions much more seriously. On the surface, at least, things seemed to be changing a bit.
Then came the New Orleans Saints scandal. Just last month, we learned that Saints coaches had long run an unofficial bounty system, paying defensive players to target, disable and maim particular players on the opposing team. The NFL responded to the discovery appropriately, suspending the Saints’ head coach for a year and the defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, indefinitely.
Last weekend, however, things got worse when a tape recording was released of a locker-room “pep talk” by Williams prior to the NFC championship game between the Saints and the San Francisco 49ers in January 2012. (The profanity-filled tape is available in its entirety here.)
In the tape, Williams pointed out to his defensive players that a particular 49ers receiver had recently suffered a concussion and “we need to (expletive) put a lick on him right now.”
He directed them to attack another player’s knee ligament, and told his players to concentrate on hitting the opponents’ heads at every opportunity.
“We’re gonna dominate the line of scrimmage and we’re gonna kill the (expletive) head,” he told his team. “Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early. Affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head.”
“Kill the head and the body will die. Kill the head and the body will die,” he reminds them again. “We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill (running back) Frank Gore’s head.”
The reaction to the tape has been interesting. Some players, former and current, have claimed to be shocked by it. Others, however, shrug and wonder what the fuss is all about. As former 49ers lineman and NFL analyst Randy Cross tweeted:
“NFL Media Nanny State up in arms about FB coach espousing violent behavior. U people r clueless about the game.”
Yeah, maybe so. Maybe we are, or used to be, clueless and willfully naive, just as the league itself had been willfully clueless and naive for so long. But that’s no longer the case for those of us willing to see.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken the Saints controversy seriously, handing down appropriately severe punishments. But it’s also important that the Saints franchise, Williams and suspended head coach Sean Payton aren’t made the scapegoats for a problem that clearly runs much deeper.
The real scandal isn’t that one team took things too far, because the overwhelming medical and scientific evidence tells us that the entire sport has taken things too far and has done so for decades. The scandal is that even when played by the rules, the game destroys those who play it, those whom fans like me celebrate and cheer on. And that has to be changed if the sport is to continue to thrive. It has become much more difficult to watch and root knowing what a high human price is being paid for mere entertainment.
This is a far more serious issue than the steroid era in baseball, because it goes to the core of how football is played and taught and refereed. And it says a lot about human nature that some people who were justifiably horrified by the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal — “how could he do that just for sport!?” — are willing to tolerate permanent, debilitating, life-ruining head injuries among fellow human beings for the sake of a different sport.
– Jay Bookman