We love football, but where is the sport headed?

In the Super Bowl glory days in Buffalo, one of the most memorable games for me was the American Football Conference Championship game in Orchard Park in January 1994. The Bills beat the Kansas City Chiefs 30 to 13.  As a season ticket holder at the time, that punched my ticket for a trip to Atlanta to see Super Bowl XXVIII.

In the pre-renovation days of Rich Stadium, my tickets were in a great position at about the 50 yard line, right below Ralph Wilson’s box, on the visitors’ side of the field. OJ Simpson was in Wilson’s box for an interview after that game, wearing an expensive pair of gloves.

While the game was great, the vision of that game that is burned into my memory more than any other was the scene following what happened in this picture, where Bruce Smith had just tackled Chiefs’ quarterback Joe Montana, who even at that time was a legend in the game.

ORCHARD PARK, UNITED STATES: NY, UNITED STATES: Buffalo Bills Bruce Smith leans over Kansas City Chiefs Joe Montana (19) 23 Jan during the AFC championship game. Smith caused Montana a consussion forcing him to leave the game in the third quarter. The Bills defeated the Chiefs 30-13. (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Montana got off the turf and walked off the field toward his team bench. What has stuck with me is the expression on his face – confusion, pain, maybe semi-unconscious – it was the first and best view I ever had of what it was really like for a player who had just suffered a concussion.  It was a frightening thing to see.  Montana is reported as having experienced 8 concussions in his playing career.

That game was nearly 23 years ago. Football as a sport has gone on to ever greater glory and profit.  And the hits (to the head) keep on coming.

I sometimes think that the movie Rollerball is a fantasy-is-reality vision of what football has become or is becoming.  The movie depicts the sport of roller derby as more than what some of us remember as an entertaining TV spectacle. Rollerball has very rich owners obsessed with winning and getting richer.  Sound familiar?  Only in Rollerball, the sport actually turns into a life-and-death event for the players.

There have been stories recently about how some high schools are having a problem with filling out a football roster as more and more students and their parents come to grips with the possibility of a concussion and all the consequences that follow from that. The number of high school boys playing football has begun to drop, declining 2.4 percent in the past five years.  Football is a game of running, passing and hitting – lots and lots of hitting.  We might cringe when we see some of the more spectacular hits, but there are a whole lot more that we hardly notice in the flurry of action.

Raising national attention

Professional football has been played for more than 90 years. What started off as a sport morphed into a serious business.  Up until the 1970’s it was common for players to have off-season jobs or to start small enterprises of their own to support their families.  Bills players in the sixties ran bars (Tom Sestak, Paul McGuire, and Al Bemiller), sold Christmas trees (Cookie Gilchrist), sold clothes (Richie Lucas, Don Chelf, and Tom O’Connell) or sold hamburgers (Ernie Warlick).

With the merger of the American and National Football Leagues in 1966 things began to change slowly. The first Super Bowl in 1967 had empty seats in the stadium.  Even in the mid-seventies I was able to buy Super Bowl tickets for less than one hundred dollars a seat.  Not anymore.

Team physical and playbook training have become nearly year-round activities for players and coaches. The regular season went from twelve games to fourteen to sixteen, and there is still talk about making it eighteen games.  The playoffs went from a single championship game to a series of eleven games stretching over five weeks.  All for the sake of making more money for the owners, players and coaches.  No need for off-season jobs anymore.  Quarterbacks get multi-year contracts totaling over $100 million.  Defensive lines can carry total contracts of more than a quarter billion dollars.  (Sometimes such things don’t work so well!)

Cities are expected to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars for football palaces that increase team owners’ revenues. Threats of moving franchises are regular occurrences.  Stand by later this month as the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and/or St. Louis Rams move back to Los Angeles, the city that each of those teams previously abandoned.  Except that now some lucky community in the Los Angeles area will throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the teams that move to their city to set up shop for the 2016 season and beyond.

Television contracts for the NFL continue to climb out of sight. We now have Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games nearly every week of the season.

More on the movie Concussion below, but there is a line from the film that fits here, referring to the NFL:  “They adopted a day of the week as their own.  It used to belong to the church.”

How the players make out, or don’t

We can all marvel at the salaries of football players and coaches. It is still technically a game, but the rewards are a lot better than a day at a carnival or Dave and Buster’s.

Million dollars salaries for kids right out of college are unbelievable. Playing careers, though, are usually short.  A player who has mastered money management can be set for life.  Those who are not as smart or attentive, however, will wind up bankrupt.

For modern day players, getting themselves vested in the players’ pension plan can be lucrative. Not so much for the older retired players who worked for small paychecks.  Some retired players like Jeff Nixon have worked very actively to help their former colleagues.

Jeff Nixon played defensive back for the Bills from 1979 through 1984, until injuries ended his career. He led the team in interceptions during his rookie year.  In the memorable 1980 Bills game against the Miami Dolphins which ended a twenty game Bills losing streak against the ‘fins, Jeff picked off three Dan Marino passes and recovered a fumble that contributed greatly to the victory.

After his playing career ended Jeff began a second career in local government. He and I worked together in the late nineties in the Dennis Gorski administration in County Hall.  Jeff presently works as the Youth Employment Director for the City of Buffalo.

Along the way Jeff started a very interesting and informative blog (www.jeffnixon.sportsblog.com). He mixes football history and current events in the sport.  He has focused attention on the post-career issues of former players including medical care, pensions, and particularly matters relating to concussions suffered by current and former players.

Former players have mostly been handed the short end of the stick. It seems that both the NFL and their Players Association are content to provide early contributors to the sport with tiny pensions.  The Association, according to Nixon’s blog, recently waived the $100 annual dues for retired players.  Gee, thanks a lot.  How about better pension payments?

How former players really don’t make out

If a current or recent player gets through his career without major injury things are not so bad. The problem, however, is one that the NFL has dodged and avoided like a star running back weaving his way downfield for a touchdown.  That problem is concussions.

If you are a football fan go see the movie Concussion, which is currently in theaters.  The film documents in a pretty accurate way the impact of hits to the head and concussions.

The story evolved from an article in Gentlemen’s Quarterly in 2009.  It detailed how a Nigerian-born pathologist working in Pittsburgh somewhat accidentally described and then brought serious attention to something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in a former football player.  Dr. Bennet Omalu found the damage to the brain while doing an autopsy on Mike Webster, a star center for the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who died in 2002 at the age of fifty.

The NFL’s interest in head injuries and concussions has been aggressive – in fighting even the suggestion that game-related concussions have a major impact on players’ lives during and after the finish with their careers. The league fought like hell to deny the science that Dr. Omalu helped to expose.  They resisted compensation for retired players related to head injuries.  They viewed the results of head hits as being of no serious consequences.  They spent money to contradict science.

The NFL these days has been dragged kicking and screaming into paying attention to the damage that concussions and head injuries do to their players. There are now “independent” doctors on the sidelines at all NFL games ready to examine a player who has sustained a head hit or injury.  The “concussion protocol” is now in place to assess the damage and to make sure that players don’t return to playing until they have overcome the impact of a particular concussion.  The league is doing research into designing better helmets.

The league was sued in 2011 by nearly five thousand former players who sought compensation to help them deal with the long-term consequences of game-related injuries. A settlement was reached in 2013 that will provide nearly 800 million dollars over a period of years to fund health care for retired players and concussion research.  Some players are still challenging that settlement, so the issue is not totally resolved.  No one has any idea at this time about whether even $800 million will be enough to deal with the problems.

Where is this all going?

It was before my day, but I am told that in the 1940’s and mid-1950’s professional boxing had a sports fan following that in some respects rivaled what exists now for the NFL. Television was coming into more and more homes, and boxing matches were a very popular element of TV entertainment.  Until it wasn’t anymore.

The New York Times recently analyzed the popularity of boxing as well as how the sport has declined in recent decades.  A great deal of that decline has to do with brutal beatings that some boxers endured.  One only has to think about Mohammed Ali’s personal decline from the heights of the boxing world.  The public got turned off.  The Times article raises the possibility of the same thing happening to football.  Not likely, at least for the foreseeable future.

It’s nice that the league is waking up to all this, but they seem to be really just dealing with the surface issues. Dr. Omalu has said that by his calculations Mike Webster, during his football playing days that went from high school through college and into the pros, sustained approximately 70,000 hits to the head of one form or another.  The official reports on Webster’s injuries report nothing like that.

This is all after the fact. The damage is done when the hit occurs.  And what about all the hits that occur that don’t rise to the level of a defined concussion?  No matter how the league re-designs the playing helmet, the nature of the game almost seems to invite the level of physical violence that TV and fans buy into.

Perhaps the reason we have seen so many penalties in this year’s games (not just by the Bills) is that the league is trying get tough with the violence. But concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits keep on coming.  The Times article notes that in rugby, a pretty tough sport, no helmets are worn and head injuries are minimal.  What if the NFL, instead of trying to design some super helmet that would still remain a weapon, went back to the old leather helmets?  Just wondering.

There is a whole lot of money invested in the game of professional football. Is anyone ever going to say that enough is enough?

One thought on “We love football, but where is the sport headed?

  1. NFL owners and executives share the same denial catalysts as the fossil fuel industrialists (climate change) and a majority of the United States Supreme Court (corruption of our political system by money):
    lots and lots of dollars.


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