Is the NFL morally wrong?

Two days before the Super Bowl, two interesting perspectives on the National Football League and how it treats its players. First, the New York Times has an article on the plight of former New England Patriots player Ted Johnson. Johnson claims he was ordered to participate in full-contact drills while he was recovering from a concussion. The resulting injury -- yet another concussion -- led Johnson to seek desperate measures in order to continue to play. Just before the 2004 Super Bowl friend began supplying him with amphetamines, which temporarily masked the effects of the repeated concussions he was suffering from:

After playing only sparingly in that Super Bowl, Mr. Johnson began taking larger and larger doses before and throughout the 2004 season, when he regained his starting position at middle linebacker and helped the Patriots win their second consecutive Super Bowl.

Eventually even the drugs didn't help, and Johnson was forced to retire -- but his addiction to amphetamines remained. Career-ending injuries and drug abuse aren't the exclusive province of the NFL, but the Times article does question whether the NFL's "tough guy" attitude might have contributed to Johnson's injuries and later problems. The coach and training staff's decision to rush Johnson back on the field despite his previous concussion was described by Johnson this way:

"I'm sitting there going, 'God, do I put this thing on?' " Mr. Johnson said. "I put the blue on. I was scared for my job."

Regarding the intimidation he felt at that moment, Mr. Johnson added, "This kind of thing happens all the time in football. That day it was Bill Belichick and Ted Johnson. But it happens all the time."

Doctors are well aware that repeated concussions, particularly in a short time frame, can be especially dangerous -- and the NFL has some of the best doctors in the nation on its payroll.

For another view on how the NFL treats its players, consider this, from today's Charlotte Observer:

"For guys who made this league, who built it on their backs, their knees and their legs, and now they're all broken down and they can't even get a decent pension," said DeLamielleure, the former Bills and Browns guard. "It's wrong. It's dead wrong."

Many retired NFL players can barely afford medical care, and yet they are largely ignored by the league.

Arguably, digging deep into the labor practices of nearly any industry will uncover similar abuses, from diamond miners in South Africa to factory workers in China. But it is chilling to realize that within as little as a decade after they retire, the players children idolize in this Sunday's game may be suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other debilitating impairments as a result of the injuries they sustain on the field.

Jonah Lehrer has more on the Ted Johnson story.

Note: Sorry, no Casual Friday this week. It should be back next week.


More like this

There have been several recent reports that have gone into more detail about the post-career injury situation. Ron Kroichick of the SF Chronicle details what has happened to 30 of the 49ers that won their first Super Bowl 25 years ago. Three knee replacements and nine more needed; 2 spinal fusions; 20 with persistant pain etc. King Kaufman of Salon goes int more detail about the politics behind and some of the attempts to ameliorate the situation. Few current players or their representatives [esp. Gene Upshaw and the player's union]have made any contribution to health of older players that have only small pensions with few health-care provisions.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 02 Feb 2007 #permalink

Acording to NFL statistics, thePatriots have the lowest concussion rate in the league annually. The Players who wear a retainer like mouth guard, developed with Marvin Hagler, are protected from the effects of the boxers "glass jaw". Obviously some players chose not to use this corrective procedure, now a subject of a peer reviewed study and an ESPN series by Peter Keating. for more info go

Concussion and Brain Damage: Don't Blame It On the Players
In another article in today's New York Times, entitled N.F.L. Culture Makes Issue of Head Injuries Even Murkier, the league faced with serious questions on how football handles concussions attempts to blame its players.

Nothing can be further from the truth. How can you expect a person who has sustained a concussion, an injury to the brain which by definition affects their cognitive abilities including thinking and decision making to be the ultimate judge on whether it's ok to go back to play. It's plain ridicioulous and the National Football League attitude is a major cause of the problem.

With player's indoctinated that concussion's are no big deal, just "dings" or "minor" injury; with the financial reprucssions if they are cut from teams and with the perception that you "look fine" so you are fine pervading the leagues thinking, the player is the last person who should have the final word.

What we need are independent expert's not tied to the league to provide information to make these important return to play decisions. We need to speak to spouses and player's significant other's who have had a chance to observe them. Ask a wife, what's it like living with a person who has sustained a brain injury and they we tell you that they are now married to a different person.

We don't need paid hacks who understand the financial motivation that teams have in coercing players to return before it is safe to do so and other's who are paid to say they didn't suffer long term disability and thereby deny them long term disability benefits.

Here is what the former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year, said to the New York Times on concussions and the attitude of the National Football League:

"I think the league is in denial, and I think the league will do everything that it can to discredit anyone who associates concussions that are sustained playing on the field with what happens after the game is over," Carson said. "They have to discredit that, otherwise they might be open to all kinds of lawsuits down the road."

It's not just professional sports. What about the effect on kids playing sports? How many parents or coaches are able to recognize or deal with (or even acknowledge, given the competitiveness of some of these adults) head injuries in children or teenagers? Untreated head injuries can lead to lifelong problems-- even soccer players can suffer problems. Remember a few years ago when the kid at a baseball game got hit in the head with a ball? All that the announcer could say was, "Awwww, a little guy got hurt," as if it was nothing more than a cut on the finger or something.

By David Group (not verified) on 03 Feb 2007 #permalink

Also see this article in the NY Daily News about former Giant Bobby Johnson, who was a hero in the Giants' first Superbowl season and was homeless three years later. Arguably some of the problems were his -- drug addiction, poor money management -- but what is the NFL's responsibiliy here? He'd have probably been suspended for several games because of his drug addition if he were playing now, but still ...

That, the Ted Johnson story, and the Andre Waters suicide / link to brain damage ... makes me also wonder if the NFL is morally wrong. Worse, is it morally wrong to enjoy football knowing all this?

Right. It's all a plot. It's either a corporate plot (if you're a leftwinger) or a communist plot (if you're a rightwinger). In either case, the players are deemed not intelligent enough to speak for themselves. No one forces them to play the games but they just have to have that money. Poor guys. Also, competitive sports in general are a plot. It's a plot to hit little boys in the head with baseballs and give little girls fat lips with softballs. Not to mention baseball bats, hockey sticks, field hockey sticks, soccer balls, volley balls.
Let's just eliminate all competitive sports. We can also eliminate jogging (you might trip and get your knee dirty), walking (you might twist an ankle) and any other non-sedentary activity.

Or, those of you who like to raise your kids in a bubble can keep your kids out of all sports and leave the rest of us alone. I don't know what the pasty-white, soft-skinned, immunologically-challenged product will be but I'm not worried. I can always avert my eyes.

Probably 70% or more of my generation played sports of some kind, organized or not, male and female both. The vast majority of us are not brain damaged.

If you really want to do something about head injuries, do something about auto accidents.

No one's suggesting it's a "plot," but they are suggesting that the "win at all costs" attitude in the NFL and presumably other leagues does in fact have a cost.

If you can point to a study demonstrating that ex-NFL players don't have a higher rate of problems with mental function than the general population, I'd like to see it. All indications are that former players are suffering immensely, and the question at hand is whether we should turn a blind eye to that, or respond in some way.

Personally I don't allow my children to play football -- the risk of brain damage or other debilitating injury is simply too large. Others may decide the risk is worth it.

This isn't to say I raise my kids in a bubble -- I do take them skiing, let them ride bikes and skateboards, and other potentially harmful activities. I draw the line at repeatedly smashing their heads against hard objects.