Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Blood Equity": has gridiron football become a blood sport?

"You have a broken back. But you can play with it." These words were spoken to Tony Dorsett, in a Monday meeting after a game in which he took a late, hard tackle that ended with a knee to his back. In the middle of renegotiating his contract, Dorset absorbed this surreal news and returned to the field wearing the flap jacket team doctors recommended to absorb the impact of the blows he would surely take. He considers himself lucky. He can't run today, but he can function.

That is a lot more than many retired NFL players can say. A 2009 documentary, Blood Equity (available on uncovers the ugly story of how the NFL player's union has turned its back on the men who have made billions of dollars for the league. This betrayal is often the last act in a series of ruthlessly exploitative decisions - in which team doctors underrepresent the nature of injuries to players, robbing them of the chance to make informed decisions about their own health, in which coaches opt to field players with concussions, torn ACLs, and, incredibly, in Dorsett's instance, a broken back. These players suffer from a range of horrific disabilities - crushed disks, destroyed rotator cuffs, useless knees. But these problems pale in comparison with the frightening dementia caused by the repeated blows to the head and body that make for such fantastic television.

We meet a lot of players in Blood Equity (Mike Ditka is particularly moving in critique of the player's union), but some of the most painful stories come from their families. Garrett Webster's father was "Iron Mike" Webster, a legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The younger Webster sums up the suffering of his father by saying he wished he'd never played the sport, because then his dad would at least be here. Webster died of a heart attack at the age of 52. By that point, he had lived with so much back pain he would taser himself, hoping to make himself pass out. Or he would drink. He couldn't remember how to make breakfast, eventually, he couldn't feed himself. His dementia was so acute he could hardly function and he lived in poverty. By the time he got a lawyer, Jeanne Marie Laskas writes, the hall of famer "was living on Pringles and Little Debbie pecan rolls [and] was occasionally catatonic, in a fetal position for days."

Laskas's story for GQ ("Game Brain") focuses on what happened when Mike Webster died. His decline made headlines in Pittsburgh where people wondered how a man who had been so lionized could end up so horribly abject. Bennet Omalu, a local pathologist figured Webster must have been sick, and got permission from Webster's family to analyze the player's brain. Laskas writes that the scientist found
Brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning. (Jeanne Marie Laskas, "Game Brain")
Omalu wrote up his findings in an article (“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player”) which he published in 2005 in the journal Neurosurgery. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) is a disease caused by repeated blows to the head, and occurs with shocking frequency in NFL players. "Game Brain" recounts the NFL's reaction - its doctors went bullistic, and demanded that the journal print a retraction. Omalu became fully engaged in a battle with the billion-dollar business of football, and opened a pandora's box of trouble for not only the NFL, but for American football culture more broadly, as it must now consider the long-term impact of the thousands of jarring blows absorbed by high school and college players (see "Football and Progressive Brain Damage" in Science Daily).

Several months ago, the New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell's "Offensive Play". That article also offers a disturbing catalog of the debilitating injuries that hobble NFL players. Gladwell makes a provocative turn and calls out the NFL and the sports media for the way it handled the Michael Vick affair. Given what we now know about the severity of the injuries sustained by football players, and the ruthless exploitation of the athlete's love for the game, what makes us so different from the dog-fighters?

Galdwell points to "gameness" as a quality prized in fighting dogs and in athletes. "Gameness" measures the dog's willingness to keep fighting even if wounded, to fight to please its master at the cost of its own interest. Following this line of thought, Gladwell recounts Kyle Turley's experiences playing for the Packers:
Turley...was once in the training room after a game with a young linebacker who had suffered a vicious hit on a kickoff return. “We were in the cold tub, which is, like, forty-five degrees, and he starts passing out. In the cold tub. I don’t know anyone who has ever passed out in the cold tub. That’s supposed to wake you up. And I’m, like, slapping his face. ‘Richie! Wake up!’ He said, ‘What, what? I’m cool.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a concussion. You have to go to the hospital.’ He said, ‘You know, man, I’m fine.’ ” He wasn’t fine, though. That moment in the cold tub represented a betrayal of trust. He had taken the hit on behalf of his team. He was then left to pass out in the cold tub, and to deal—ten and twenty years down the road—with the consequences. No amount of money or assurances about risk freely assumed can change the fact that, in this moment, an essential bond had been broken.  (Malcolm Gladwell, "Offensive Play")
I am compelled by Gladwell's argument.  In Blood Equity, Toby Wright recalls how after he had been manipulated into playing a season on a torn ACL (thereby destroying any chance of repairing and rehabilitating the injury), he was released by the LA Rams. Dick Vermeil explained, "We don't believe your body is going to last, the way you play the game." Wright thought to himself "I got here throwing my body around, giving all that I've got. The same reason why I am here is the same reason why you are releasing me." NY Giants legend Harry Carson put it more simply, "They don't give a fuck about you. They really don't care."  Gladwell issues the following charge to us all: "What football must confront, in the end, is not just the problem of injuries or scientific findings. It is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game." I am not sure there is a better document of this crisis than the testimony offered by players and their families in "Blood Equity."


  1. Excellent piece, as ever. But just a minor quip with your headline - back in the 1900's, before the helmets invention and use, people died on the playing field with regularity. So, in a sense, football has always been a bloodsport. The question - do we as Americans accept this? Does a majority?

    Also, the documentary plays the same old "splintered labor movement" blamegame all too common in other walks of life - yes, the Union could do more, but in the competitive-entertainment industry, having such high expectations is not practical. Also, the owners get such a large slice of the pie (what with the union and wage limiting "salary cap") that surely they must shoulder some blame.

    Great stuff.

  2. Hi Elliott,

    I've been off with my headlines - I sign of my haste as I've had unusually little time available to write for the blog. I think maybe something becomes a bloodsport when we KNOW that life-threatening, debilitating injury is inevitable?

    Looking at this player's union in particular, it does seem that the head of the union has made explicit statements supporting the NFL, and disavowing the needs of retired players as the union's responsibility. It's an interesting issue - it's both the league and the union at fault here, clearly.

    There's a really great discussion of these issues on a recent broadcast of NPR's "The Story" - worth a listen.

    Thanks for reading & commenting!

  3. great post! and there is also something important here about the equipment and science purportedly making the game safer actually encouraging the increased violence of each collision.


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