Football 2016 and the Sidelining of Social Conscience – posted 10/23/2016
So far this football season, there has been remarkably little coverage of the ongoing story of football brain injuries. I would have to say that the story has been backburnered.
Possibly that is because there has not been a new brain injury story featuring a former big star like Junior Seau or Frank Gifford. Or it might also be that the pending NFL concussion lawsuit settlement has sucked up all the oxygen.
It has certainly not been the greatest time for the NFL. TV ratings are down. Compared to last season, overall viewing has dropped 11%. Possibly football has reached a saturation point.
The domestic violence story of New York Giants kicker Josh Brown cannot help. Brown had abused his wife Molly over 20 times in the last few years. In a letter he had written his family in March 2014, he acknowledged the abuse.
“I became an abuser and hurt Molly physically, emotionally and verbally…I have physically, mentally, emotionally and mentally been a repulsive man. I viewed myself as God basically and she was my slave.”
The response of the Giants and the NFL has been less than inspiring. Brown got a one game suspension, no fine, and verbal support from his coach. It is not clear how much the Giants knew about Brown’s abuse of his wife but it appears they knew plenty. Brown’s arrests for domestic violence happened in May and July 2015. Still he was allowed to play the whole 2015 season. Then there was an incident at the 2016 Pro Bowl. NFL Security had to move Brown’s wife and kids to another hotel for protection. Yet the Giants rewarded Brown with a 2 year, $4 million contract
The situation prompted the highly respected Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. to tweet:
“You know what if your ex-wife was my daughter yo ASS would be on IR…what a shame NFL acts like it cares.”
The NFL is now in damage control mode as there is a further investigation. I expect penalties will be upped as happened with Ray Rice but it is hard to imagine that domestic violence allegations or brain injuries will have much effect on the game’s popularity. For millions, these issues are flies, swatted away.
The League remains a relentless money machine.
This season, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took four big hits to the head in his first game, there was criticism that the referees were failing to protect him but almost nothing came of that. Two players got fined for the hits. The League decided that the referees correctly followed the brain injury protocol. Newton stayed in the game. In early October, Newton did sustain a concussion in a game against the Falcons.
At the least, penalties for helmet to helmet hits should be strictly enforced. If there were heavy fines and suspensions for intentional helmet to helmet hits, that would have an effect. Coaches could delineate how that is an absolute no-no and players would likely be more careful because it would impact both their pocketbook and the game outcome. No player wants to be suspended.
The NFL had previously reported that concussions in 2015 had risen 32% over the previous year. The League identified 271 concussions in 2015. That number includes preseason, regular season games, as well as all practices. 234 concussions occurred during games and 37 in practice. This increase happened at a time when sensitivity to the harm of brain injury has allegedly heightened.
Of the concussions in 2015, 92 came from contact with another helmet, 29 from contact with the playing surface and 23 from contact with a shoulder.
It needs to be noted that these are the reported concussions. It is impossible to know how many concussions do not get reported. Serious players at all levels, high school, college and pro, want playing time and reporting concussions is a good way to be benched.
The saddest concussion story I have seen in the last two years is not a pro football story. It is the story of Kosta Karageorge, an Ohio State football player and wrestler. In June, the New York Times reporter Tim Rohan wrote a powerful piece about Karageorge’s concussion history which preceded his suicide.
Karageorge had gone missing before the Ohio State-Michigan football game. He was found dead in a dumpster with a gun in his right hand and dried blood dripping from his mouth. The coroner ruled the death was a suicide.
Karageorge had started contact sports at age 10 and weight lifting at 14. From an early age he obsessed about getting bigger. He gained over 100 pounds in high school, transforming himself into a bulked-up athlete. He grew to be 6 foot 6 inches tall and he weighed 285 pounds.
At the same time as he became a heavyweight athlete, he started developing small bald spots. His doctor diagnosed stress-related alopecia.
One of Karageorge’s first known concussions was an incident in high school when he accidentally headbutted an opponent. The Times article said that he sustained more blows to the head when he wrestled. He and other high school friends started a fight club modeled after the movie. They would fight bare knuckles until someone quit or was knocked out.
Karageorge hid his concussion symptoms from his parents and coaches because he felt that was most manly. He had headaches, vomiting and he had episodes where he broke down crying for no apparent reason. He told friends that he heard a buzzing noise in his head. He believed he was being followed. He was showing signs of mental instability before he died.
In college, he challenged his roommates to outweightlift him, to outeat him and to beat him in the video game Call of Duty. He used to surprise his roommates with wrestling moves, breaking furniture in the living room. Rohan wrote that Karageorge kept a running score of everyone’s Man Points. He earned the title “alpha male of the house”.
Karageorge had toxic notions of masculinity. His tattoos spoke volumes. Rohan wrote:
“On his back he had Atlas holding up the globe because, he said, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He had an image of Zeus, and of Hades next to his three-headed dog, Cerberus. Down the back of his arm, he had “Pain is temporary”. On the other: “Pride is forever”. On the inside of his lower lip he tattooed the word “Brutal”. ”
Karageorge did not play college football until his senior year. He sustained his last known concussion during football practice two months before he died. It had kept him out of practice for three weeks. His parents believed that he had sustained about 15 concussions in his life but they were not sure because Kosta did not share details.
About a year after he died, Kostageorge’s parents received a report from Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, who posthumously examined Kosta’s brain. She found traces of past microhemorrhaging in the prefrontal cortex. Dr. McKee stated that damage in that area usually leads to cognitive issues involving “impulsivity, dis-inhibition, poor judgment, and maybe even suicidal ideation”.
Dr. McKee found a single focus of Tau, the protein associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). She diagnosed Stage 1 CTE. There are 4 stages on the scale. For those unfamiliar with the diagnosis of CTE, it is the degenerative brain disease which researchers have linked to many former football players. It is caused by repeated blows to the head.
At present, CTE can only be diagnosed after death,
On the last night of his life, Karageorge sent a steady stream of text messages to his girl friend. They had had an argument earlier in the evening and Kosta believed the relationship was over. He texted:
“I never felt this dark”
“man im broken my head isn’t right”
He texted his mother apologizing that he had been an embarrassment to the family and blaming the concussions for messing with his head.
Not surprisingly, CTE remains the biggest stumbling block in the NFL concussion lawsuit settlement. It is the signature injury of football but the settlement is a model of unfairness. In the settlement, those individuals with CTE who die after April 22, 2015 get no compensation. Those who died with the diagnosis of CTE before April 22, 2015 will receive up to $4 million.
You do not have to be a great prognosticator to know that CTE will become a health issue for thousands of football players after their playing days are finished. Where is the justice in this settlement? How can the door be slammed on the post-April 2015 CTE sufferers?
The case is not yet over though. While the Third Circuit Court of Appeals approved the settlement agreement, objectors to the settlement filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case and address deficiencies.
It is admittedly a long shot this will happen. Every year 7000 to 8000 petitions for a writ of certiorari are filed and the Court grants less than 80 of them. Four justices must agree to hear the case.
The Court is left in a tough spot. The settlement does significantly help some players who are absolutely deserving. At the same time, so many equally deserving are left out. Maybe it is adult to recognize unfairness in life but is this the best that can be done?
Whether it is brain injuries or domestic violence, football can do so much better. Football should not require the sidelining of conscience.