The Hard Truth

Whoever gets the half with the ball wins. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived and dishonest - but the myth - persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."

- John F Kennedy

Truer words have never been spoken than what Kennedy said about myth being the great enemy of truth. A great many equally true words have been spoken, but nothing that’s more true than his (Can I say that, "more true"?). Then again, how can anything be truer than truth? But I’m getting off topic.

The reason myths are so very effective at hiding the truth is they not only sound good like Kennedy said, but people want to believe them. Even after my son found out Santa Claus wasn't real he would still do and say things that sounded like he still thought he was. He still wanted to believe even though he knew it made no sense. That’s because it’s easier to believe a pleasant lie than a hard truth.

For the NFL that hard truth was that repeated blows to the head had left many ex-players brain damaged. They were more likely to commit suicide, suffer memory loss and end up with Alzheimer’s or dementia. They were also basically left to deal with it alone with little to no aid from the NFL. Some might argue that they got paid well when they played so why should the NFL do anything. But player’s salaries in the early days of the NFL were not nearly as high as those today, and even today most players only earn between $400,000-$900,000 a year. Great money for sure, but how much money is your brain worth? More than that, just because they’re paid well doesn’t mean the NFL owns them and can destroy their bodies any way they see fit.

More after the jump...

Being the good lawyer that he is, Rodger Goodell has made player safety one of his top priorities, as well as increasing the retirement benefits for ex-players. Both were much needed, in part to save the game, but more importantly because it was the right thing to do. However the problem for the NFL, like tobacco before them, is when did they really know about the danger and were they ignoring it for ratings?

Big hits are good for business. They show up on sports shows and are packaged for sale under titles such as "The Best of Thunder and Destruction" and "Moment of Impact", although they could never quite outsell those Girls Gone Wild videos. I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch drunk college girls showing everything just so they could get in a video. I can’t wait until one of them runs for political office and that clip is discovered. But again, I’m getting off topic.

In 1994 the NFL commissioned a study done to examine the dangers of concussions and they duly released 16 reports saying there was little risk. Doctors were paid by the teams so it should surprise no one that many players who suffered concussions were sent back into the game. The NFL even distributed flyers to all the players as late as 2007 downplaying the risks.

Of course the players deserve part of the blame as well. They want to crush receivers crossing the middle, in part to make them nervous next time, but also so they can get shown on the highlight reel. Then there were things like bounty-gate (paper towels) that I guarantee were not limited to New Orleans. Funny, that’s where a lot of those Girls Gone Wild movies were filmed as well. Even today there’s a big divide between the older players who don’t want to change anything and the younger ones who haven’t had their brains addled from 10 years of playing and are therefore able to think more clearly. That last statement isn’t based on any fact, at least the thinking more clearly part, but the divide is real enough as are the addled brains.

So how could the NFL not take the risks from blows to the head seriously until now despite the fact there have been studies going back decades showing the damage that can be done? As I mentioned earlier it was a hard truth. They didn’t want to think there were any great dangers so they ignored what was staring at them right in the face. Whether from ignorance or greed, or probably both, very few changes were made in the name of player safety, and most of those were at the QB position.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that major changes are only coming now on the heels of several lawsuits by former players. And while many are already complaining about the changes that have been made, I get the feeling many more are still on the way as the lawsuits continue to mount. Many of the changes have made me upset that they're watering down the physicality of the game. And I have no doubt it will get watered down even more.

Football is the greatest sport in the world and one of the greatest forms of entertainment. I love the big hits just like everyone else. I jumped to my feet yelling when Donte Whitner knocked out Pierre Thomas on the goal-line during the playoffs like every other 49er fan. But when it’s all said and done it’s still just a form of entertainment (although you wouldn’t know that looking at the alcohol binger I went on after the 49ers lost to the Giants). These players have lives outside of football with wives, children, and family who love them. I’m sure they’d like to enjoy the rest of their lives as much as they can once football is over. If seeing less big hits and a less physical game is the price for allowing more players to live longer fuller lives, I guess that’s a small price to pay. Risking your life as a soldier or firefighter is one thing, risking it for my own personal entertainment is something else entirely. I enjoyed believing the myth but it’s time to look at the truth.

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