Will PBS Deliver the Death Blow to the NFL?
The NFL is the most powerful and popular sports league in the country. At this point, it might be the most dominant institution in America, period. In its 93 years it’s grown to become both an altar of mainstream manhood and a multibillion dollar industry that puts on the most highly rated programs on TV. The NFL is so big that fantasy football, a game for grown men where you watch players compile numbers in another game, generates a billion dollars a year by itself. By now you’re likely familiar with the widely-accepted truth that all that tackling involved in the sport damages players’ brains, often horrifically—Alan Schwarz‘s New York Times reporting on that subject started way back in 2007. But if you watch the sport, you probably don’t care enough to stop watching.
PBS Frontline is going to try to make you care more.
League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, a documentary airing tonight based on a book that was released today, is the most direct assault on the league to date. The film not only reviews the by-now-at-least-faintly-familiar evidence that football collisions are very bad for you, it exposes the NFL’s attempts to cover up the damage the sport does to young men’s brains. The league’s executives and doctors come off as myopic and foolish at best, and scheming and evil at worst—in story after story, League shows NFL players dying after losing their minds due to what most independent doctors agree is football-induced brain damage, then the NFL is shown repeatedly denying the connectionbetween football and the broken families it has left behind.
More Chaos in Rio de Janeiro: Rubber Bullets Fly Outside the Confederations Cup Final
On Sunday, Brazil’s national men’s soccer team dismantled defending World Cup champions Spain 3–0 in the final of the Confederations Cup in Rio de Janeiro. In a soccer-crazed country like Brazil, you’d expect the buildup to such an event would be massive. And it was—but not for the love of the game. Thousands took to the streets adjacent to the soccer stadium where the match was played to continue to voice popular disdain for what protesters believe are the misplaced priorities of the national government: choosing to fund massive international sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics instead of investing in health care and human development.
Starting at noon on Sunday, the neighborhood of Tijuca was a fortified by around 6,000 police officers, members of the Federal Highway Police, National Force, Army, and Home Guard. A so-called FIFA perimeter was established, surrounding a two-mile radius around the stadium, only those who had tickets could pass, and locals could only enter after presenting proof of residence. The numbers were less significant than in the previous week’s demonstrations, and little more than 5,000 people were in the area until game time.
Continue + More Photos
But then there’s high school football, where very young people make mistakes and older people sit in the stands and yell the worst things they can think of at other people’s children. Again, it’s your life and your thing, and if confessing in a scoutish, authoritative tone to a bleacher neighbor that some 15-year-old you’ll never meet “kind of fagged it up” on that play is what you need to do, then certainly good luck getting well. But if we’re going to draw a line, we might as well draw it here. Or maybe slightly further out, somewhere around the increasingly overstated and reliably depressing stretch that culminated earlier this week with college football’s National Signing Day.
Super Bowl Media Day… on Acid!
My first decision was whether to take the five-dose strip of LSD before or after I arrived at the Superdome. I settled on doing it after, which turned out to be the right choice. The line for media to get into the stadium was hundreds of people long and zigged and zagged through the bowels of the Superdome garage in a way that made it impossible to tell how long it was and what was around the next corner. It just so happened that the end of this line had some bomb-sniffing dogs and fully armed military personnel. As I told my editor later, if I had eaten the acid before getting in line, this story would’ve ended when I saw the bomb-sniffing dogs. I would’ve high-tailed it out of there—probably screaming—and been eaten by those vicious animals.
Despite having worked as a full-time sports journalist in a past life, this was my first time at a Super Bowl Media Day. I was surprised to find that there was no workstation set up for me to drop off my stuff and get my bearings before sneaking into a darkened corner to take my drugs. Nevertheless, I still managed to take those drugs in a darkened corner—I could tell from experience that the bitter taste and tingling on my tongue was a good sign. I checked my watch: 9:30. The San Francisco 49ers would be on the field in half an hour for their stint with the media.
The acid first started creeping in while I was standing next to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I overheard someone ask Colin if he was a “steak and potatoes” kind of guy, and then I repeated “steak and potatoes” a few times into my iPod. I don’t think I attracted a great deal of attention, but I almost lost my shit when I noticed Kaepernick was getting beamed, God-like, onto the Superdome Jumbotron while I was standing mere feet away from him.
By this time, the trip was lapping against my mind in more consistent and powerful waves. I was very thankful that I had so many toys with me (my cameras, my iPod, and my smartphone) because fidgeting with my gear was a way to calm myself down. I’m not sure if this looked strange to anyone, but I’m also pretty sure I was staring at my camera without doing anything for what seemed like hours.
In reality, it couldn’t have been too long, because my next voice memo, recorded at 10:42, has me noting that the 49ers only had a few minutes left on the field and that I hadn’t asked any questions. Suddenly, I felt the urge to do something—everyone around me was moving with a purpose while I wandered around aimlessly and stared at the mysteriously pulsating artificial turf. I tried in vain to ask 49ers running back Frank Gore a question, but was beaten to the punch by a radio DJ who asked him if he’d ever had an imaginary girlfriend and some other guy who asked Gore, “If you had a Pegasus, what would you name it?” I made a voice memo wondering if I was imagining all of this.
Notes from a Hitter: High school football filled me with rage and damaged my brain
By the age of 18, I had undergone enough head trauma playing football to cause irrevocable damage to my brain. The three (documented) concussions I experienced resulted in a seizure disorder I will deal with for the rest of my life. I don’t discount my own role in the seizures I’ve had—some of them were partially due to poor decisions, lack of sleep, and excessive alcohol consumption—but according to my neurologist, my condition is undoubtedly caused by brain injuries suffered as a high school linebacker whose only goal at the time was to prove to his toughness to his teammates, coaches, and himself. That meant hitting people, and that meant harming my brain.
I consider myself lucky. Lifestyle changes and daily doses of an anticonvulsant have rendered my seizure disorder latent; its effect on my life is now minimal. More importantly, my mental faculties have remained intact enough to allow me to launch a (so far unsuccessful) writing career. Many NFL players aren’t nearly as fortunate—some have committed suicide, presumably due to the mental deterioration caused by their lengthy careers, including Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest rather than the head so his brain could be studied by neurologists after his death, and Junior Seau, whose family is suing the NFL. I hope that every player on the field during the Super Bowl lives a full, long life and doesn’t suffer any mental difficulties as a result of his career—but I know some probably will, and some will have much worse problems than I do.
The Ennui of Raiders-Chiefs
Dozens of men separate into two teams, muscled and angry and armored in pads and helmets and uniforms, gather inside an arena under an empty sky in Oakland. The groups stare at each other, stomping the ground and beating their chests, while tens of thousands of people who have come to the arena to watch roar in anticipation. Men in striped shirts bring the leaders of the teams to the center of the field. There is a pause, pregnant with violence, as the anticipation builds. Then…
“Why are we doing this?” one of the captains asks his counterpart.
“What do you mean?” the other captain replies.
“Why is football happening?”
“It always happens this way. Every week. Again and again and again. You know this.”
“But today…” He is confused. “Today there is no reason for football. We have no playoffs to strive for. Our fans expect no victories from either of us. We are the Chiefs and the Raiders—strong-sounding names which we do not deserve, for our teams together have more than a score of defeats and only a handful a triumphs. We shame our ancestors every time we attempt to play. No one is watching us on television. No one, save the hopelessly addicted, is wagering on this outcome. For what do we risk life and limb on this field?”
There is a pause as the men on the field consider this. The crowd goes silent. What’s happening? they wonder.Is there going to be football after all?