By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For whatever reason — mainly because any and all human decency has long since departed the realm of modern sports discussions — there remain firmly entrenched “camps” in the still-young concussion “debate” in sports, and in particular the NFL.
On one side, there are those who see the league’s decades of cover-ups, the ones who have read and seen “League Of Denial” and continue to follow the league’s halfhearted attempts to create a “safer” game. On the other side, there are those who dismiss the ever-growing data and the expanded research into brain injuies, those who say that football has obviously always been a dangerous sport and that the players know exactly what they signed up for when they first strapped on a helmet.
This is a belief that must die.
An acknowledgement from the league that repeated blows to the heads can lead to long-term damage, combined with players signing a waiver of acceptance of the risks would be enough to clear up this whole concussion mess and allow football to proceed as usual in the minds of many fans, media members and even some former players. But it’s not that simple. Not even close.
To be sure, grown men should not be prevented from doing anything they wish to do, which in this case would involve taking a risk of serious long-term injury in order to make a high salary for a given period of time.
But what often gets overlooked in this debate is the profit.
Owners are profiting — by the billions, with a “b” — off the backs of these players. They’re making billions. Per Forbes, Rams owner Stan Kroenke is worth $5 billion. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is worth $4.4 billion. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is worth $2.7 billion. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is worth $2.3 billion.
Again per Forbes, the average NFL team is worth $2 billion, which was up a whopping 38 percent from 2014 to 2015. The Cowboys are worth $4 billion. The least valuable team — the Buffalo Bills — is still worth $1.4 billion. That’s more valuable than 21 out of 30 NBA teams, more valuable than 23 out of 30 MLB teams, and more valuable than all 30 NHL teams.
The NFL is essentially printing its own currency, and the profits only continue to rise.
Does some of that pie go to the players? Of course it does. Roughly 47 percent of the revenue is divvied up among all the players, while the owners take the rest.
But the average NFL career lasts 3.2 years. The average NFL player never cashes in with a guaranteed deal or millions of dollars in sponsorships. Of the 53 men who are fortunate enough to make a team’s final roster, not many of them live a lavish lifestyle depicted in “Ballers” or “Any Given Sunday.” And even fewer will make enough money in their playing days to carry them financially through the rest of their lives.
These are, mind you, the very people who make the NFL. Without the players, there are no games. And without the games, there aren’t hundreds of millions of dollars to be made annually by owners. There aren’t stadiums to be plastered with advertisements. And above all else, there aren’t lucrative television contracts.
And yet, when it comes time for these players to sign a second or third contract — aka the time when they can actually get paid the type of money that can set them up for the rest of their lives — the owners are more likely going to bid them adieu while welcoming in new, younger, cheaper players via the draft.
As the previously linked Business Insider post pointed out, 70 percent of the NFL is aged 22 to 27. The average NFL salary for players aged 22-27 is as low as the scale gets. For a player to actually earn life-changing money, he has to be the exceptional athlete among exceptional athletes. The guy who spent four years in college grinding it out on the offensive line before toiling three years on and off NFL practice squads is more often than not going to find himself unemployed at age 26, without a swollen bank account there to pad his landing. The same goes for the special teams linebacker or the fifth-string wideout.
And while the league and its owners try to say the right things publicly about their concern over players suffering brain trauma, the reality is … they don’t really care. Well, they don’t care in so much as they only care as much as it affects their bottom line. And as long as the profits keep rolling in, what is there to care about?
Of course, some owners might actually care about the health and well-being of their employees, but we don’t often hear from them. At best, most owners are complicit. At worst, owners are either Jerry Jones or Jim Irsay.
Here’s what Dr. Jerry had to say about concussions last week: “It’s absurd [to] say there’s a relationship [between] CTE and playing football. … We all know how medicine is. Medicine is evolving. I grew up being told that aspirin was not good. I’m told [now] that one a day is good for you.”
And here’s what Dr. Jim echoed a few days later: “You take an aspirin, I take an aspirin, it might give you extreme side effects of illness and your body … may reject it, where I would be fine. So there is so much we don’t know. … To try to tie football, like I said, to suicides or murders or what have you, I believe that is just so absurd as well and it is harmful to other diseases, harmful to things like … when you get into the use of steroids, when you get into substance abuse, you get into the illness of alcohol and addiction.”
And, interestingly enough, Irsay’s daughter has followed in her father’s pursuit of knowledge at Silver Spoon Medical School and expressed extreme sympathy for those suffering from serious brain injuries when she said this last January: “At the end of the day I think [these athletes] are adults and they’re getting paid large sums of money. …. A lot of these guys that are claiming they’re having these concussion issues, they have alcohol or drug problems that are just going to compound it.”
These are the people making millions upon millions thanks to the labor of the players.
CTE? Bah. Look at aspirin. Nobody knows anything!
Concussions? Meh. The guy’s probably a drunk anyway. And he’s making good money. And he could be lying about it.
That’s why a liability waiver doesn’t solve this problem. That’s why the country can’t stand by idly as the most powerful sports league in the world continues to take advantage of players who are too tough to see their own vulnerabilities.
It’s a system that’s corrupt, a system that has been corrupt, and a system that likely will always have shades of being corrupt. But it can be better.
For the NFL, that can start by actually acknowledging a problem. Right now, the NFL can’t even admit to its poor handling of brain trauma from 1996-2001 — a period when nobody in the country knew nearly enough to have properly handled concussions. The squirming by the league over the past week following the New York Times report on the NFL’s fudged concussion data and ties to Big Tobacco are telling for a number of reasons. Mainly, the league’s willingness to spend millions on lawyers to fight PR battles instead of actually compensating the men who gave their bodies to something as silly as a sport shows where the NFL’s priorities lie: continuing to expand profits.
That’s why there’s been so much football in London. That’s why there will be football in Mexico City. And that’s why, if the NFL has its way, there will be football in China. Do these global locations really want football? Not really. But you can bet the NFL wants these countries to want football, because if the NFL can become a global economic power with multiple continents contributing to the owners’ bank accounts, the rich men and women who run the league will become even more unfathomably rich.
The players? They may get a minor bump in pay, but comparatively, they’ll be making peanuts.
And, as evidenced by Case Keenum getting left to stumble his way into another sack after already being concussed last year, they won’t be protected. And, as evidenced by the offensively crass comments from the billionaire owners who profit immensely off their physical sacrifices, they won’t get any help with their long-term health needs.
Players are always going to want to play, and they should always be allowed to do so. But giving them that arena in a culture that treats them fairly, cares about their well-being, and compensates them properly should not be too idealistic a concept to become a reality.