By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There are certain things about the NFL that are understood but unstated. Players play hurt. Trainers don’t always have the players’ best interests in mind. Many ailments — physical or otherwise — are intentionally ignored.
While this has been understood as the way of life in the NFL, it’s not something that’s been carefully articulated by a modern-day superstar with a large, captive audience.
Calvin Johnson, who retired at age 30 in part to preserve his body, spoke to ESPN’s “E:60” about what life in the NFL is really like. And his words no doubt immediately sent the folks inside the offices of 345 Park Avenue into a bit of a frenzy.
Despite never officially being listed on any injury report for a concussion during his career, Johnson said he sustained plenty of them.
“Yeah, I had a couple. I had some,” Johnson said. “It’s so funny, early in my career, they were really, if you talked about a concussion, you know, everybody would try to hush you up real quick, because the team would get in trouble, you know, if they didn’t diagnose a concussion that you might have gotten during a game.
“It’s clear to see when you get a concussion, man,” he continued. “In football, concussions happen, if not on every play, then they happen like every other, every third play, you know. With all the helmet contact, guys hitting the ground, heads hitting the ground. It’s simply when your brain touches your skull from the movement or the inertia, man. It’s simple to get a concussion, so I don’t know how many I’ve had over my career, you know, but I’ve definitely had my fair share.”
Asked if he had to guess the number of concussions he sustained playing football, Johnson said, “I couldn’t.”
Johnson discussed team trainers. He said he liked many of them personally, but it was never a mystery that the trainers were employed by the team, not the players.
“They want to see you do good. But at the same time, they work for the team, you know,” Johnson said. “They’re trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good. So if it’s not gonna make the team look good, or if you’re not gonna be on the field, then they’re trying to do whatever they can to make that happen.”
Related to that aspect of the league, Johnson said team doctors are all too willing to hand out prescription painkillers “like candy.”
“I guess my first half of my career before they really, you know, before they were like started looking over the whole industry, or the whole NFL, the doctors, the team doctors and trainers they were giving them out like candy, you know?” Johnson told ESPN. “If you were hurting, then you could get ’em, you know. It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, ‘My ankle hurt,’ you know. ‘I need, I need it. I can’t, I can’t play without it,’ or something like that. It was simple. That’s how easy it was to get ’em, you know. So if you were dependent on ’em, they were readily available.”
The full interview will air Thursday night at 10 p.m., but even in those excerpts alone, the NFL must be frightened.
The league, of course, is fighting a perpetual PR battle in the hope of displaying care and compassion for the health and safety of its players. Commissioner Roger Goodell utters the words “player safety” almost as often as he barks “integrity,” which is evidence of just how highly the league prioritizes that message.
Yet the public comments don’t exactly mesh with reality.
The NFL added spotters whose job duties solely involved detecting signs of concussed players on the field; Case Keenum was nearly left for dead in the center of an NFL game. His head coach said he was “in game management mode” and thus didn’t notice his quarterback hobbling around the field. The spotter must have been distracted by a phone call or a shiny object. In the end, the NFL issued no punishment to the Rams for their mishandling of the issue.
But the league, according to itself, is dedicated to “player safety.”
The NFL, being a major money-maker in a capitalist society, is always looking to increase revenue. And the easiest way to do that is to add more games on more nights. Though the league’s quest for the 18-game schedule has cooled, there is still Thursday Night Football every week, despite players’ insistence that playing two games in five days is simply not good for the human body. The league has also recently discussed adding a game to every team’s schedule, and making that extra contest an international game.
The other area that Goodell and the league like to point at is the improved rules that better protect players’ heads. These rules, however, only impact quarterbacks and receivers. This “focus” and “care” about players’ brains doesn’t extend to ball carriers …
… or even receivers who have taken just a step or two with the ball in their hand and their back to the defense:
Even a targeted helmet-to-helmet hit that has nothing to do with the play or the ball carrier isn’t enough to warrant getting thrown out of a game in today’s NFL.
Sorry about your brain — will 15 yards help?
And those are just the plays that take place near the football. Linemen and linebackers? Forget about it. Smash away; after all, very few people are even watching you, so your health and safety won’t get the league in trouble.
Again, the league cares deeply about “player safety.”
While the examples throughout the years have been obvious, it’s rare for someone of Calvin Johnson’s stature to state everything so plainly.
It’s certainly a conundrum for the NFL, which has in the past exhibited its power by not-at-all subtly encouraging ESPN to quickly halt production on an all-too-real look behind the curtain of the league in the fictional TV drama “Playmakers.” Nearly a decade later, the NFL reminded its major partner in ESPN that attaching the network’s name to the “League Of Denial” documentary would be a very bad idea. ESPN abandoned the project. And in recent months, the NFL has been called out by a congressional investigation (as well as ESPN “OTL” reports) for trying to pull too many strings in a research project designed to try to detect CTE in living human brains.
In all of those circumstances, the league still has some semblance of control over the situation. The NFL can issue statements, refute claims that the league wants to refute, demand retractions from highly regarded news organizations, and wield the mighty power of the shield to influence desired change. And certainly, any active player (except for James Harrison, who is downright scary) knows he can only tiptoe around certain subjects, so as to not feel the wrath of Goodell’s disciplinary hammer.
But if a 30-year-old man is keeping it entirely real while discussing intentionally overlooked concussions as well as overprescribed painkiller medication, the league may have but very few options to try to muzzle the retired player.
If the NFL, its commissioner, and its corporate headquarters value anything, it’s control. With Calvin Johnson, they have none. You can bet there’s a huddle taking place in Manhattan right now full of folks hoping that Johnson won’t be talking so freely beyond the interview that’s already been recorded.