American football is a great sport. It offers, requires, nurtures, and rewards speed, skill, strength, cunning, offensive and defensive strategic thinking, courage, judgment under pressure, competitive spirit, reliance on teamwork, a requirement for exquisite timing, and resolve. Football teaches a participant how to get up and get back at it after being knocked down again and again, a great life lesson. And football has the capacity to engender huge dedicated fan bases.
Unfortunately, as the supreme contact sport, it is also a collision sport and thrives on a degree of inherent violence. Thus, injuries are expected and common. Most heal, usually without any disability. Some do not.
Concussions are the talk of sports these days. Ex-NFLers are filing suits against the league saying it is clear that the league knew about the dangers of head trauma, knew them a long time ago but, did nothing. Parents in the U.S. and Canada are starting to pull their elementary and junior high kids out of tackle football and hockey leagues that permit body-checking. Even the President has talked about his own experience with concussions (mild he was quick to note!) and convened a high level summit at the White House of all the movers and shakers in the field to discuss the problem.
The NFL is so freaked out about the threat concussions pose to the long-term profitability of the sport that they are trying to calm worried moms with ad campaigns that tout the certification of coaches who teach the ‘safe’ way to play (good luck with that). And arguments are breaking out about whether there is too much emphasis on football and men’s hockey when wrestling, lacrosse, soccer, martial arts, and women’s basketball have their own problems with keeping player’s heads intact (kind of an odd form of anti-discrimination). Some sports experts are even bemoaning the fact that the emerging obsession with preventing, diagnosing and treating concussions is diverting too much attention and resources away from other serious health issues that athletes face including bullying, eating disorders, orthopedic injuries and the abuse of legal and illegal drugs.
Too often doctors, trainers and other health care professionals who work for professional sports teams are accountable only to their teams and, especially, team owners. To keep their jobs they have to keep coaches, general managers, fans and billionaire investors happy.
This situation has created an intolerable ethical mess in which athletes’ health is too often their lowest priority. It is time to fix that.
Concussions are giving professional football, hockey and other sports a huge headache these days. The implication is that the NFL, NHL and their doctors long knew that “getting your bell rung” was bad for an athlete’s brain but said nothing.
Now a group of former NFL players are suing the league claiming that they were given powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs to keep them on the field. They say no one ever warned them about the long-term dangers of addiction, horrible side-effects or playing injured while drugged to withstand pain.
The eight plaintiffs, led by 1985 Superbowl champions Richard Dent, Jim McMahon and Keith Van Horne, say the league “recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit.”
Team doctors and trainers “were handing out drugs like it was Halloween candy,” says the group’s attorney Steve Silverman. Among the drugs said to be given freely were Toradol, Percocet, Vicodin, Ambien, Prednisone and Lidocaine. The eight players estimate they were given “hundreds, if not thousands” of pills through the course of their careers.
None of this comes as a surprise to sports fans, especially those of a certain age, who remember the NFL, NHL, MLB, NASCAR, FIFA, pro cycling and NBA of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when doctors and trainers kept athletes going at any cost with any pill, salve, injection, bandage, device or inhaler they could get their hands on.
“Just win, baby” was the guiding ethical principle of the era and doctors and trainers put aside their oaths and codes to make sure stars played, their team won, the fans were happy and the owners renewed their contracts for another season.