Forty years ago, as pro football blew past baseball in popularity, NFL players were more relatable. Franco Harris, the 1972 Rookie of the Year, used to hitchhike to practice. The 6’2”, 230-pound Harris was big for a running back of his time but had the rep of a … well, kind of a sissy, since he preferred running around tacklers to bowling them over. Sometimes he’d step out of bounds to avoid a head-crunching hit.
“I was into the art of running,” says Harris, “not running into.”
Maybe that’s why Harris, 62, is lucid today while so many others of his NFL generation suffer the aftereffects of countless collisions: not just busted joints and limbs but confusion, depression, aggression, maybe Parkinson’s and ALS, premature senility, death. They played at a time when nobody got “concussed.” You got your bell rung. You got dinged, gonged, smoked, nuked, blown up. You got your head handed to you. And if you were a real man you didn’t whine about it. (Any Steeler who whined got the team’s Bleeding Pussy award, a tampon.) You kept your mouth shut, got back on the field, and hunted somebody else’s head.
I’m younger than Harris but old enough to remember a proudly violent NFL. The Raider defensive backs George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, and Skip Thomas were nicknamed the Hit Man, the Assassin, and Dr. Death. I remember when Monday Night Football’s halftime highlights celebrated the week’s killer hits with wham-bam music, and when the cheap helmets of the ’70s cracked in combat, long before pregame animation showed two colliding helmets shattering to smithereens. Of course we’ve all evolved since then. Helmet-to-helmet hits are illegal today. Most of them, anyway. Today’s team doctors usually check concussed players before they go back in. And the NFL kicked off the current season with a $30 million donation to brain-injury science—enough to pay for a full four minutes of Super Bowl commercial time. We’re smarter about NFL violence these days, or at least more concussively correct.
Sometimes. During last week’s AFC Championship, a helmet-to-helmet hit shellacked New England’s Stevan Ridley, who fell flat as a Pacquiao and dropped the ball on what turned out to be the decisive game of the game—while announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms burbled on.
Out cold? Out of the game? Out of time to find out; they cut to commercial.
“We’ll be right back!”
Ridley came around, but it was one of those plays that make you think that watching pro football is like eating veal. If you thought too much about what it takes to provide the product, you’d run the other way.
Dozens of NFL plays every week leave you marveling at the resilience of the human head and neck. Of course it may be a decade or two before Ridley pays the toll for that play—or thousands of other hits he’s taken in two pro seasons, three years at LSU, plus years of playing on both sides of the ball in high school and before. Still it’s remarkable that there aren’t more Darryl Stingleys littering NFL turf. Stingley was the Patriots receiver Tatum leveled in 1978, leaving him paralyzed for life. But while Stingley remains the league’s only line-of-duty quadriplegic, there are hundreds if not thousands of John Mackeys.
Mackey was a Colts Hall of Famer, the first modern tight end and first president of the players’ union. Jack Kemp, the Bills quarterback and future congressman, once called him “the smartest man in the room.” But Mackey decayed as he aged. Seeing Colts receiver Marvin Harrison wearing his number 88 on TV, he yelled, “That’s not me!” He was 53. When his money ran out, his wife, Sylvia, sold their house and went back to work as a flight attendant. Shortly before he died in 2011, she shamed the NFL and NFLPA into funding the 88 Plan, named for Mackey’s old number. The fund pays up to $88,000 a year for nursing-home care for retired players with dementia or Alzheimer’s. As part of the deal, the league stipulated that there was no proof any ex-players’ dementia had anything to do with their football careers.
But NFL fans don’t have to worry about issues like that. The league does.
A certain stripe of talk-radio knucklehead likes to say it’s not flag football. Or touch football. Or ballet. “They signed up for a rough game.” True, if we’re talking broken bones, arthritic hands, crutches, wheelchairs, hip and knee replacements—even a leg replacement in the case of Oakland’s Hall of Fame center Jim Otto, who had his right leg amputated and replaced with a prosthetic stamped with the Raiders logo. But while players consciously risked life and limb, they never agreed to risk their identities. Their selves. Which is what Mackey risked and lost—Mackey and hundreds if not thousands more.
The NFL might be the most successful entertainment conglomerate in America today. No other sport, TV programming, or pop culture phenomenon comes close. Medical science is the only threat to the league’s success and business model, and as we learn exponentially more about what football does to players’ brains, the question looms: At what point does the human toll get too high? How much entertainment are the players’ futures worth?
We’ve reached a point at which even healthy Hall of Famers like Franco Harris get scared if they forget a phone number or lose their car keys. They can’t help thinking, Is this how it starts? Today Jim McMahon, the punky quarterback who led the Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX, gets lost in hotel hallways. He’s 53. We’ve reached a point at which the only heroic act left to some of our football heroes is to shoot themselves in the heart—as McMahon’s teammate Dave Duerson and Chargers linebacker Junior Seau did—so that neurologists can analyze their damaged brains. Is that your idea of a national pastime?
Last week, Seau’s family sued the league, adding another plaintiff to an ongoing legal attack on the NFL. Litigation and PR pressure may force the league to alter the rules to mitigate risks—eliminating kickoffs is one possibility. The game faces a threat any business has to take seriously—scarily unquantifiable liability exposure.
Meanwhile football forces families into quandaries like the one an ex-Raider and his wife faced two years ago: their son, a high-school star, lived and breathed football. His one dream was to land a college scholarship and follow his father into the NFL. Then he got his bell rung. Seventeen years old, a head-hammering hit, his brain goes blink and reboots. He felt fine except for a lingering headache. He said, “Dad, what should I do?”
They knew he’d never get a Division-I scholarship sitting on the sideline, waiting for a doctor to send him back in.
“Keep your mouth shut,” his dad said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Today that kid is playing college football.
Who’d support a game like that?
The answer, of course, is just about all of us. Me too, and here’s my mea culpernick: NFL football may be damned in the long term, but it’s still the most telegenic, accessibly complex, dramatic, and melodramatic spectacle of the TV age—our true national pastime.
This year, as usual, I considered making a statement, taking a stand—making the NFL and CBS settle for 164,999,999 viewers. But no, I’ve got some friends coming over to watch what promises to be a great show. Ray Lewis’s last game! Two brother coaches facing off in a Super Bowl for the first time! I want to see Colin Kaepernick run a 60-yard bootleg around Lewis. I want to see Jim Harbaugh turn purple and throttle a ref. I want to see the year’s most expensive commercials and the halftime show, America’s greatest multimedia train wreck. As pop philosopher Norman Vincent Peale liked to say, “If Jesus Christ were here today, he’d be at the Super Bowl.”
So praise the Lord and pass the rationalizations.
Niners by nine.