By Jared Max
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How would you react if you came home from work one evening and found your 9-year-old son smoking a cigarette?
Would you revoke his cellphone, Internet and TV privileges before, or after you drove him to football practice?
On your way to the field, would you tell your boy about former Vikings safety Orlando Thomas, who died Sunday from ALS at just 42 years old? Would you tell him why Thomas’ family may be entitled to receive what amounts to around one-eighth of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s annual salary — up to $5 million in legal compensation?
While your reaction to seeing little Johnny puffing on a stogie like a miniature Marlboro man would cause smoke to emanate from your ears, ask yourself why don’t you feel similarly about your offspring engaging in an activity that may very well lead to a shortened life?
While statistic-hungry sports fanatics love factoids and nuggets, I wonder if they digest these numbers: 1 in 6 Americans dies from heart disease; 1 in 7 Americans dies from cancer; 1 in 28 Americans dies from a stroke; 1 in 85 Americans dies in a land-vehicle accident;1 in 101,083 dies in a skydiving accident; 1 in 153,597 Americans dies in an earthquake; and fewer than 10 percent of lifelong smokers die from lung cancer.
However, nearly 1 in 3 retired NFL players develops long-term cognitive diseases and illnesses linked to brain trauma like dementia, Alzheimer’s, CTE, ALS and severe depression, which may cause suicide. Playing in the NFL may also lead to violence off the field.
Question: If the first football you bought your son had a warning label attached that read: “THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT PLAYING ORGANIZED TACKLE FOOTBALL IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH,” would you still tell your 9-year-old son to grab his helmet and pads and get in the car after you ripped the cigarette from his mouth?
Football and America go together like bars and smoke. Well, they used to. Not long ago, in fact. But, not anymore. Soon, though, they may be reunited — in the outlawed department. I know, it sounds sacrilegious.
The NFL is like a giant sausage fest. Football fans love eating sausage, but they don’t necessarily want to see how the sausage is made. Like the majority of American sports fans, my favorite league is the NFL. While I appreciate the sacrifice that thousands of men make to entertain me each fall and winter, I know it is their choice to play. I cannot expect this form of sport to be around forever.
As difficult as it may be to imagine Sunday afternoons without the National Football League, we must consider that until the late 1990s, smoking was still permitted on some U.S. domestic airliners. It was not until 1938 that a researcher at Johns Hopkins first reported that smokers did not live as long as non-smokers. Still, in 1944 the American Society for the Control of Cancer said “no definite evidence exists” that smoking causes lung cancer. It was not until 1966 that our federal government mandated cigarette packs contain warning labels from the surgeon general.
Not until the late 1990s was cigarette smoking banned on all U.S. domestic airliners. Today, the thought of somebody puffing away on a flight to Ft. Lauderdale seems unimaginable. Twenty years from now, I imagine that parents will think similarly about allowing their children to play organized tackle football.
After denying for years that there is a connection between football and neuro-cognitive conditions, the NFL admitted for the first time in 2009, “It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.”
Wait, so you’re saying that if my head gets smashed repeatedly by great force, I could become a vegetable? Noooooo. I don’t believe this.
The first cigarette pack warning labels in 1966 read: “Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health” It was not until 1970 that consumers were warned, “The surgeon general has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.” In 1985, we were introduced to an assortment of warnings to teach folks that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, possible complications of pregnancy, and that quitting smoking greatly reduces serious risks to health. In 1997, a cigarette manufacturer acknowledged for the first time that cigarettes cause cancer.
Still, even with undeniable facts implanted in our brains, we should not expect sweeping changes overnight. There are signs of enlightenment. After years of steady growth, there was a 10 percent decrease in participation in youth Pop Warner leagues between 2010-12.
As obvious as answers seem to some of life’s most important questions, often, they become riddles. How many roads must a man walk down before we can call him a man? I have no idea. I am still trying to figure out how many concussions an NFL player can absorb before his career is ended by the league, fearing future lawsuits.
In one breath, the league speaks of concern, publicizing its “concussion protocol” that forces players to pass a battery of tests before being allowed to return to full-contact play. In the other breath, though, the NFL remains silent — failing to connect its modern day warriors like Wes Welker to those of a decade ago like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson — two former All-Pros who committed suicide as a possible result of brain injuries suffered while playing.
You know those often-unwatchable, graphic anti-smoking TV ads? Maybe we need similar public service announcements that show the brains of former players after they’ve had self-inflicted bullets fired into their heads. Or, a former player mumbling what sounds like gibberish, asking his wife to give pain medication. Or, close-up images of brain scans detailing deterioration in former NFL players — compared to athletes of other sports. After all, this is the almighty and sacred NFL, where people glossed over domestic violence until they saw a hotel surveillance video of Ray Rice smashing his wife. Maybe it takes a bombarding media campaign that turns people off like those smoking ads.
Knowing what it knows about the dangerous sport, knowing the sizable figure it was ordered to pay in damages to former players, I wonder how close we are to the NFL making an executive decision to revoke its players’ ability to control their active status. I think of one of my lyrics from the Rush song “Freewill”: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. Is the NFL choosing to pay the cost of future legal settlements in exchange for allowing its players to choose their freewill?
In boxing, there is generally a three-knockdown rule which states if a fighter is knocked down three times in one three-minute round, the fight is over. This rule is not to protect the losing boxer’s ego, but rather the entire brain and surrounding body. Are NFL doctors prepared to acknowledge that three concussions in a span of 10 months qualifies a player like Welker as a high candidate for CTE, ALS, Parkinson’s, dementia, etc.? If so, might the NFL be forced to use executive power to protect itself, legally, telling a player he is no longer medically suited for the league — a kind way of calling him a financial liability? This is the crux of what may be the NFL’s most difficult matchup: Megamillion-dollar lawsuits versus Freewill.
Should a player like Welker become our poster boy for change — in hopes that his life has quality after his playing career? At what point might the NFL realize that it has the same responsibility as a ring referee — to stop a fight despite a bloodied, battered boxer’s wish to keep fighting? When will the NFL learn that it has to play the role of protector — as Apollo Creed’s trainer tried to do in Rocky IV, screaming “Throw the damn towel!” How many more life-altering concussions will be absorbed before the league sees the light? You know the answer, my friend. Bob Dylan told us nearly 50 years ago: it’s blowin’ in the wind … wide right.
As long as the NFL makes billions of dollars annually — rendering a $765-million payout marginal — the responsibility to rip the proverbial cigarette from a future football player’s mouth rests with the boy’s parents.
Follow Jared on Twitter at @Jared_Max
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