A couple of weeks ago PBS: Frontline released a documentary entitled League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis that chronicled the controversy surrounding concussion research and its potential impact on the game of football. The documentary exposed the NFL’s decade long negligence around concussions and put into question the safety of a billion dollar industry. The NFL has spent millions on trying to reduce the impact of this on the general public and spent hundreds of millions on lawsuits from former players wanting compensation for damages suffered. Amidst the off the field firestorm however, the actual game of football continued without a hitch. Outside of a couple of tweets from current players questioning the integrity of the NFL brass there seemed to be little interest in the findings from former or current players. What we have seen and heard is that even if the head trauma suffered results in long term damage for players they are willing to take the risk.
This shouldn’t surprise you if you have ever been an athlete because one of the early lessons learned in sports is to tune out anything that could hinder your ability to perform. I wrote about this on an entry called “Superman”, The further up the competitive stream you go the more you will find individuals who are willing to do almost whatever it takes to tune out their fears. If they paid attention to the risks they would never be able to reach the heights needed. Some players are more aware of this than others, but all players must tell themselves that their worst fears (whatever it may be) won’t happen. This is how an athlete survives the abuse of a sport…at any level.
Do athletes cognitively understand there might be consequences to playing? Yes. Will that stop them from playing? No. If it could have it would have stopped them a long time ago when their bodies were asked, for the first time, to perform in ways that brought them close to the fragileness of their humanity. Similar to a soldier in war, anything that keeps an athlete from completing their mission must be sacrificed…or conditioned out. So whether we are talking about head injuries, career-ending knee injuries, neck injuries, or even death, rest assured that an athlete will rarely if ever heed these warnings of danger. To do so they will have to engage in a much more difficult and grievous war against the voices of influence that have told them to numb and ignore their pain. They will have to eventually question why nobody intervened on their behalf the first time they had a concussion and were told to get back on the field. They will have to question why those who were entrusted to protect them from harm did not speak up against abuse at the hands of a trainer or coach. People learn to question because they have been allowed to. People have freedom to say no as adults because they had the freedom to say no as a child. To expect a player to quit playing for safety reasons is ridiculous in this context. My question is however, what responsibility do those in power (parents, teachers, coaches, organizations) have to these players who have been mentally conditioned to ignore what will later impact them?
I came across a commentary of a grandfather who had watched the troubling documentary on football and concussions and his response was telling in this regard. “I love my grandchildren and all four of them play football. I am really upset and worried that if I don’t say something to their parents, they’ll suffer.” This response is quite interesting is it not? It is almost like there is something in the heart of this man that is causing him to question his desire to speak up and protect his grandchildren. I have to wonder why. Why would he struggle to name this? What forces are against him? It seems that whatever they are, they must also be competing at the heart of a league that has tried to ignore this issue for decades. Sadly, this silence marks the lives of many athletes very early on. The people who have power and responsibility to protect life keep silent at the hands of unknown forces for some known or unknown reason.
Simultaneously, what is confusing about advocating for player health is that I would imagine very few athletes appreciate these voices of protection now that they are grown. The negative responses by players to new rules and regulations around safety seems to indicate this quite well. Whenever there is a safety concern addressed by the league and reflected in the rules you end up hearing more frustration from players than appreciation. Why would someone react negatively to something or someone trying to protect their health? What could be worse than the devastating effects of a degenerative brain disease? There is obviously something also in the heart of many athletes that is at war and causing them to silence those advocating for their physical health.
A professor of mine once said “mental pain is always worse than physical pain.” There is something in this that opens a window into the lives of athletes and the rest of humanity. I would argue that there is something much more painful about losing a sense of who we are than there is about suffering physical harm. These defining characteristics hold so much power because they often name our worth. People will do whatever it takes to hold onto what gives them worth. If being an athlete is the defining characteristic of your life, any event or reality that calls this identity into question will be countered with every bit of energy available. Athletes don’t risk their lives and health for a game…they risk it because they believe being an athlete is what makes them worthy to be loved.
There is a huge bind here. If one chooses to pursue competitive athletics they will be asked with each increasing level of competition to numb and disavow parts of themselves meant to thrive and speak. They will have to be willing to sacrifice their mental and physical health for the god of athletic success. It seems that this is the cost required to make it in sports, and the lessons learned in these trenches will keep you alive on the battlefield. In a strange turn of events, it is the abuse and trauma that makes an athlete able to withstand the conditions on an unforgiving business. And it is their longing for worth and purpose that keeps them from saying that they would have it any other way.