The darker side of the NFL

The full effects of the brutal tackles and head-on collisions in American football have not been given much recognition. Alexandra Finnigan reports.

Having spent my third year on an Erasmus exchange in an American university in California, I was naturally exposed to the phenomenon of American football. 
At first, I thought the game rather dull with its numerous breaks and pauses. I compared the American footballers to our brave rugby players who bare the cold in shorts and shirts rather than head-to-toe padding and protection.  It was only when I was watching a California home game and witnessed the Berkeley tailback (Jahvid Best) being flipped over a defender and fall five feet to land on the back of his head that I realized how dangerous football could be. 
American football is a collision sport. A defensive player must tackle an offensive player using some form of physical contact, whether that is knocking or pulling him down.  Despite the obvious rules and guidelines that go along with defensive play, concussions are commonplace and in the years 2000-2005, 28 football players died from direct football injuries and a further 68 died indirectly from “non-physical” dangers such as dehydration.
In 1981, the United States President Ronald Reagan commented on the contact aspect of the sport: “[Football] is the last thing left in civilization where men can literally fling themselves bodily at one another in combat and not be at war.”  Despite the fact that the average life expectancy of a footballer is 55 years (20 years less than a member of the general public) the National Football League, or NFL, is a $7 billion-a-year enterprise and  football is the most followed and most prosperous sport in the US.
Over 100 million people worldwide watch the Super Bowl and many religiously follow one of the thirty-two teams that compete at NFL standard.  This sport is a money making business and terrifyingly, the effects of the physical brutality of the sport are hushed up.
The head-on tackles that are commonplace in American football are becoming more dangerous as players grow in strength, speed and weight.  Thirty years ago, the average offensive lineman would weigh between 270-280 pounds.  In 2010, it would be nearly impossible to find a first-class blocker up front who weighs less than 300 pounds.
The chronic head injuries are just one of many serious physical issues connected with this sport.  Frequent concussions have been proved to cause permanent brain damage and in some cases, dementia.  Kevin Guskiewicz, chairman of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina has performed tests on more than 2,000 former NFL players and has published his results which state that there is a direct correlation between a player’s concussion history and later-in-life clinical depression, early-onset dementia and cognitive impairment.
In 2006, former Philadelphia Eagles star Andre Waters shot himself and it was later held that his suicide came about as a result of depression which, according to experts, was brought on by brain damage that he had sustained whilst playing in the NFL. It was reported that the 44 year old had the brain tissue of an 85 year old man.
Experts say that one of the most frustrating aspects of concussions in football is the silence surrounding them. Football is connected with a “play with pain” mentality which discourages players of all standards and ages from speaking out about their barely visible head injuries to coaches or team doctors. Players often choose not to disclose their injuries as doctors on the payroll of professional teams have a conflict of interest in deciding whether or not to return a player to the field. Speaking up about a head injury could potentially hurt a player’s contract and in a business where athletes are used like marketable beef cattle, deemed disposable and worthless if they cannot play, it is better to keep quiet. 
In a 2007 interview Pete Kendall, a former Jets lineman queried whether important decisions should in fact be made by team-employed doctors.  He stated, “The doctor who is supposed to be looking out for you is also the same guy who may put you into a game that the team has to win.  You’re mixing business with medicine.”
Players should feel comfortable and secure enough to know when to take themselves out of a game if they have suffered a concussion. However the macho element that epitomizes American football means that wounded players are urged to toughen up and stay on the field despite serious risk of long-term injury. In The Dark Side of the Game, Tim Green, a former defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons speaks up about the pathos, the horror and the abuses that go on in football.  He describes the gruelling training caps and the lengths that some players go to, to get out of them.  He mentions the violent players and the team doctors who put injured players back in the game telling them, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” 
With the advancement of sport technology, helmets and protection are continuously improving and some claim that technology will someday render sports completely safe.  But what’s the point? For most serious athletes, sport is about pushing performance and physical endurance to the limit. If the offensive player is wearing a technologically safer helmet, this means you can tackle him twice as hard. If you up the protection, you up the violence. As Frank Gifford, a Hall of Fame former American football player said, “Pro football is like nuclear warfare.  There are no winners, only survivors.”