Do they not realize that their brains are rotting and their bodies are crumbling? Do they not know, deep down, that the game isn’t football but a tragic neurological crapshoot, a death spiral into a graveyard of depression, dementia, suicide?
It’s becoming increasingly difficult spinning fun tales about the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers this week when, truth be told, Super Bowl 50 really should be canceled and the NFL should fade to black until it stops lying about concussions.
With the news that Ken Stabler is the latest deceased player to have suffered from the brain disease CTE, what once was an issue and then a crisis has advanced to a state of emergency. We’re left to wonder if every pro football player, beyond those merely kicking the balls, will be dealing with the “rattling” noises that the legendary “Snake” was hearing in his skull during his final years. There is no end to the relentless dirge of head trauma fallout, which recently added Frank Gifford and 27-year-old Tyler Sash to a CTE list that officially includes about 120 players — and unofficially includes thousands, and most of the dozens who will participate Sunday. Researchers now believe there’s a 9-in-10 chance that every NFL player, present and past, has or will develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his lifetime.
“We’ve now found CTE in former NFL players who played every position except kicker,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the Boston University neurology professor dedicated to the grisly football autopsies.
The Super Bowl media corps reacted to the news grimly but numbly, no longer surprised to hear about any CTE case. If we were shocked by the triple suicides a few years ago — Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters — and the horror stories of Mike Webster and so many others, any new findings only serve to validate our alarm — and inflame our disgust that the NFL, a $14-billion-a-year behemoth, continues to soft-pedal the concussion crisis as if it’s a bygone flu season.
As we saw Wednesday afternoon at media headquarters, where the league’s security bosses said there will be “no credible threat” at Levi’s Stadium for a game still three days away, Roger Goodell and his foot soldiers continue to voice positives about health and safety. Last week, the NFL had the gall to convey progress in a report that players sustained 271 concussions in regular-season and preseason games in 2015 — an increase of 58.3 percent from the 2014 regular season. The rationale: From more awareness about head injuries came more self-reporting, better diagnosis and less resistance in playing through possible concussions.
“We’re seeing unprecedented levels of players reporting signs and signals of concussions,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy.
What he’s missing, with an arrogant convenience that reflects Goodell’s era as commissioner, is that more reporting exposes only that more players are suffering more concussions than we thought. Miller shouldn’t even try sugarcoating a 58 percent hike. He not only insults our intelligence as football observers, fans and consumers, but he’s trying to brainwash the players into thinking the landscape is safer. That’s the same conspiracy that landed the Goodell regime in trouble years ago, forcing the league to confront a class-action lawsuit filed by former players and settle for considerably less financial damages than warranted.
Of course, hours after the Stabler/CTE story was reported by the New York Times, the league’s public-relations buffers sprung into action and scheduled a press conference today: “NFL HEALTH AND SAFETY UPDATE & INTERACTIVE HEAD HEALTH TECHNOLOGY SHOWCASE.” Miller will be there, joined by the league’s chief medical advisor, Betsy Nabel, and a member of the league’s head, neck and spine committee, Mitch Berger. And they will “provide an update on the league’s health and safety efforts, followed by an interactive showcase of innovations designed to advance concussion diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.”
Question: Why wasn’t this session scheduled far in advance?
Always reactionary, never proactive or preemptive, Goodell’s NFL never will get it. And the players know it — and loathe it.
“I don’t believe the NFL has your best interest in mind,” said Baltimore Ravens veteran Steve Smith, after an Associated Press survey indicated that most players don’t trust league teams with their health and safety.
“You’ve got to look after yourself because, really, nobody else will,” Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “I just hope the game doesn’t one day take away a big part of me.”
In the same interview area, Peyton Manning was told of the CTE diagnosis for Stabler. “It’s the first I’ve heard that on Ken Stabler,” he said somberly, which led to an obvious followup:
As a quarterback who has been hit a million times, underwent four neck surgeries and a spinal fusion procedure and has been dealing with foot, ankle and rib injuries the last few seasons, isn’t Manning concerned about his own long-term quality of life? That’s when he broke some news: He’s going to need hip replacement surgery at some point, which further cements Super Bowl 50 as his career swan song.
“Certainly when you have injuries, when you have surgeries, the doctor sometimes will mention to you, whether you ask him or not, ‘Hey you are probably heading for a hip replacement at a certain time in your life,’ ” Manning related. “I said ‘Doc, I didn’t ask you if I was going to have a hip replacement. I didn’t need to know that right here at age 37, but thanks for sharing. I look forward to that day when I am 52 and have a hip replacement.’
“Am I going to have some potential neck procedures down the road? I don’t know the answer to that. The hip part was true. I feel like I do a lot of things to try to ‘prehab’ if you will. Preventive type of stretching. I wear a posture shirt and different things like that. As those things come along later in life for me, I will try to handle them and try to have a good plan when those are around.”
Sometimes, there can be no good plan. The disease attacks the brain quicker than a unblocked pass-rusher. Yet the NFL continues to tell us nothing is wrong when something has been very wrong for a long time. Too many people are doing the devil’s work here, such as ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, the former NFL head coach and defensive back. Appearing at a Palo Alto conference called, “The Future of Football: From Pee Wee to Pro,” Edwards made reckless comments typical of an old-school mentality that must be purged from serious discourse.
“This is a combative sport, a sport of contact. We can all sit here and be naive and think we don’t like collisions — we do. This is why they build these arenas,” shouted Edwards, in his inimitable style. “We can sit here and say we don’t want to see that; we do want to see that. We have a society that likes it when people hit each other.”
But rather than decry such thinking as barbaric, Edwards veered into another direction: He said kids must be taught the proper way to tackle. While that is true, what we needed from Herm, as a former player himself, was a smarter take.
“It’s a much safer game today,” he said.
That is a lie, yet another in a propagandist series of lies. We’d ask 27-year-old Tyler Sash to back us up about CTE, but he’s no longer with us.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.