The Fault in Our NFL Stars

By David Adamson

While channel-surfing the night before Super Bowl 52 early in February, I happened upon the movie “Concussion,” a biopic about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He’s the neuropathologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) while performing a post-mortem on the brain of a 50-year-old Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2002. For some reason, the movie made me remember Charlie Tolar.

David Adamson worked in high technology and health care. He’s the author of Walking the High Tech High Wire and The Wellness Club. He’s written hundreds of blogs on politics and fitness. Learn more about David…

In the hot summer of 1963, a few times a week I’d drive to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, to study football. The quiet campus might seem an unlikely place to do that being it was a tiny, academically oriented liberal arts school with a football program still running the antiquated Single-wing. However, that July it was the site of the American Football League’s Houston Oilers pre-season training camp.

The highlight of my education was to witness Charlie Tolar, the 5’6″, 210 lb. fullback, run the notorious Oklahoma Drill, the basic test of football cajones. A ball runner, behind a blocker, faces a defensive player waiting a few yards away. On a coach’s signal, the blocker tries to open a hole for the runner, while the defender tries to shed the block and tackle the runner. The players are confined in a narrow space between dummies so hard contact is guaranteed.

In those days, security and crowds weren’t issues as they are today, enabling me to get close to the action. At the time I was a 5’7”, 150 lb. high school football player. Tolar was one of my heroes. With teen naivety, I dreamed by doing enough calisthenics and drinking four egg milkshakes, I’d develop Tolar’s battle tank physique (it didn’t work).

Tolar was nick-named the Human Bowling Ball because of a strange quirk for an offensive back—often he didn’t try to elude tacklers. Instead, he would put his head down and run right at them. He used his head as a weapon.

Make sure you take the short poll at the end of this article.

Because Tolar ran so low to the ground in the Oklahoma Drill, when the taller tacklers got low to stop him, their plastic Ridell helmets would crack so loudly you would blink, then he’d sprint away. Other would-be tacklers tried to straighten him up with a forearm shiver to his face, only to find his helmet attacking their ribs, groin, or solar plexus. Again unstopped, Tolar would trot back with blood dripping from his nose onto his powder blue practice jersey.

Charlie Tolar

Back then, the only face protection worn by running backs was two bars to prevent their teeth from getting knocked out. Noses were expendable, as were most other body parts.

Tolar epitomized his generation of pro players (including my brother, another of my football heroes). Their game was more physical, untamed, and merciless.

Between then and now, the NFL game morphed from sport to spectacle, and the league into a wealthy corporate brand starring very elite athletes who compete in a game that is, as one sportswriter described, “regimented and stylized violence.”

Today’s NFL players are bigger, faster, and stronger due to year around training guided by state-of-the-art exercise and nutrition science. They enjoy more protection: faces shielded by cages or plexiglass; knees fortified with braces; ribs, kidneys, necks, hands, and elbows padded with the same advanced materials used by soldiers in combat.

Dr. Bennet Omalu

These players are too expensive to risk unnecessary injury. The average NFLer ’s career is already down to 3.3 years. The league has banned the most punishing old-school techniques like clotheslining, forearm shivers, low cut blocks, leg whips, blindsides, and crack backs that fractured ankles, knees, and sometimes necks in the good old days. And, no surprise, the Oklahoma Drill is near extinct at NFL most practices.

However, despite all these safeguards, as Dr. Omalu revealed, football remains 100-percent risky for anyone who plays it due to a thorny physics problem—there is no way to protect a player’s brain. Helmets only protect the skull. The brain is three pounds of tissue which is mainly water and has the consistency of jello. The incredible forces generated by NFL’s superb athletes in those breathtaking collisions ends up working against them. Although all their other highly conditioned body parts may be able to abruptly decelerate and safely absorb the shocks, the brain’s momentum is not slowed until it bounces against the inside of the skull. (To fully grasp what happens then, see this presentation by Eric Blackman of the University of Rochester.)

When Dr. Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, presented his troubling findings to the NFL, the league first tried to demonize him as an ignorant, foreign non-fan and have him ousted from the medical profession. However, as more neurologists, including some NFL team doctors, studied his evidence, they concurred.

So did the NFL Players Association. Players suspected something was going wrong before CTE had a name. Too many veterans, even young ones, were experiencing medical symptoms like headaches, dizziness, memory loss, anxiety, depression or, worse, exhibiting bizarre behaviors—spousal abuse, random outbursts of aggression, and suicide. (Worth noting: Dr. Omalu suspects OJ Simpson’s criminal behavior might be due to CTE.)

Reacting to the backlash from players (including a lawsuit), fans, and TV sponsors, the NFL has taken steps to reduce brain injuries. The NFL’s official website reports:

The NFL has made 47 rule changes since 2002 to protect players, improve practice methods, better educate players and personnel on concussions and strengthen the league’s medical protocols. The NFL deploys 29 medical professionals on the sidelines for each game. Working with the NFL Players Association, the league enforces a concussion protocol for players that has been instrumental in immediately identifying and diagnosing concussions and other head-related injuries.

A concussion protocol is better than nothing, but not much. Other than rest, there is no definitive medical treatment for a concussion.

Unfortunately, Dr. Omalu suspects repeated hits to the head, whether or not they result in a concussion, cause brain damage. There is no way to determine whether a player or veteran has CTE without microscopic examination of the brain post-mortem. It is to difficult to diagnosis in a living subject because CTE shares symptoms common to a host of other brain diseases. What is most insidious about CTE is that it seems to be a chronic, progressive disease. It can take years, even decades, to manifest itself.

For the NFL, CTE remains a brand-threatening morale and PR problem that just won’t go away. More and more parents, including NFL players, don’t want their kids to play football. Fans’ ardor for the game might cool knowing their entertainment might cause their heroes lose their minds.

Last year, University of Boston researchers examined 111 brains of deceased NFL players which had been donated by their families. A shocking 110 indicated CTE. That, of course, was a biased sample. Probably not every former NFL player has it, or if they do, will ever exhibit symptoms. As yet, there is no empirically quantified risk profile of whom, and how many, will develop it. But clearly playing football is a roll of the dice in high stakes game of brain roulette. Some players are lucky, others are not.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I sat before the TV to root for the underdog Eagles, concerned they had a big challenge to overcome. Superstar Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had suffered a concussion just a couple weeks before in the playoffs, had miraculously recovered. In compliance with the NFL’s concussion protocol, “independent neurological consultants” cleared him to play.

Artwork that accompanied the New York Daily News’ 2017 four-part series on CTE and the fate of football.

Early in the second quarter, Patriots receiver Brandon Cooks took a vicious hit to his head, leaving him sprawled motionless on the astroturf. As medical staff gathered around him, the TV network cut away for ads. Waiting for the game to resume, I Googled Charlie Tolar on my iPad to find out what became of him.

Turns out Charlie Tolar died of cancer in 2003 at age 65. When he wasn’t playing pro football, he worked for Red Adair, the famous Texan who traveled around the world with a crack team to extinguish and cap dangerous out of control oil well fires. Among the many remembrances of Tolar was this from a fan who fondly recalled seeing him:

“…hit helmet to helmet with a defender in a college game. Both busted their helmets, both went down hard. Charlie was up and back in the huddle as if nothing happened. They carried the other guy off the field.”

Among those who knew him personally, nobody hinted he had any post-football cognitive problems. I hope he was one of the lucky ones.

 

Learn more:

 

 

Turn Off the NFL

By Bear Gebhardt

When riding a tiger, one should have a plan for dismounting.”                                                                           – old Chinese proverb

Our minority president hopped aboard a tiger when he took on the NFL kneeling practice. I predict this just might be the issue that gets bigger and bigger until it pushes him out of the oval office. You heard it here first.

Bear Gebhardt is a writer who lives in Fort Collins, Colo. Learn more about him…

How paradoxical for a man who completely flaunts the long-established protocol for the highest office in the land to demand from his fellow millionaires that they follow established protocol!

In common with millions of other American men and women, I love football. As a kid, we boys—and occasionally girls—spent hours and hours playing the game in both front and back yards, in the parks and—a small minority of the time—on the regulated football field. In high school, as most guys, I was not good enough to be the starting quarterback, or even third-string string quarterback, guard or wide receiver. Indeed, I didn’t make the team. (We had 750 students in my graduating class.)

Nevertheless, even though I, and most other guys, were not stars, or even on the team, we loved the game. And as old geezers, most of us still watch it and talk about it and carry on as if it mattered. That said . . .

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

With the NFL Commissioner’s latest letter saying all players should stand during the National Anthem, it’s time, at least for me, to turn off the NFL. (Though I suspect I’m going to peek.)

The commissioner has revealed he has no backbone. He caved in and gave his lunch money to the schoolyard bully and suggests we all do the same. He can do it, but I, and you can bet your jock strap a whole bunch of the NFL players and coaches, are going to say no.

Don’t forget to take the short poll at the end of this article.

That’s why I suspect this issue isn’t going to go away with the commissioner’s letter suggesting everyone give up their lunch money.

I admit, as an NFL veteran myself, I was conflicted to begin with on this take a knee deal. (I’m a veteran because I sold hot dogs at the Denver Broncos games throughout high school and first years of college.)

Even before the knee deal, however, I had growing reservations about spending my time watching the NFL. I have good friends who haven’t watched football in years—just out of principle—not willing to eat the bread or go to the circuses sponsored by the ruling classes. (Yes, indeed, I have commie buddies).

And then last year a good friend stopped watching the NFL games out of deference and respect to those players who have suffered long-term damage not only from the concussions (a new study revealed  96 percent of former NFL players show brain damage) but also leg and arm and back and butt injuries which often make their later years almost insufferable.

In years past, a different good buddy, watching the “injury time out” for a player on the opposing team, used to quip, “I hope he’s feeling better right after the game,” e.g., after our team wins!  A good way to think about it, we thought at the time.

Now, seeing an “injury time out,” if we’re honest, we have to admit that the injury just suffered, leaving this player on his back on the field, such that we had time enough to cut to a Budweiser commercial, might lead that player to fifty more years of pain and disability.

The guys on the field know the dangers of their work. But they have honed their skills to a degree unfathomable to we high school and college players they long ago left behind.  We ordinary blokes have the greatest respect for not only these players’ natural talents but for thousands and thousands of hours they logged in disciplined training, both on and off the field.

So when one, and then two, then dozens and dozens of these men take a knee to bring necessary attention to the pressing issues of police brutality and institutionalized racism, we have to accept, and respect they know what they are doing.

I am of course a patriot and proud and grateful to be a citizen of the good ol’ USA. One of the things I love most about the USA is our freedom of speech, our freedom of conscience, our freedom from being forced to believe or act in certain ways. We have a history of this. Not always perfect, but nevertheless working in that direction. I’m proud to be an American.

But my basic allegiance, even before to the nation-state, is to humanity itself. Before I was an American, I was born a human being, born a citizen of the earth, with seven billion other citizens. All people, even before they are citizens of the state, come endowed with certain inherent rights.

Every human deserves respect, the right to say, in a non-violent way, what’s on his or her mind. The right to be treated fairly and openly under the law, regardless of skin color, religions conviction or athletic ability. These are not just American values. These are human values.

So when some NFL players make a brief, non-violent, creatively defiant gesture to bring attention to the fact that the nation is not living up to the ideals of justice and equality symbolized by the flag, I respect not only their Constitutional right to do that, but also their human right.

When the NFL commissioner took a knee and bowed to the school bully, handing him his lunch money, it made me sad. It also made me ready to finally give up football, at least until we get a new administration, in both the NFL and Washington.

I do think our Minority President waded into a swamp where the alligators outnumber the “protocol” guys. I suspect the Take a Knee biz will finally show him to be in a position way beyond his skills. He will not easily extricate himself from this—just watch—increasingly fiery issue.

Recent news on the kneeling issue:

Oct. 17, NFL.com: What you need to know from the Oct. 18 owners and players’ meeting.

Oct. 17, New York Times: Trump criticizes NFL for not penalizing anthem kneeing.