Pain of the NFL

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Pain is elevated as something akin to a badge of courage among football players. Athletes who play more than one team sport say that the emotional bond among football players is tighter than among baseball or basketball teammates because of the pain factor. It is an arresting moment that brings an entire stadium to utter silence, when a player lies motionless on the field. Players on both teams kneel and pray that he will move a limb, that he will recover from the hit that may have paralyzed him.

The accepted interpretation of the violence of an NFL game is that the collisions would be equivalent to 25 to 35 car crashes every single game. Let's do the math, then, for Jim Otto, All-Pro Oakland Raider who played 308 NFL games. Otto played Center, meaning every play was an impact collision for him, so let's go with the 35 number, rather than 25. That would mean that Jim Otto endured 10,780 car crashes over his career--and that's not even considering four years of high school and four years of college bashing. If you think the number is an absurd exaggeration, you need only know that Otto has had 52 major surgeries, 12 knee and four shoulder replacements, and had a leg amputated on August 1. He played the 1968 Superbowl with broken fingers, a broken jaw, and a dislocated knee.

Otto may be the ultimate poster boy for injuries incurred on the gridiron, but similar stories abound. Curt Marsh, a former Raider who has had 30 surgeries, also had his leg amputated.

Hall-of-Fame Center for the Steelers, Mike Webster, lived a sad life of debilitating mental illness, all stemming from his on-field head injuries. Brent Boyd suffers brain damage today from the multiple concussions he experienced on the field for the Vikings in the '80's.

They sound much like war stories and, analogous to soldiers, these players and their families want a lifetime of medical care in return for their service to team, league, and fans. Yes, they sacrificed their bodies of their own free will. But they made the NFL into the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today and it seems to me they have every right to expect the NFL to take care of their broken bodies after retirement.

Only 317 retired NFL players, out of 10,000, are currently receiving a share of the $1.1 billion set aside for the disability pension fund. And there is an uprising of angry brothers now demanding a piece of the pie, even urging Congress to legally force changes. New Commissioner Roger Goodell has just mandated that if an individual is deemed disabled under Social Security guidelines, he should also be considered disabled by the NFL.

Just last week, the NFL announced they will treat concussions differently this season. A player knocked unconscious during a game will not return to that game the same day. You may ask, why in the world has it taken the league this long to find the common sense to deem that someone who has lost consciousness should not, within minutes of reviving, subject themselves to collisions equivalent of multiple car crashes? The answer is that all the systems in the NFL have been designed to keep the player on the field, at any cost. The NFL's own committee on brain injuries has to date found no evidence of any adverse effect of returning a formerly unconscious player to the same game. But, finally, the pressure on the NFL to better protect their men has prompted them to go against what their own slanted research tells them.

Ironically, what's really created this lack of care for the disabled in the NFL is the badge of courage mentality. The Jim Otto creed has been to suffer in silence. Tolerate pain. Don't complain. It has taken decades for family members and even the League itself to recognize the physical wreckage the game has foisted on its stoic soldiers. Now it's finally time to take care of the wounded.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad