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American Groundlessness: Grappling With The NFL’s Concussion Crisis

The National Football League thought it killed the story. After its recent $765 million settlement with 4,500 retired players for damages related to head injury, the NFL thought it had finally put this concussion issue to bed, at least for an afternoon nap. Even more triumphant than this relatively meager payout was the NFL’s avoidance of any admitted wrongdoing or extended investigation. The players would receive small, though immediate financial relief, while the league would achieve its ultimate goal: peace and quiet. The threats of an out-and-out public health crisis would subside, and the (lucrative) games would go on.

Not so fast, said ESPN writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. In October, they released their own investigative report entitled League of Denial, which chronicled the NFL’s ongoing effort to suppress and delegitimize scientific research linking tackle football to brain injury. The Fainaru brothers also collaborated with PBS Frontline on a documentary by the same name. Airing on October 8th, the documentary purportedly reached far larger audiences than expected, in part due to ESPN’s controversial last-minute decision to withdraw from co-production.

The film takes viewers back to the earliest rumblings of a problem, as we meet the medical practitioners who first noticed abnormalities in the brains of deceased former players. Just as evidence piles up, the documentary shifts to a description of the overt and covert backlash from the NFL. At just about every turn, it appears the NFL took measures to stall or reject the relevant scientific findings. The film marks yet another retelling of this Industrial Age-old story: a self-interested business suppresses information that would both prompt labor disputes and alarm consumers. Of course, this particular iteration has the added urgency of a potential public health crisis among American youth, as millions of children play tackle football every year.

But, lurking just below the surface of this information suppression is a different, more Buddhist story. It’s the story of how fallen cultural icons expose our groundless experience of self, and how we react to the ensuing existential tremors. This story helps explain a perverse paradox: in the same period of time that research on the link between football and chronic brain injury has become more definitive, the NFL has become wildly more popular. The aforementioned misinformation campaign explains some of this strange trend, but not all of it. Why is it that instead of putting down our helmets and pads, we’ve strapped them on with ever more fervor?

The Fainaru brother’s film offers some answers, mostly embedded in the documentary’s haunting subtext. Its earliest images depict workers, though not the neglected NFL old-timers that we expect. Instead, grainy footage displays men in Pittsburgh steel mills yanking molten hot metal from large, hulking ovens. Overlaying this labor is the ecstatic radio broadcast from the final moments of a late-70’s Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl victory. In the background of that broadcast we hear the distant, eerie sound of applause: thousands and thousands of people going absolutely bonkers. A few of those thousands may have been the men we see on screen, who now toil amid smoke and flames.

“This is a tough town. People here are tough, tough minded,” says Pittsburgh sportswriter Stan Savran. “The way the Steelers played the game meshed perfectly with the people. That just fit perfectly into the way they saw their own lives, and what they had to be in order to survive.” The film proceeds to describe one of the most revered Steelers of all time, Mike Webster. A mercilessly physical offensive lineman, Webster typified that pugnacious Pittsburgh ethos. Then, at the age of 50 and only 11 years after his retirement, Webster lay dead in a local hospital. Heart disease was the likely cause of death, but an autopsy revealed the presence of a brain disorder called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. It was the first known case of an NFL player contracting the ailment.

In retrospect, Webster’s family describes behavioral symptoms that conform exactly to those expected from someone suffering with CTE. The first stage of the disorder involves rage and depression. “He took a knife and slashed all of his football pictures,” remembers Webster’s wife Pamela. “It wasn’t Mike.” The second stage involves forgetfulness and confusion. Webster’s son Colin tells the anecdote of a frigid afternoon when his dad sat immobile in the front seat of the family’s pick-up truck. “[My father] said the worst thing is that I’m getting to the point where I’m cold and I don’t realize that I can fix it by putting a jacket on,” Colin recalls. Whether Webster’s final cause of death was heart disease or CTE, his mind perished long before his body did.

Pamela Webster wonders how her husband must have felt during his downfall. “I think he was embarrassed. He was a leader on the team. He was Mike Webster. And then to be down to a place of poverty, a place where you know your brain can’t function to finish a sentence,” she says (italics added). Her unblinking account cuts deeply because it resonates not only with the shame felt by Webster, but the mix of guilt and embarrassment felt by his fans.

As a one-time NFL junkie, I have difficulty listening to such testimonials because they cast my past joy in terms of the players’ present misery. How can I hear of the sheer mental erosion that dismantled Mike Webster or Juniour Seau or any other legendary players? The seeds of their demise were sown in the same violent moments that spurred my exultant fandom. Their respective downfalls have forever sullied the giddy excitement and awe that accompanied countless gridiron Sundays of yore. One of my (and America’s) greatest sources of pleasure has been revealed to cause incontrovertible, debilitating harm.

For those of us familiar with Buddhism, this disappointment exemplifies groundlessness. Groundlessness occurs when an event or realization unhinges our hardened understanding of who we are. For Buddhists, the individuated self or ego is an illusion, which perpetually asserts that we are definitely like this and not at all like that. But this solidifying of the ego often results in feelings of fear or aggression. After all, if we see ourselves as totally and permanently awesome, then we have to constantly perform whatever ways we perceive that awesomeness to arise. And we put lots of pressure on ourselves to outshine the awesomeness of others.

Moments of groundlessness, then, are those changes that disturb our ossified conception of self. The Buddha described it this way:

…the uninstructed worldling, who is not a seer of the noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who is not a seer of superior personas and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form, his consciousness becomes preoccupied with the change of form. Agitation and constellation of mental states born of preoccupation with the change of form remain obsessing in the mind.

(In the Buddha’s Words, SN 22:7, III 15-18)

This account uncannily captures the tumultuous experience of Mike Webster and his family, as they witnessed—from within and without— the rapid descent of a former icon. How could they reconcile his one-time embodiment of toughness with the confusion and desperation that stood before them? In effect, the family grieved Webster’s passing long before his actual death. So, too, fans and Americans at large have had to reckon with the dissonance between football’s privileged social position and its devastating impact on players. Because the meritocratic success and uniquely masculine heroism of NFL players connects so deeply with our most cherished cultural narratives, we struggle to acknowledge the sport’s deleterious effects. Football is not just a game. It is a dominant cultural presence, due in large part to way it syncs up with the foundational stories we tell about ourselves and the world.

After all, this is hardly the first collective moral quandary regarding the long-term health of football players. For years, fans have wrestled with the plight of former players wracked with debilitating physical injuries. Many former players suffer from severe pain, relying on and sometimes developing addiction to powerful pain-killers. Other players—due often to worn out knee joints—lose mobility altogether, resulting in de facto house arrest. Though the vast majority of NFL players never taste the sweet nectar of fame or stardom, we usually dismiss their disability as the unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise glamorous and well-compensated profession.

What distinguishes the concussion crisis, however, is its hidden nature. A major reason why we do not express tremendous sympathy for physically ailing players is that we view such problems as the predictable outcome of a violent sport. Therefore, we safely assume that players know of the possibility for such long-term disability, yet choose to pursue the sport anyway. If they’d rather not risk such problems, we think to ourselves, then they can choose another line of work. Such is not the case, though, for the invisible trauma of head injury. Hence the outrage and legal consequences in response to the NFL’s suppression of information about football-related brain injury, which effectively bypasses the self-determination of the players.

I would argue that there is a second and even more vital distinguishing characteristic of the concussion crisis: the heart-wrenching personal downfall of those afflicted. A former player suffering from chronic pain in his knees and back will likely live out his elderly years in constant, sometimes acute discomfort. Yet his agony is not visible. If he accepts an award at the NFL Hall of Fame or appears on a local radio broadcast, nothing seems amiss. He will eek out his final years, die, and have is triumphs recounted on the New York Times Obituary page.

Contrast that narrative with what happened on the morning of May 2nd, 2012. Megan Noderer returned home to find her on-again, off-again boyfriend shot dead from a wound to the chest. Her boyfriend was none other than former-San Diego Chargers star linebacker Junior Seau. Police would later conclude that Seau had committed suicide, apparently aiming for the heart in order to preserve his brain for scientific research. The entire city of San Diego was in denial. One of its greatest sports icons ever, the earner of hundreds of millions of dollars, the owner of an eponymous gourmet restaurant, had…killed himself? “I’m aware that there is a segment of folks out there that don’t want to believe that Junior took his own life,” said Oceanside Police Lt. Joe Young, “But the bottom line is there’s nothing to indicate anything other than suicide.” This man, once the very symbol of gladiatorial toughness, had suddenly given in. Just like that.

If we try to make sense of news like the tragic death of Junior Seau, then we must reorient the story we tell ourselves about football players, manhood, and will power. No longer can we unconditionally venerate physical prowess or violent triumph. In his work The World is Made of Stories, Buddhist teacher and scholar David Loy wrote, “…Stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible. Without stories there is no way to engage with the world because there is no world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.” If we look closely at the fallen men of football, we find deep psychological trauma, not dissimilar from that found in War Veterans. Yet our culture obsesses over spectacles of violence, and narratives of conquer. We marvel at this glossy veneer, while the athletes, soldiers, workers, prisoners, —even our very selves—suffer the unseen consequences.

Sure, we can point the finger at the NFL for its indefensible misinformation campaign. But I wonder—even if the league had not obscured our vision—would we even have been willing to look?

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