I recently finished reading Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s excellent League of Denial, which tells the story of how the NFL has dealt with the concern that playing pro-football caused brain injuries that likely resulted in the deaths, some by suicide, of a number of retired NFL players. (Spoiler alert: the NFL dealt with it much like Big Tobacco dealt with the link between smoking and lung cancer, including co-opting academic researchers with big research grants). On January 14, Judge Anita Brody denied preliminary approval of a $765 million settlement of a consolidated lawsuit brought by former players and their families.
Although the NFL continues to claim that a causal link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) hasn’t been proven, notwithstanding that 25of 26 brains of deceased football players examined showed evidence of CTE, the League has taken steps to educate players about the dangers of concussion injuries and to reduce the number of players returning to the field after a possible concussion.
While these steps are important, changing the culture of football will take more than hanging a poster in the locker room. Football players are tough and, as League of Denial describes, toughness will sometimes be the difference between being naturally talented and playing football for a living. More generally, playing through pain and injury, sacrificing one’s body and (occasionally) soul for the greater glory of the team, is a large part of the appeal for sports fans. Kirk Gibson hitting a walk-off home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series with injuries to both legs. Kerri Strug completing a vault with a broken ankle in the 1996 Olympics, securing gold for the US Women’s team. But there is a certain egoism at work here too. The idea that your team can’t win without you. There may be times when this is true, as in Strug’s case. Could the Red Sox have won the World Series without David Ortiz? Maybe not. But did keeping Hanley Ramirez in the line-up with a fractured rib really improve the Dodger’s chances against the Cardinals in the National League Championship? Doubtful. So, yes, playing through injury is part and parcel of competing in elite sports. But playing through any injury in any game is not. There must be a sense of when the risk of permanent injury is too great an individual price to pay and it's time to let your teammates do the job. Being an athlete is risky, certainly more risky than being a law professor, and that’s ok. But that doesn’t mean that sports’ governing bodies, both professional and amateur, don’t have a social and moral responsibility to minimize those risks within the parameters of the game. But they can’t do it without fans also shifting their own attitudes that athletes are ‘soft’ if they don’t play through it.