March 13, 2018
The Deadly Influence of a Negligent League
In 2012, a 25-year-old National Football League linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before committing suicide, leaving his infant daughter without parents. A year later, it was discovered that Belcher suffered from a degenerative brain disease that’s shockingly common among professional football players (Delsohn). Kyle Van Winkle, a new father and football fan, died outside of Arrowhead Stadium in 2013 after being assaulted by tailgaters (Babb, Rich). On the evening of the Philadelphia Eagle’s Super Bowl victory, celebratory riots wreaked havoc on the streets of Philadelphia, with people looting stores and breaking public property (Fedschun, Calicchio). None of these events are unique, and though they took place over the course of several years, they all share a common thread: the negligence of the National Football League.
The National Football League has become a paramount fixture in modern American culture. In 2015, the National Football League’s championship game, known as the Super Bowl, averaged 114.4 million viewers, making it the most watched broadcast in United States history (Pallotta). The NFL’s audience is immensely dedicated, with many Americans following a ritualistic routine on Sundays during football season. We gather with friends and family to eat our preferred grub (likely from a sponsor of the NFL) and watch the game while donning official merchandise in the name of team spirit. This support empowers the NFL, but the League has proven that it is not worthy of such power. The NFL has been negligent in exercising its influence over its audience, failing to ensure the safety of football lovers, fans and players alike, and this negligence has led to destruction and death.
Concussions and chronic trauma encephalopathy have made themselves known as the largest and deadliest threat to football players. Chronic trauma encephalopathy, commonly referred to as CTE, is a brain disease caused by concussions that has no existing treatment and can only be diagnosed postmortem. The Concussion Legacy Foundation, a group dedicated to raising awareness and researching CTE, defines the disease and some of its affects:
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. …Some common changes seen include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.
The Foundation runs a brain bank where professionals like the director, Dr. Ann McKee, study donated brains in search of information on CTE. Through this process, Dr. McKee examined 111 brains of former NFL players. It was determined that 110—all but one—of the subjects had CTE. In many instances of NFL players committing violent crimes or suicide, a post-mortem examination of their brain results in the discovery of CTE, such as with Jovan Belcher. As previously mentioned, in 2012, 25-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Belcher murdered his girlfriend, the mother of his 3-month-old daughter, before killing himself. When the family filed a suit against the NFL a year later, his body was exhumed and found to have signs of CTE (Delsohn). But even with prominent cases such as Belcher’s being reported, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell disagrees. When asked about player safety in regards to concussions and CTE in 2017, Goodell retorted that the average NFL player lives five years longer than others (Barrabi). Goodell didn’t offer a source for his information, nor did he clarify with whom the lifespans were being compared.
The NFL’s approach to concussions and related issues, such as CTE, negatively affects our local community as well. In 2016, KHOU reported on high school football player from the Woodlands, Grant Milton, who suffered from a brain injury that required the removal of part of his brain. Flippant remarks like those from Gooddell, the face of the most influential organization in American football, downplay the dangers of the sport and hinder progress towards making it a safer sport for players. Research like Dr. McKee’s clearly indicates that serious football players are at risk of developing CTE, but the NFL ignores this fact. Acknowledging the connection would open the door for lawsuits from players, both former and current, as well as their families, such as in the case of Jovan Belcher. Even if a NFL player does in fact live five years longer than an unknown average, those extra years are likely filled with health issues like dementia. The lack of respect for such a serious issue implies that the organization values money and reputation above the long-term quality of life of its players.
The life-threatening action isn’t restrained to the field either. In 2016, Joe Bauer took his wife to the M&T Band Stadium in Baltimore to support the Ravens. Joe got into an argument with a fan of the opposing team, the Raiders, which escalated, resulting in the Raider’s fan punching Bauer. Bauer fell and hit his head, causing a serious brain injury that threatened his life. While the NFL has implemented tools to help ensure the safety of fans in the stadiums, including an anonymous text message line to report inappropriate behavior, there’s violence within parking lots as well that they have failed to effectively address. One man, Kyle Van Winkle, died in 2013 after being assaulted by several men in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot. When others went to go look for help during the assault, they could not find any officials. The NFL claimed that there were almost 500 arrests in the parking lots of stadiums in 2015 alone, yet in the year of Van Winkle’s death, security was nowhere to be found (Babb, Rich).
The NFL is aware the issue of fan violence at its venues, but have only tried to fix it with retroactive methods, such as texting hotlines. Current employees for the security department do not make public statements about it, despite former employees voicing concerns about the fan temperament in stadiums and parking lots. People who go to stadiums instead of simply watching at home bring in a lot of revenue—they pay for tickets, parking, food, drinks, and often merchandise. Releasing a public statement risks alienating rowdy, passionate fans like those at the Arrowhead Stadium in 2016, and that is not a financial risk the NFL is willing to take. When someone purchases a ticket for a NFL game though, they likely don’t know just how dangerous the crowd may get, and they assume security will be there to protect them if things do get a bit out of hand. The League and the individual teams continue to deny responsibility for these events, but they have also failed to inform their audience of the risks of attending a game, ultimately disregarding their safety.
In February of 2018, Philadelphia streets were flooded with fans celebrating the victory of the city’s team, the Philadelphia Eagles, at the Super Bowl. During the celebrations on the streets, people looted stores and even flipped over a car. Fans tore down light poles, jumped onto awnings, and climbed onto buildings. Luckily, only three arrests were reported with no fatalities, only leaving behind a giant mess with no estimate of the monetary value of damage (Fedschun, Calicchio). This was not the first celebratory riot of this nature. Some years, riots are prevented by police intervention, with hundreds of officers monitoring streets in the cities of the two teams that make it to the big game. Seattle was not so fortunate in 2014, when riots following the Super Bowl resulted in 25,000 dollars of damage to a historic building, a glass pergola. As seventeen panes worth of glass covered the ground surrounding the pergola, people burned furniture in intersections and threw bottles at police officers. Six people were arrested, a surprisingly small number compared to the thousands of rioters that rampaged that night (Dejohn).
Violent trends noticed in the stadiums can affect not only the surrounding communities, but the communities of the participating teams’ origin as well, even when they are miles apart—the 2018 Super Bowl took place in Minneapolis, not Philadelphia. The police in these communities have to prepare for events that may not even occur, potentially directing resources away from emergencies. The NFL does not discourage these destructive celebrations, nor does it dedicate any of its coveted Super Bowl commercial time to remind fans to respect their communities. A service announcement to viewers as a reminder to respect their communities could be effective in reducing the scale of the riots, but the NFL doesn’t feel the need to do so, especially when it would take the place of a paid advertisement. This follows the trend of the organization’s continued refusal to use its platform to prevent violence.
Fans may agree with the League’s opinion that riots and fights are due to violent, often drunk fans and are not the responsibility of the NFL. The mentality behind this belief is valid; people are responsible for their own actions. However, it is a narrow-minded way of looking at the issue. The NFL is a multibillion dollar company because of the supporters, and they could easily invest some of that revenue into ensuring a safer environment. By publicly condemning rioters, the NFL may lose some support, but it may make fans think twice before acting recklessly.
The National Football League may be negligent, but that just means there are many opportunities for improvement. Roger Goodell will inevitably be replaced as commissioner, and his successor will have a chance to bring humanity into the organization. The NFL needs people in power who are free to speak out and fight for the safety of the community of fans that have made the League what it is today. As CTE research continues, the League will be forced to admit to the serious threat it poses to its players. Groups like NFL Players Association (the players union) and the Concussion Legacy Foundation can work with the NFL to devise ways to reduce concussions on a professional level, which would have a ripple effect on the approach to all levels of football. Ultimately, if the NFL continues to fail to address these issues, the American people could create a new competitive league. America’s love for football goes beyond the National Football League, which is successful because of our nation’s love for community and prime athleticism. This passion is what will make it possible to find solutions to the deadly environment of the NFL.
Babb, Kent and Rich, Steven. “Fan Violence and How to Contain It.” The Washington Post, 28
bb29-bf2701dbe0a3_story.html?utm_term=.bf1fe395551a. Accessed 10 March 2018.
Barrabi, Thomas. “Roger Goodell Downplays Player Safety Concerns.” Fox Business, 1 August
2017, https://www.foxbusiness.com/features/nfls-roger-goodell-downplays-player-safety-concerns-amid-concussion-debate. Accessed 14 March 2018.
Concussion Legacy Foundation. “What Is CTE?” https://concussionfoundation.org/CTE-
resources/what-is-CTE. Accessed 10 March 2018.
Concussion Legacy Foundation. “VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank” https://concussionfoundation.org/CTE- resources/brain-bank. Accessed 10 March 2018.
Dejohn, Irving. “Seahawks Fans Celebrate Super Bowl XLVIII Victory.” New York Daily News, 3
February 2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/seattle-residents-
celebrate-seahawks-super-bowl-win-article-1.1600079. Accessed 13 March 2018.
Delsohn, Steve. “Belcher’s Brain Had CTE Signs.” ESPN, 30 September 2014,
Fedschun, Travis and Calicchio, Dominick. “Super Bowl Celebration in Philadelphia Turns
Rowdy.” Fox News, 5 February 2018, http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2018/02/05
/philly-celebration-turns-rowdy-after-eagles-win-super-bowl.html. Accessed 14 March 2018.
KHOU Staff. “Grant Milton’s Uncle: ‘We Don’t Know What’s Up Ahead’” KHOU11, 2 December
2016, http://www.khou.com/article/news/health/grant-miltons-uncle-we-dont-know-whats-up-ahead/362215554. Accessed 10 March 2018.
Pallotta, Frank. “Super Bowl XLIX Posts the Largest Audience in TV history” CNN Media,
2 February 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/02/media/super-bowl-ratings/index.html. Accessed 13 March 2018.