Saturday, September 20, 2014

Football: Boxing with more clothes

I've been following the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal, and ESPN's "Outside the Lines" unit released a damning story on Friday that details a cover-up by top executives and the team owner of the Baltimore Ravens, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's efforts to avoid seeing the video of Rice hitting his girlfriend (now wife) in the elevator. By the time Goodell met with Rice and now-wife Janay, Baltimore executives believed (or in their words, "assumed") that Goodell had seen the video. Based on that belief or assumption, Rice truthfully told Goodell that he hit and knocked out Janay. My belief is that whether or not Goodell saw the tape, he had enough evidence from Rice's own confession to give him a lifetime suspension.

The abysmal way that the NFL handled the Rice case and other cases of domestic violence is of a piece with how the league handled the impact of brain concussions. For years, the NFL minimized the effect of brain injuries on its players, even as evidence of long-term personality and cognitive changes was piling up, and players with traumatic brain injuries were committing suicide. The doctor who found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of deceased former Steelers center Mike Webster was libeled and slandered by the NFL, with the intention of destroying his credibility. The doctor that the NFL appointed to head its own research into traumatic brain injuries was a rhematologist and a physician for the New York Jets with no training in or experience with brain injuries. The researchers under that doctor then proceeded to release 16 studies that claimed that there were no chronic brain injuries that were caused by playing football, and that it was even fine to allow a player who had received a concussion to continue playing in that same game once he'd recovered.

Earlier this year, the NFL settled a lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 former players who claimed that they had suffered long-term damages from concussions they'd received while playing. The NFL set up a $675 million or more fund to pay compensation to injured players, $75 million for baseline testing and $10 million for research and education. However, the NFL was able to avoid having to pay anything to players with neurobehavioral problems unless they can also prove that they have cognitive impairments.

All of this brings me to an inescapable conclusion: The NFL isn't interested in the welfare of its players, nor is it interested in the welfare of its players' families or significant others. Its sole concern is the maintenance and improvement of the financial interests of team owners. My headline made a comparison with boxing. Boxers, like football players, often suffer severe physical injuries, the most visible of which involve the head and brain. Boxers, like football players, have a reputation for violence, both inside and outside their sport. Top boxers, like football players, are paid a lot of money. The fight promoters who stage boxing matches are seen as largely venal people who care only about money and who care about the boxers' welfare only because their fights have to be licensed by a state boxing commission. Boxing has a terrible reputation, but the damage caused by boxing has never been a secret; the term "punch-drunk," defined by Merriam-Webster as "Suffering cerebral injury typically marked by mental confusion, incoordination, and slurred speech and usually resulting from minute brain hemorrhages caused by repeated head blows in boxing," was first used in 1918. Some of the best books and movies about boxing have used the symptoms of CTE in descriptions of boxers' behavior and personalities.

It's become clear to me that under the NFL, football is boxing with more clothes, and team owners are fight promoters with more money. Would you trust that an investigation of a group of boxing promoters being led by two boxing promoters who are part of the group, and being overseen by a former government employee who's being paid by the group of boxing promoters, would be impartial and comprehensive? I doubt it. That's why I have so little trust in the self-examination of the NFL's handling of Ray Rice by two team owners and Robert Mueller.

Update, September 21: The two team owners who are running the investigation of the NFL's handling of the Ray Rice case are John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney II of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' quarterback, has been accused of sexual assaults twice: In 2008, a former casino host at the Lake Tahoe Harrahs claimed that she had been raped by Roethlisberger. That case was settled out of court with a gag order on both the plaintiff and defendant. Another charge of sexual assault was lodged in March 2010, this time by a student in Georgia. No charges were filed, but the NFL suspended Roethlisberger for six games. However, the suspension was lifted after four games.

Roethlisberger works for Rooney. So far as we know, the Steelers took no action against Roethlisberger as a result of either charge. Mara and Rooney are related by marriage (that's where the actress Rooney Mara gets her name.) Given the Steelers' acceptance of Ben Roethlisberger's behavior, the relationship between Rooney and Mara, and both of their complicity with years of NFL behavior, can we really put any trust into their investigation?

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