When I was in high school in Alexandria, Virginia, the football players were gods. It didn’t matter that the football team was terrible. It didn’t matter that we had the stupidest name for a football team ever. The school was “George Washington High School,” and thus our teams were named, unfortunately, the Presidents. Even more unfortunately, this was shortened during cheers to “Prexies.” No one was quite sure what a “prexie” was — a small pretzel, perhaps? Evidence of skin disease? But no matter, to be on the varsity football team and get a big, hulky letter jacket to wear around the school was really cool. By the way, none of the other sports got jackets like these.
Thank god I was too small and too untalented to even consider playing. There wasn’t much demand, even as bad a team as we had, for a 5 foot 7.5 inch, 132 pound sophomore with little speed and less tolerance for pain. But my best friend, John, was just big enough and just crazy enough; he was 5’10” and 150 pounds, and we were inseparable. We had both transferred in after being freshmen elsewhere, and it was a bit of a southern old line, unfriendly school. Perhaps as a result we both had decided we were intellectuals with a passion for European literature, especially Kafka. We would have smoked Galois and worn black berets if we knew where to get either. We did have flat tops, but that’s because our dads were both colonels stationed at the Pentagon and supervised our haircuts.
But after school and during football season, he changed. John played middle linebacker, and specialized at maniacally running full speed into the guys on the other team, all of whom were bigger than he was, and leading with his head. He was hard to talk to after the games as he got his chimes rung several times a game. He made lots of tackles, though. This was before concussions and paralysis and all those other consequences of such activities that are now more in focus.
He didn’t play in college — there are limits to how far craziness can take you, even in football. But the damage to his legs and hips during the three short years he played in high school has resulted in a retired guy with bad knees and a not especially successful hip replacement. He gets around with a cane.
In August of 2014 an author named Steve Almond published a book called “Against Football,” arguing among other things that the increasing evidenced of long term cerebral damage to football players was enough to make him stop watching professional football, even though he loved the game. He made the rounds of talk shows and book signings, and received strongly positive reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and even Barons, all expressing outrage and general agreement with his thesis.
The NFL pre-season continued.
In September of 2014 as a part of its response to the NFL players’ lawsuit charging that the league had covered up evidence of football related brain damage, a study sponsored by the league was released. Its major conclusion was that 30 percent of the players would end up with brain damage. This is far higher than its incidence in the overall population, and it occurs earlier than it would in the population at large. THIRTY PERCENT!
The NFL season continued.
In 1969, in response to outcry from miners and the public, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed, and subsequently was revised and strengthened several times. Among other things, the act required that respirable coal dust standards for mines be set, thus limiting the amount of this damaging substance that miners would breathe over their careers. Although success was hardly instantaneous (the standard was not finally published until 1980), the results have been positive. In the 1970-1974 study period, those miners with 25 or more years in the mines had a 32 percent incidence of black lung. A 2005-2006 study of miners with the same career exposure yielded a 9 percent disease result. And the standard for coal dust was decreased by 25 percent in 2014.
Football players have a six-year career, according to the NFL, on average. If we assume 20 games a season (normal season plus playoffs) and a practice schedule of three practices per game, then each player “works” 80 days a year, not a normal 200 to 220 days which a miner would work. So NFL players in their entire career of six years, work 480 days, or roughly two years in coal miner terms. And yet, with this relatively brief exposure to hazard, one-third of them will end up with dementia or some other brain disease.
There is no industry in the United States that would employ workers who, after two years of work, would then be subject to this degree of predictable, awful dysfunction, as a direct and knowable result of their employment. No one would work there, the public would not stand for it, and the political system would be driven to correct it. At least one would think so.
The NFL runs a terribly unsafe workplace by every reasonable definition. OSHA, in its Workers’ Rights booklet, says that you have a right to a safe workplace, “one free of known dangers.”
And yet, and yet, the NFL season is in full swing. Are you ready for some football?
RF Hemphill is a former CEO of a multi-billion dollar global electric power and distribution company and is the author of Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons: Adventures in Culture, Cuisine & Commerce from a Globe-Trekking Executive.