On Sunday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made a startling concession to medical ethics, one resisted by all of his predecessors.
Goodell said that when a player sustains a concussion, teams will now be required to seek advice from “independent” neurologists. There is a reason why this story made the front page of The New York Times. It marks a major change in policy and would be like the tobacco Industry bringing the American Cancer Institute into its boardroom or Exxon Mobil stating that they needed more input from Greenpeace.
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The official NFL line has always been that team doctors held no conflict of interest when evaluating players. The NFL said this despite the stories of former players suffering early-onset dementia at alarming rates and being told to “shake it off” as the ringing continued in their ears.
Former Commissioner Pete Rozelle ignored this issue even when players like the Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. Another former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, did the same, even when Hall of Fame center Mike Webster died at age 50, homeless and incoherent. It has even been said that Webster was suffering from dementia when he was still an active player in the league.
Goodell has been forced to shift his stance because the issue has simply reached a tipping point. Fittingly, New Yorker staff writer and best-selling author of “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote a blistering critique of the NFL’s treatment of ex-players last month, in the magazine, saying: “In the nineteenth century, dogfighting was [also] widely accepted by the American public.
But we no longer find that kind of transaction morally acceptable in a sport.”
It’s time for a change. A concussion is caused by a blow to the head and can happen to any player, on any play. Goodell, I believe, sees the handwriting on the wall: Brain damaged players and the perception of indifferent owners hold the potential to permanently damage the sport. But before we collectively pat his back, consider the task before him. Goodell and the league will now embark on an effort to sell a slickly packaged three-hour slice of Sunday violence while simultaneously “doing no harm” to its players. Can NFL doctors serve the league and uphold the Hippocratic Oath?
Doesn’t take a Mayan calendar to see that this will not end well.
— Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine.
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