Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Football Problem






Salon's Katie McDonough makes a few excellent points. And then misses the point.

McDonough observes "The allegations that Cosby drugged and raped more than a dozen women are not new, but the network’s apparent unease about working with a reported sexual predator is very much a recent development."  NBC has cancelled an otherwise upcoming serial with the octogenarian comedian/actor because

The public, it seems, is turning against Cosby. Risk alienating viewers, and advertisers get nervous. Watch enough television and you can probably predict the commercials that would run with a show like what’s in the works for Cosby. Kids eating cereal, moms using cleaning supplies, dads smiling in sport utility vehicles. But I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a company that wants to attach its brand to an alleged serial rapist at the precise moment the public is catching wise to the allegations against him.

McDonough recognizes "public awareness has shifted (only) as a result of all of this media attention" and that the network has gotten religion only because of the threat to its bottom line.  She finds an analogy to

how the NFL, and particularly its clown/villain hybrid of a commissioner Roger Goodell, has opted to handle the issue of domestic violence within its ranks. After a dizzying process of penalizing and not penalizing Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, a man who stuffed leaves in his 4-year-old son’s mouth while he beat him with a switch, Goodell suspended Peterson without pay for the remainder of the season.

Goodell’s stated reason? To prioritize the safety of Peterson’s son and send a message that the player’s lack of remorse around his physical abuse is unacceptable, out of line with the league’s values. But anyone who has been paying attention to Goodell, even one second of attention, knows this penalty is more about Goodell’s self-image and the league’s reputation with advertisers than any gesture at safety or accountability for victims of abuse.

Now here’s the part that feels tricky, at least for me. I want NBC to drop Cosby’s sitcom. I want NBC to have never even considered the sitcom in the first place, since these allegations have been a damning part of the public record for a decade now. I want to exist in a culture that sends a message about not working with serial predators. Likewise, I want the NFL to take action to sanction Peterson for brutalizing his child, just as I want the league to take action against any player who assaults another person.

But I am also so weary of empty gestures that don’t address the root problems and allow massive corporations to escape the kind of accountability that might stop them from, say, working with a serial predator in the future or, say, pressuring victims of domestic violence to stay quiet and arbitrarily wielding its power to protect its bottom line. I am tired of obscenely wealthy corporations thinking the public is stupid, beyond easy to placate.

But then we find out how easy it would be to placate Katie McDonough.     In addition to wanting "a transparent agreement to be negotiated between the NFL Players Association and league executives that will lay out how it will handle these issues moving forward," McDonough urges "the NFL to give millions and millions of dollars of its absurd wealth — on a reoccurring basis — to prevention and assistance programs that, unlike Roger Goodell, know how to do this work."

That would be a swell idea and ultimately one the NFL probably will adopt because a) tax-empt, it does have absurd wealth and b) it may believe it would shut people like McDonough up.   But if the latter "wants," as she maintains, "for people to matter more than money (and) for humanity to prevail, even when advertisers aren’t circling," she should turn at least some of her attention elsewhere.

Yesterday, lawyers for some retired players appealed to US District Court Judge Anita Brody to alter terms of a preliminary settlement between 5,000 retired players who filed suit because the NFL hid the danger of concussions. Two months ago, following up on its Frontline special of last year, PBS reported

new data from the nation’s largest brain bank focused on traumatic brain injury has found evidence of a degenerative brain disease in 76 of the 79 former players it’s examined.

The findings represent a more than twofold increase in the number of cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that have been reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ brain repository in Bedford, Mass.

Researchers there have now examined the brain tissue of 128 football players who, before their deaths, played the game professionally, semi-professionally, in college or in high school. Of that sample, 101 players, or just under 80 percent, tested positive for CTE.

To be sure, players represented in the data represent a skewed population. CTE can only be definitively identified posthumously, and many of the players who have donated their brains for research suspected that they may have had the disease while still alive. For example, former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011 by shooting himself in the chest, reportedly to preserve his brain for examination.

Nonetheless, Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the brain bank, believes the findings suggest a clear link between football and traumatic brain injury.

“Obviously this high percentage of living individuals is not suffering from CTE,” said McKee, a neuropathologist who directs the brain bank as part of a collaboration between the VA and Boston University’s CTE Center. But “playing football, and the higher the level you play football and the longer you play football, the higher your risk.”

An NFL spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment.

CTE occurs when repetitive head trauma begins to produce abnormal proteins in the brain known as “tau.” The tau proteins work to essentially form tangles around the brain’s blood vessels, interrupting normal functioning and eventually killing nerve cells themselves. Patients with less advanced forms of the disease can suffer from mood disorders, such as depression and bouts of rage, while those with more severe cases can experience confusion, memory loss and advanced dementia.

This is not a problem isolated to a few players with unusually long careers (nor only to CTE) because "actuarial data filed in federal court this month showed the NFL expects nearly a third of all retired players to develop a long-term cognitive problem, such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, as a result of football." In the video below posted shortly before Wednesday's hearing, PBS' Jason Breslow explains the background and status of the case, and the issues involved.










In its attention to football's contribution to brain disease, PBS is an outlier in both general media and in sports media, though it's easy to understand why the latter has largely ignored the problem.

Katie McDonough herself has an excuse to ignore the issue, inasmuch as she is on the feminist beat rather than the brain injury, or sports, beat, and her analogy of Cosby to Goodell is apt.  However, child abuse- and domestic abuse, such as that apparently committed by Baltimore Ravens' running back Ray Rice- are not peculiarly NFL, or even football, problems.

The National Football League for too long ignored the domestic abuse and child abuse committed by players in its own ranks and McDonough's characterization of Goodell as a clown/villain hybrid is justified, though at $43 million a year he is more villain than clown. But brain injury is a football problem, one of which the league has been aware and which it has tried to ignore.

"There's nothing to see here, move along" says Roger Goodell while the NFL offers to buy out some of the players, at pennies on the dollar, for injuries which have indirectly, but clearly, killed people. Unfortunately, he stands a fair chance at doing that, in part because our attention has been focused elsewhere.






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