Washington DC; Every week we watch NFL officials enforcing league rules meant to protect players from injury; a significant number of penalties are handed out for â€œpersonal foulsâ€, such as unnecessary roughness, late hits and blows to the head. And while we have heard plenty of remarks from all variety of sources but more especially the game commentators about how â€œthis is a rough sportâ€ and we ought to just â€œlet them play footballâ€, not much mention is made of why these rules are in effect and more especially what happens when even stringent means of protecting the players break down and our gridiron heroes are carried off the field with game, season or sometimes career ending injuries.
“In one of the most dangerous sports in the history of mankind, only 300 players are receiving disability payments?” That question, asked with an air of disbelief by Maxine Waters, the Democratic Congresswomen from California is one of the more pointed inquiries being put to the NFL and it’s players union the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) by members of Congress who are investigating the system which determines whether or not an injured NFL player receives disability benefits. And as stingy as the union seems to be with compensation for football related heath issues, it may be even worse than that – the claim that 317 players are collecting a total of $20 million a year is one made by the Players Association themselves, but tax records for 2006 reveal that in actuality only 121 players are collecting benefits and that the total is more like $9 million.
That subject and quite a few others are being presented in a House Judiciary hearing being conducted by the Subcommittee for Commercial and Administrative Law regarding the treatment of retired NFL players. A heap of documentation was turned over to the committee this month by the NFL and a review of all that information is more likely than not to result in legislation that regulates how the administrators of one of the richest disability funds in professional sports must respond to claims from it’s members. “Neither the NFL nor the NFLPA keeps data on players who retire due to injury, a simple fact that I find amazing,” Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., who chairs the Subcommittee said in an interview with ESPN. “Sometimes you don’t keep track of something when you don’t want to know what the answers are.”
The amount and severity of physical damage sustained by members of the most watched sport in America is nearly incomprehensible. A statement in a 1985 HBO documentary by former all pro center Jim Otto who played 15 years for the Raiders sums it up pretty well. When asked how he feels when he gets up in the morning, Otto replied â€œI feel like I’ve been hit by a truckâ€. More recent focus has been put on the amount of concussions sustained by football players, and their long term effects. The suicides of Andre Waters and Terry Long both in their mid-forties as well as the death of all pro Steelers center Mike Webster of a heart attack at age 50 have been linked to brain damage the likes of which is rivaled only by weather beaten boxers and 80 year old men with varying stages of Alzheimers disease.
This level of carnage is the product of a culture that requires it’s participants to play when they are seriously hurt and to get back on the football field for more grueling punishment when even getting up and walking could seriously jeopardize their chances for recovery. Stories abound like the one by former Bengals guard Brian DeMarco who was carried off the field once barely able to breathe on account of the pain from a hit that had smashed several ribs and torn others loose from their cartilage. “The doctor took this needle, filled it up with lido[caine], and put a towel in my mouth saying, ‘This’ll burn,’ ” says DeMarco. “He stuck that four-inch needle up under my rib cage — six big shots from my rib cage to spine, and suddenly I couldn’t feel a damn thing. They wrapped up my ribs, which were sticking out sideways, and sent me back in on the same series.” According to DeMarco the trainers would have their staff huddle around the player before these treatments. “Anytime a crowd’s gathered around on the sideline,” he says, “they’re doing something they don’t want you to see.”