Long before President Donald Trump started his present feud with the NFL, I was contemplating life without football. Originally, I was contemplating life without network television, after I unsubscribed from the satellite TV service six months ago. That turned out to be not so bad. Between Netflix and MotoGP, I’ve managed to keep myself entertained.
Until football season started this fall, and for the first time in decades, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to watch the games on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, unless I actually broke down and paid extra for it on the internet, which I have yet to do.
So as of this moment, I’m the NFL’s second biggest problem, the longtime viewer, who, thanks to today’s fractured media market, has fallen out of the professional football loop. For $150 a year, I can watch 18 weekends of the aforementioned MotoGP programming, and 15 hours of live grand prix motorcycle racing every weekend. I don’t really even have the time to watch football—and now I’m going have to pay extra for it?
The truth is, I will eventually figure out some way to watch the NFL on the cheap, especially come playoff time, because I love football. But that doesn’t negate the NFL’s No. 1 problem. No, I’m not talking about forcing all the players to stand at gunpoint during the national anthem at the beginning of games.
I’m talking about the concussion controversy that has dogged the NFL for more than a decade and has now spread to high school football. While the research is still in its early stages, it’s becoming increasingly clear that young players who suffer multiple concussions may risk developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s, at young ages previously unheard of.
I was first introduced to the NFL’s massive head trauma issue via former San Francisco 49er defensive lineman George Visger when I profiled him in the Sacramento News & Review eight years ago.
He’s stayed in touch over the years, erratically, as you might expect from someone with no short term memory due to the extensive brain damage he incurred playing football. He and his family now live in Sacramento, and I phoned him recently to find out how he’s coping with his injury, what he thinks about the NFL’s efforts to address the CTE issue and whether he let his son Jack, who was 10 when I met him eight years ago, play football in high school.
Now nearing 60, Visger began playing football at an early age. He experienced the first of hundreds of concussions at age 9, playing a game called “bull in the ring” during a peewee football league practice in Stockton.
On the opening day of the 49ers 1981 championship season, NFL rookie Visger was speared viciously in the side of the helmet–”ear-holed”–by an opposing player’s helmet and knocked unconscious. Smelling salts on the sidelines kept him in the game. He continued to play throughout the season, until suffering an internal brain hemorrhage and nearly bleeding to death mid-season. He earned a Super Bowl ring on the sidelines, but his NFL career was done.
However, his battle with both brain damage and the NFL was just beginning. Since then, he’s had a dozen brain surgeries to relieve hydrocephalus (via a shunt imbedded deep in his brain) which have left him with no short term memory. He’s been in court as many times as he’s had surgeries since 1981, in order to force the 49ers’ insurance provider to pay for the cognitive treatment he requires to function in society.
“It’s getting pretty bad,” he informed me when I called, referring to his short term memory issues. He has yet another court date coming up soon. “I was doing a lot better when I was getting treatment.”
He gets treatment at the Centre for Neuro Skills in San Francisco, which offers a day program designed to prevent his cognitive and motor skills from deteriorating. It’s an uphill battle that’s grown increasingly steep.
He hasn’t watched an entire NFL game, live or on TV, in decades, but the glimpses he catches every now and then haven’t impressed him. While some viewers, including Trump, have complained that the game has been softened in response to the concussion controversy, Visger doesn’t see it.
“It’s a joke, they’re doing the bare minimum to look good,” he said. “Everybody knows the sport is killing people. I can give you 14.5 billion reasons why the NFL won’t be stepping up.”
Visger was referring to the league’s annual profit margin, which is continuing to take hits from former players who refused to buy into the NFL’s class action lawsuit settlement offered in 2015 to thousands of players with symptoms of CTE.
In the most recent study on football, concussions and CTE, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year, researchers examined the brains of 202 deceased football players across all ages and found that 87 percent exhibited symptoms of CTE—which at this point can only be diagnosed by autopsy after death.
As Forbes magazine points out, the fact that 99 percent of the NFL players examined had CTE made the headlines. But the study also examined 53 brains of players who only played up to the college level and found 91 percent had symptoms of CTE. Of the fourteen brains of high school level players examined, 21 percent had CTE.
These results are skewed because the players who donated their brains to the study had all experienced symptoms of degenerative brain disease, including extreme depression, violent outbursts and suicidal behavior, before their deaths. Considering the number of people who play football at every level, the study’s sample size is too small to render a definitive judgment on the entire sport. Nevertheless, CTE appears to be far more prevalent throughout all levels of football than previously thought.
One brain examined in the study belonged to former New England Patriots star and convicted violent felon Aaron Hernandez, who after being sentenced to life without parole for murder, committed suicide in his cell earlier this year. He had stage 3 (out of 4) CTE. He was just 27 years old.
As far as allowing his son Jack to play football, Visger said that it was a non-starter from the get-go.
“No, he did not play football,” Visger said. “He’s a senior in high school now and he does volleyball, basketball and cross country.”
It appears that many parents are making the same decision, at least in part because of the fear of concussions, as the number of students turning out to play high school football has declined nationwide in recent years, although Bleacher Report notes that football remains overwhelmingly the nation’s most popular high school sport.
That really is the NFL’s No. 1 problem. Can the players of tomorrow practice on the fields of today without risking what appears to be at the professional level virtually guaranteed brain damage?
As far as the NFL’s second biggest problem, people like me, who’ve sort of inadvertently tuned out because of the fractured media market, the league need not worry too much. If my team, the San Francisco 49ers, made an effort to jumpstart the offense by resigning Colin Kaepernick, who took the Niners to the Super Bowl just a few short seasons ago, I’d gladly sign on for the ride.