NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

The Mindset of a Former Player Turned NFL Commentator
The stadium scene.
Jan. 26 2011 10:31 AM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Roger Goodell. Click image to expand.
Roger Goodell

Stefan, I wouldn't be so sure that Troy Aikman hasn't experienced any head problems yet. I'm absolutely sure that even if he does, so long as he's sitting in that booth trumpeting the virtues of the league that has made him a rich man, he'll keep those symptoms to himself. Scientists will tell us about tau protein and G-forces and the gunked-up, splotchy grey matter of an ex-player who drank antifreeze and wound up dead, but the NFL has no time for science when there are contracts to negotiate. Contracts are what's important here—who is getting what percentage of the money. Scientists can write all the articles they want, but as long as owners are making billions, no one in the NFL is going to read them.

The devil has his grip on the business of the NFL. Former players, like Aikman, who are still profiting from their NFL image, see little benefit in questioning the safety of the game. Any such comments would be met by the league as a betrayal, and he would probably be relieved of his post as Fox's No. 1 guy. And you can be sure he won't let that happen. Troy Aikman has his dream job, and he will echo the company line. Aaron Rodgers' brain could be leaking out of his earhole, and Aikman will be talking about James Jones' inconsistent hands.

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This is why the former superstars who are now analysts offer no real insight about an issue besides X's and O's. The NFL made them rich and powerful as young men. As they saw this power and money fading, they found a way to hop back on that gravy train as NFL yes-men. There is nothing that buoys the perception of NFL glory more than seeing its former stars in the studio, smacking each other on the butt like they're in the locker room. This image of glory wasn't real then and it isn't real now. For the majority of NFL players, like me, the arc of an NFL career does not include trips to Super Bowls or Pro Bowls or endorsement deals. It is a slow burn, a grind that has its ups and downs, like anything in life. I don't want to make it sound like a miserable experience, because it surely wasn't. I enjoyed my time in the NFL, but it did not make me rich and it did not make me powerful. The glory faded.

Players like Aikman and Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders, two Hall of Famers and a future Hall of Famer, represent the extreme minority of the NFL experience. Yet theirs are the voices that fans listen to. They are the ones people look to for guidance, because their Hall-of-Famey-ness makes them giants. Their greatness as players also defines them, and to question the validity of the game that has made them superheroes is to cast their own capes into the fire. They will never do this. They will be the last line of defense in the fight against science. And I can't really blame them. Even Steve Young, an extremely cerebral man who was forced out of the league by multiple concussions, can't find the strength to weave even one controversial thread of commentary. The waters are that deep.

I assume there's validity to all of the research about football and brain injuries, but I don't know for sure. What I do know is that the culture of football in this country is rooted in the concept of toughness. Are you hurt or are you injured? What that means is: Are you a pussy or are you tough? Football is no place for pussies—we learn that early. Something must be said for the toughness that being a football player teaches you. But when does it stop being tough and start being stupid? And how do we know when and where that line is drawn?

Every injury is different. Every human getting injured is different. Every human evaluating the injured human is different. And so it becomes a battle of wills. The NFL does little to assure its continued existence by acknowledging the mounting evidence that the game is a brain killer. It also does itself no favors to ignore the issue. The response that we see today is a measured public relations approach that will absolve the NFL of any liability if the scientists are right, and will keep the money train rolling until that day finally comes. Football has made too many men important to go quietly into the night.

Nate Jackson is the author of Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile. He played in the NFL for six seasons.

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