Gene Collier: For football, ratings will continue to trump biggest concerns
January 24, 2016 12:00 AM
Former Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El had harsh words for his sport, but will it really matter?
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Four things that happened inside of one week form the jagged framework of this essay, because they are all related, even if no one can say definitively how.
Thing 1: Former NFL running back Lawrence Phillips was found dead in his California prison cell, one day after learning he would face a murder trial on the matter of his cellmate’s strangulation.
Thing 2: The Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs, which, it says here, was at least partly because team MVP Antonio Brown was unavailable because of a concussion.
Thing 3: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran the installment of J. Brady McCollough’s excellent series on Super Bowl icons from 10 years ago and from 40 years ago, in which 36-year-old Antwaan Randle El said he wished he would have played baseball instead of football, where the collisions are such that “football players are in a car wreck every week.”
Thing 4: I finally watched “Concussion,” the acutely Steelers-centric drama that should have brought Will Smith an Oscar nomination for standing out so vividly from otherwise fairly-typical Hollywood hash.
All four narratives, I figured, should congeal in one very serious problem, but apparently it is not the NFL’s problem. The league is so confident in its ultimate impenetrability on concussions that it was perfectly fine with its network partners running commercials for “Concussion,” during its games, even allowing the film’s marketers to use actual game video.
Maybe that’s because 10 times as many people reportedly watched the Steelers game against Denver as have seen “Concussion,” so far.
But let’s return for a moment to Thing 1. If you’ve forgotten Lawrence Phillips, it might prod your memory to know that had the St. Louis Rams not drafted Phillips out of Nebraska 20 years ago, the Steelers might never have acquired Jerome Bettis, whom the Rams comically judged as expendable on that very draft day.
Phillips, however, was his own car wreck. Thrown off his college team by then-coach Tom Osborne for hurling his girlfriend down three flights of stairs, he was subsequently judged by Osborne to have been rehabilitated just enough to appear in the national championship in which Nebraska abused Florida, 62-24, while Phillips rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
Funny how that works.
Phillips’ behavior got him tossed off four pro teams, two in the NFL and two in Canada, and would eventually become so erratic and violent that he found himself sentenced to 32 years in the California prison he died in Jan. 12.
Phillips’ family has donated his brain to Boston University, which will test for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the substance that Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered in the post-mortems of former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and others.
“Phillips may or may not be diagnosed with CTE, [but] either way this raises questions,” Dr. Robb McIlvried told me in an email exchange. “First, if he is not diagnosed with CTE, then it confirms that former NFL players can commit suicide for reasons other than CTE. On the surface, Phillips’ suicide would appear to be different than those other former NFL players. Any person may contemplate suicide if faced with a life in prison and this could be used to rationalize his suicide. However suicide is not rational, many people who commit suicide seemingly had everything to live for. The suicide of Terry Long has been attributed to CTE, but at the time he died he was facing charges on fraud and arson. If we attribute Phillips’ suicide to a reaction to his circumstances, shouldn’t Terry Long be looked at the same way?”
McIlvried, a Pittsburgh native and geriatrician now working at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, isn’t trying to provide football or the NFL an out on the concussion issue (not that the NFL seems terribly interested), but he’s concerned that with CTE science still in its infancy, people seem to be adding 2 plus 2 and getting 10.
“While CTE has been defined pathologically there has been a rush to connect those pathologic changes to behaviors and that is a big stretch,” McIlvried wrote. “In terms of suicide I think the issue is so complicated that we do a great disservice to those players who feel they have CTE by saying that this leads to suicide. We run the risk of leading them to believe this is a progressive, incurable, debilitating condition and if they were already thinking about suicide, this might push them more into doing it, thus a self fulfilling prophecy.”
As McIlvried has studied the CTE literature at great length for his own work, if his interpretation of the concussion issue and its presentation can stop even one former player from taking the wrong step, the final step, it deserves consideration.
Though I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist, as is perfectly obvious, I doubt that as CTE science progresses the NFL and football in general are going to feel the temperature lowered on the impact of collisions.
We remain, for now, a culture in which strength coaches are getting paid a half-million dollars a year. And that’s the colleges.
That’s not so the collisions will be less like car wrecks. Randle El said he wouldn’t be surprised if football wasn’t around in 20 or 25 years.
Based on the ratings, I’d have to disagree. There’s plenty of wreckage to come.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @genecollier.
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