Concussions, ESPN And The Powerful Influence Of The National Football League

September 4, 2013

As the National Football League kicks off its season tomorrow night, with a game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos, two separate events involving the league this past week could not be more ironic in nature.  First came the news that the sports network ESPN, which has numerous shows devoted to the league and broadcasts Monday Night Football, had backed out of a partnership with the Public Television Station’s investigative show Frontline, to produce a documentary concerning football related concussions.  Then came the reports that the league had agreed to a $765 million settlement over a class action lawsuit brought forth by more than 4,500 former players alleging that playing the sport had caused dementia and other brain maladies as a result of concussions.

As players have become bigger, stronger and faster, the number of concussions seemingly has increased every year, even though new designs in helmets help prevent them.  However, this could all be due in part to more medical attention being paid to the health of the players.  Years ago, after a vicious hit, a player was said to have had his bell rung.  We now know that what actually occurred was the player most likely suffered a concussion.

What is disgusting however, is the attempt to cover up the effects of bone-jarring hits that was recently carried out by the NFL.  Frontline and ESPN had been researching for more than a year the effects of concussions on professional football players.  However, after a preview trailer of the two-part documentary was shown to the press, a meeting was conducted over lunch with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network President Steve Bornstein, ESPN President John Skipper and ESPN Executive Vice-President John Wildhack attending.  The topic of the meeting of course was the pending documentary.  Needless to say, it did not take long for ESPN to decide it no longer would be a participant of the program.  Was this purely a coincidence?  Not likely.

In a rather paradoxical twist to this drama, I place some blame on the sports network for the rise in the number of concussions.  It does not take a football coach to watch a game and notice the number of improper and illegal tackles being made.  Former defensive players turned television commentators often talk of bad tackling techniques.  This is where I place some blame on ESPN.  Instead of tackling a quarterback, running back or wide receiver properly, defensive players now go for the knockout blow, using the crown of their helmets as a weapon, hitting the opponent up around their head in order to make the network’s SportsCenter highlight reel.

Several years ago, PBS aired another Frontline documentary that addressed concussions and heat stroke among players, this time involving a high school football team from Arkansas.  Watching the program, my thought was every parent that had a child playing football, should see this show.  By the time the program ended, my conclusion was, if I had to do it again, I would not want my son playing the sport he loved playing as a child, as did I.

It turns out that concussions suffered by grown men playing a vicious sport are not the only concern that need be addressed.  It is the banging together of helmets by young children that occur on every play during every game and even during every practice that just might be the biggest area of alarm.  If I remember right, one person made the comment during the program that this shaking of the developing brains of young children that occurs during every single play was very much like shaking a bowl of Jell-O.

Granted, concussions are very serious, especially when a player is experiencing more than one over a short period of time, however, to me the biggest trepidation is this shaking of the brains that occurs in every young player hundreds of times each and every season and is a topic that no one is addressing.  This insightful program is available on the internet.  To watch it, do a Google search for Frontline program about Arkansas high school football to find a link for the show.  If you have a child playing the game, it is definitely something every parent should watch.

Steven H. Spring

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