The Roman Empire was a brutal era that featured gladiators who routinely fought slaves, other gladiators and wild animals, usually to the death, while thousands of people cheered. The floor of the Roman Coliseum was a pool of blood by the end of each event.
The Romans were sadistic and barbaric thugs who assigned little or no value to animal or human life. Now, 2,000 years later, our civilization is even worse because we should know better and yet we frequently indulge ourselves with the same brand of blind indifference.
I watched an NFL game recently and at one point, a crazed 300-pound man chased down the opposing quarterback and threw him head first to the ground. If the same physical act took place in Portland’s Old Port on a Friday night instead of in a football stadium, the aggressor would have been charged with assault. In this case, 50,000 people cheered with barbaric glee, while TV commentators shared “thoughts, prayers, wishes” with the injured quarterback’s family.
A few minutes later the talking heads in the booth announced that the player was being assessed in the locker room based on the NFL’s recently enacted protocols for treating head injuries and suspected concussions. The announcers went out of their way to applaud the NFL for changes that include comprehensive neuropsychological testing during training camp to establish baselines and a list of other medical protocols.
Why make these changes now? It might have something to do with a recent landmark deal that will compensate thousands of former NFL players for concussion-related claims that go back many years. The ruling by a U.S. District Court judge came weeks after the NFL agreed to remove a $675 million cap on damages. The final total may end up exceeding $1 billion.
The judge had previously questioned whether that would be enough money to pay all claims from the more than 4,500 former players who sued, some accusing the league of fraud for its handling of concussions. They include former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who now suffers from dementia.
The original settlement included $675 million for compensatory claims for players with neurological symptoms. The revised settlement eliminates the cap on overall damage claims, but retains a payout formula for individual retirees that considers their age and illness. A young NFL retiree with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, would receive $5 million; a 50-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease would get $1.6 million, and an 80-year-old with early dementia would get $25,000.
In short, after many years of denying a direct link between severe neurological and physical damage and playing football in the NFL, the league not only admitted its role, it even assigned a cost menu.
Think about that this weekend when you’re watching the New England Patriots play the Baltimore Ravens. Embedded in each ticket price, and/or incorporated in the television advertising you watch, is the cost of medical harm done to past, present and future NFL players.
A common moral defense of football is that damaging your opponent is not the primary goal of the sport. The same can’t be said for boxing where a “knockout” – literally damaging the other fighter’s brain – is part of the official scoring system.
Many years ago, early in my sports marketing career with the Miller Brewing Co., I was asked to attend a professional boxing match in Miami. On fight night, I was given VIP status as the representative of the primary sponsor, and told to sit ringside at a table adjacent to the fight announcer. From the body-fluid discomfort of my HAZMAT-range seat I watched two hours of brutal neurological damage while a mob of fans cheered with primal bloodlust. It was awful.
In football, whenever star players suffer a concussion (while wearing a helmet on a turf field) entire stadiums and viewing audiences hold a hushed vigil. In the world of boxing, a sport populated mostly by minority fighters from disadvantaged socio-economic situations, boxers can suffer several compound concussions per fight – and the screaming only gets louder as the damage gets greater. Why?
The Romans didn’t know any better, but we do. It’s 2015 and there is a great deal of information now available about concussions, head injuries and long-term degenerative diseases associated with brain injury. Football on all levels needs better safeguards and equipment to better protect all participants.
Boxing, Ultimate Fighting, and mixed martial “arts,” on the other hand, all need to disappear like the ghosts of gladiators past. Humans intentionally hurting (sometimes inadvertently killing) other humans for the pleasure of another group of humans isn’t sport; it’s a barbarous remnant buried from within the deepest and darkest region of our lizard brains.