On Christmas Day, Sony Pictures Entertainment will release Concussion, a film that will almost certainly be very bad. As we’ve already noted, the film—starring Will Smith as CTE researcher Dr. Bennet Omalu—suffers from significant issues, both in theory and practice. (When the film studio’s lawyers call for the film to take fewer dramatic liberties, while Sony chief Amy Pascal sends frantic emails begging for it to be more dramatic, you’re almost guaranteed a stinker that pushes no boundaries at all.) But while Concussion won’t strike a blow that permanently tarnishes the NFL shield with a dollar sign-shaped cerebral contusion, it doesn’t have to. The NFL’s own films have been doing that for decades.
You’ve likely watched one or more of them already. Titles like Crunch Course, Thunder & Destruction, and King-Sized Hits became household names in the age of VHS rental stores, as the NFL Films “highlight reels” catalogued the league’s most brutal hits with a candor that, in 2015, seems incredible. Take this segment from 1988’s The NFL’s Greatest Hits, which features a half-dozen hits that would earn a fine from Roger Goodell today:
While the ’80s may have been a heyday for NFL “big hit” compilation videos, NFL Films had been producing them since at least 1968, when the incredibly-titled Super 8 film Bone Crunchers made its way to shops.
This short film came with a “screening guide” describing each of the plays featured “to help you fully enjoy your ‘Bone Crunchers’ action film.” (It helpfully notes the handful of plays on which officials called a penalty.) There are 10 clips shown in the film; more than half of them feature players who suffered a documented history of concussions or signed on as plaintiffs in the NFL players’ class-action concussion lawsuit.
Two of the clips feature Doug Cunningham, a 49ers star running back who died earlier this year from dementia complications; his wife described his long-term mental health issues to the Mississippi Collegian in 2014.
But it wasn’t just the “heavy hits” compilation videos that turned players’ brain injuries into NFL profits. Throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, “football follies” blooper reels were wildly popular. They were a recurring feature on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and there were editions hosted by such luminaries as Mel Blanc and Jonathan Winters. You probably saw some of these as a kid, and without context the “watch a dazed player stumble and fall down” segments seem hilarious. Wally Hilgenberg, whose 2008 death was judged to have been caused by CTE, stars in one of them. So, too, did Derland Moore—a concussion lawsuit plaintiff who spoke with us in 2013 about his brain damage being Football Follies fodder.
But it was Crunch Course that is likely the most notorious instance of NFL Films glorifying dangerous hits. You or your parents may well have owned a copy, once; the $1 VHS bucket at your local thrift shop likely has a few available if you’re curious. The 1985 feature hosted by Steve Sabol (and its 1988 sequel) promised viewers an examination of “the high impact collisions in pro football and the men most adept at causing them,” according to the packaging, and throughout the series (and similar ones, like Thunder & Destruction) a singular goal for NFL defenses is proclaimed: to knock out the quarterback.
To be fair, this is not an inaccurate portrayal of NFL defensive schemes from 1920 to about 2012. But watching these videos in 2015—and almost all of them are, incredibly, still available for you to buy from NFL Films today—it’s telling not that the league didn’t know the long-term impacts of concussions and repeated head injuries, but that they clearly did not care.
After all, people were putting up good money for these videos. They retailed for $20 each in 1987, which is the equivalent of more than $40 today.
The NFL also leveraged “big hits” videos with their corporate partners. Sports Illustrated enticed subscribers for years with a free copy of Crunch Course, while Big Blocks & King Size Hits was a 1990 Hershey’s chocolate promotional item. Even the original brain damage snuff film, Bone Crunchers, had a tie-in advertised in newspapers across the country:
That the NFL was early to recognize the value of film and of cataloguing its history is something most can agree is a good thing—imagine how much better our world would be if early decades of the NBA were as well-documented on video—and the NFL Films father-son duo of Ed and Steve Sabol share a large amount of credit for the league becoming the cultural behemoth and economic monster it is today. But just as the NFL’s power impresses despite its abuses of fans, players, and taxpayers, the achievements of Ed and Steve Sabol must be taken in context, too. Their names are attached to 1966’s great They Call It Pro Football, but also to every film mentioned above that exploited players’ brain damage.
To contact the author of this post, write to firstname.lastname@example.org (PGP key) or find him on Twitter @bubbaprog. Video edited by Nicholas Stango, with additional research by Elizabeth Getzoff, Erika Audie, Matt Hardigree, Zoe Stahl, and Diana Moskovitz.