At a June roundtable event in New York City hosted by PACE, an education program sponsored by Dick's Sporting Goods, former New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks told a haunting story about the culture of the NFL in the 1980s.
"One of my teammates had taken a shot to the head in the first half and he was pretty dazed on the sidelines," Banks said. "But he kept wanting to go back in. You know - ‘I'm fine, I'm fine.' Then when we got to the locker room [at halftime], the guy sits down in the middle of the floor in front of everybody and starts crying like a baby. Sobbing. It was like his mind had reverted back to childhood. He was calling out for his mother and pounding the floor."
Some people in the audience actually snickered.
But Banks was stone-faced. "Back then, I don't want to say that kind of thing was common, but nobody said anything," he said. "Everybody just kind of ignored the guy and he was probably back on the field in the second half."
Banks admitted that he himself was once knocked unconscious by a hit in the first quarter of a game, only to return to the field in the fourth quarter. "Those were much different times back then," he said. "There was a lot of pressure on the training staff to let guys go back in. The education and knowledge we have today about concussions is miles ahead."
We like to think a lot has changed in the quarter-century since Banks's teammate was felled by a Mortal Kombat-style Babality. We like to think we're smarter now. But one of the NFL's most intelligent players—the enthusiastic Yogi and cultivator of orchids Troy Polamalu—recently said something that beggared belief.
Polamalu, who has been officially diagnosed with "eight or nine" concussions in his career, admitted on The Dan Patrick Show that he has lied about his concussions symptoms in order to return to the field. Standard operating procedure for an expendable grunt, maybe, but surprising for an enlightened thinker such as Polamalu. The future Hall of Famer took it further still, questioning the validity of the league's increasingly stringent concussion protocols: "Sometimes if you're buzzed or dazed ... if you get your bell rung they consider that a concussion—I wouldn't," Polamalu said. "If that's considered a concussion, I'd say any football player at least records 50 to 100 concussions a year."
That any NFL player is still using the term "bell ringer" (cue Looney Tunes anvil_ding_dong.mp3) is at the very least a public relations gaffe that makes neurologists cringe. That it came out of Polamalu's mouth is stupefying, at least through the vaseline-smeared lense of the Great NFL Narrative. Only, if you know anything about what goes on behind the scenes in NFL locker rooms, it shouldn't be surprising at all.
Last season, Polamalu and 11 other Steelers installed military-grade Kevlar in their helmets to protect themselves against head trauma. Polamalu, not coincidentally, had his Kevlar installed a week after sustaining a knee to the head. Two days after the game, Polamalu was loosely diagnosed with the NFL's hottest euphemism, the nebulous "concussion-like symptoms." While Kevlar does little-to-nothing to protect against concussions, Polamalu returned to the field the following week and did not miss a single game. His brothers needed him.
"There's so much built up about team camaraderie and sacrifice, and football is such a tough man's game," Polamalu told Patrick. "I think that's why it's so popular, why so many blue-collar communities and people feel really attracted to it, because it's sort of a blue-collar struggle that football players go through in terms of the physicality of the game and the commitment you need."
The NFL might be a man's game, but football is certainly not. It's a game for children, too—the very people most susceptible to both traumatic brain injury and the influence of the NFL superstars whose careers they hope to emulate. Several national campaigns geared toward concussion education are slated for media blitzes this fall, including PACE, which plans to give computerized neurological assessment tools to middle schools, high schools and club teams for free. It's a big step in the ongoing battle for the hearts and brains of amateur athletes, who are still pressured to tough out injuries by lunatic coaches, domineering parents and dickhead teammates.
Then along comes Polamalu, one of the league's few transcendent superstars and a supposed free thinker, toeing the company line of fraternal self-immolation. Polamalu is supposed to be above this goonish martyrdom, but he's really just more cannon fodder for the Meathead Industrial Complex, his curious and compassionate soul rutted out by years of hyperbole about his band of brothers. (Cue Keith Brooking pre-game conniption: "And we'll all go stark raving mad FOR EACH OTHERRRRRRR!")
We are supposed to feel bad for these guys, these cementheads. Ever since the first wave of civil lawsuits were filed against the NFL for their very plausible negligence in dealing with brain injuries, players have claimed that they have been manipulated, lied to, and treated like pawns by the NFL establishment. And this is all probably true. When Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry fell out of the back of a moving pickup truck and his 26-year-old brain was found to be just as rusted and riddled with chronic traumatic encephalopathy as the 50-year old brains of other NFL ghosts, football fans and players alike were visited by a groggy elephant that couldn't be ignored.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, science is true whether or not you believe in it. This shit is real.
Amid the commercial breaks for watery beers, synthetic hard-ons, and big-azz trucks is a legitimate bloodsport. Collisions that were once titillating (and inevitably chopped up and amplified DJ Khaled-style by cackling studio teams) became instantly depressing. After Henry's autopsy, the NFL viewing experience, for anyone with half a conscience, became an alternately thrilling and pensive experience.
We are supposed to feel vaguely guilty. But why? If the dog ever caught the school bus it mindlessly chases, what would it do with it? If the league had independent physicians and instant, computerized neurological tests on every sideline, would players willingly surrender themselves to the void? Would an unhinged, CAPS-LOCKED lughead like Jeremy Shockey really defer to the pencil-necked trainer who told him his short-term memory scores were too low to return for a crucial drive in the fourth—what with the Gary Glitter blaring on the PA system and the 60,000-plus people losing their collective shit and the entire coaching staff sporting full-on apoplectic rage-boners?
If even the NFL's most enlightened killing machines aren't taking this stuff seriously, why should Joe Bologna carry his albatross to the Buffalo Wild Wings and wearily sigh into his nacho platter each time some rent-a-beef special teamer gets blindsided into the oblivion? Polamalu's public honesty adds weight to the fan argument that essentially boils down to "Science is ruining my fuggin' tailgating experience."
The part of Polamalu's bizarre interview that was most fascinating, and heartbreaking, was the underlying belief that he's knowingly wagering years of senility and invisible pain for a cause that is bigger than himself. For his teammates, his "brothers," his faux blue-collar community. That's a great thing to believe. But there is a common thread in all the tragic suicides that have come to define the NFL's Concussion Era. All of these feasted-and-feted warriors, from Andre Waters to Dave Duerson to Junior Seau, were completely and utterly alone at the very end. When the once bright and thoughtful Duerson sat down on a motel bed with a shotgun in his lap, he was not an empty husk. He was self-aware. The pain had simply become too much. Honesty had finally caught up with him.
After Polamalu told Patrick how many official concussions he's been diagnosed with, he paused and coyly added, "We'll have another conversation after I'm done playing football." There may not be that much time.
Like Carl Banks and his teammates who chose not to see the fallen Giant wailing uncontrollably on the floor of the locker room, Polamalu and his NFL brethren still seem to believe that pain is only real if it's acknowledged. The ghosts of Webster, Waters, Duerson, Seau and others are only there if you want to see them.
It's fair to wonder if the NFL will eventually have the same fall from grace as boxing, once America's most popular bloodsport. But that would require levels of sympathy and restraint that just may not be sustainable. In the wake of Polamalu's honesty, how long will the average NFL fan continue to acknowledge the phantoms on the wall before he flips the light switch, cracks open a macrobrew, and resumes using the television for its intended purpose—to shut off his brain to the mundane horrors of the world?