This, ladies and gentlemen, is the most important highlight reel of the NFL this season. It’s also the highlight reel that the NFL does not want you to see.
Like every season, this year has brought us some amazing catches, breakthrough runs, and dramatic long-range field goals. But there was another kind of record hit this season: a destructive one, with an astounding 281 concussions from the NFL preseason until today, according to the league’s own aggregate statistics. That’s the most concussions since the NFL started keeping track six years ago.
The NFL has done a masterful job at mainstreaming the violence of the game, so that fans and spectators don’t feel too bad about what’s actually happening out there. No single word has protected the NFL from the true costs of this violence more than “concussion.” That word puts a protective barrier between us and what’s really going on out on the field.
Too many of us are OK with the NFL’s violence, because we don’t know these men.
It’s not a headache. It’s not “getting your bell rung.” You don’t have a bell. It’s a traumatic brain injury. Every single concussion is a new traumatic brain injury. In addition to the torn ACLs and MCLs, in addition to all of the horrible broken bones, the NFL diagnosed at least 281 traumatic brain injuries this season. And no document has ever quite displayed the horror of it all like “Concussion Protocol,” a film by Josh Begley and Field of Vision.
Too many of us are OK with this violence, on a conscious or subconscious level, because we don’t know these men.
In a span of just two hot days in July 2016, our nation witnessed two horrible instances of police violence against African-Americans. Filmed by innocent bystanders, we first saw Alton Sterling shot to death at close range outside a corner store in Baton Rouge, where he had been selling CDs. The next day, broadcast on Facebook Live by his fiancée, we witnessed Philando Castile, a beloved cafeteria supervisor, breathe his last breath after being repeatedly shot by an officer who wrongly suspected him of an armed robbery because he saw the shape of Castile’s nose as he drove by.
The next day, I received the first of what would eventually be hundreds of messages from then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick asking me to break down these incidents, then later others, for him. Kaepernick’s brilliance showed in his insightful questions. He had not yet taken a knee or publicly protested during the national anthem — that was still a few weeks away — but the injustices were already eating at his soul.
And it was not just Kaepernick. In those summer weeks before the NFL season began, dozens of players reached out to me. They wanted me to explain the details of police violence against African-Americans and advise them on what they could specifically say or do about injustice and police brutality in America.
It was those moments, before Kaepernick took a knee, before any player raised a fist or took a seat, that everything about how I watched the NFL began to change.
The Intercept’s Shaun King and Donte Stallworth, a 10-year veteran of the NFL, join Josh Begley to discuss his new film, “Concussion Protocol,” on the Intercepted podcast.
I love sports. For my entire childhood and well into my college career, it was my dream to be a team general manager or a sports agent; these are dreams I still think about. Until my boycott of the NFL this season, I had watched football religiously every season for over 30 years. Even with all I knew about the painful reality — that the violence of the game was causing irreversible brain damage to its players — I kept watching.
The moment I became friends with the men on the field, however, a switch was flipped. At first, I couldn’t wait to cheer on the teams that had players I had come to know personally. Back in 2016, I still had the NFL Sunday Ticket, a monthly television subscription that allowed me to watch and monitor every game in the league. Before even the first game was over, though, I had already seen several men I had come to know and trust get absolutely crushed by fierce tackles on field. Throughout the day, I saw the same things happen to men that I talked and texted and Skyped with all week. By that Sunday night, after watching a dozen different games, the joy of watching the NFL was gone for me.
I had been willing to excitedly watch men that I did not know play a game that damaged their brains and crushed their bodies. I got emotional about the game but maintained an emotional distance from the human beings playing it. The moment those men became more than just bodies on a sports field or highlights in a news clip, the moment they became my friends and brothers, I stopped cheering so much and mainly just found myself nervously hoping my homies were OK out there.
Imagine if you learned that the most cherished person in your family received a traumatic brain injury earlier today from a violent assault. You’d be troubled, right? You’d want to know not only who had carried out the assault, but if any systems had failed that led to the encounter. It’s the same in the NFL.
Despite of all of the claims about protecting NFL players, there were hundreds of traumatic brain injuries this year.
Despite of all of the claims about protecting NFL players, there were hundreds of traumatic brain injuries this year. The accumulation of those brain injuries and all of the other undiagnosed injuries to the players’ brains is causing a horrible degenerative disease of the brain called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — better known as CTE.
According to experts at Boston University, CTE “is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions, as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms. The repeated brain trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with common symptoms of CTE including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia.”
The game of football, as it is now being played, is ruining lives. This isn’t a theory. When Boston University studied the brains of 111 former NFL players, a devastating 110 of them had CTE.
Over the past year, I’ve spoken to countless retired NFL players and their families who say that CTE has destroyed them. One young retiree told me that his short-term memory loss is so bad that he struggles to remember how to get home and often loses his train of thought in simple phone conversations, and ends up repeating the same thought multiple times. Other family members told me that CTE made their husbands and sons and brothers into monsters who could not control their anger, rage, and self-destructive behaviors despite of counseling, medication, and a sincere desire to do better.
When our entertainment comes at the cost of the brains of those who are entertaining us, we have crossed over into an indefensibly cruel callousness. As these risks are becoming more known, fewer and fewer families are even allowing their children to play the game. In some affluent areas, where families don’t see the game as a means to a college scholarship or an eventual career, football programs are closing down altogether.
As conservatives across the country, including President Donald Trump, mock NFL players as “sons of bitches” who are “ungrateful” for what they have, try to remember that these men put their lives on the line every single time they go out on that field to entertain us.
My boycott of the NFL is for its blatant mistreatment and blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick, but this violence makes my decision easier. The NFL needs to take some drastic action to address what is done to players’ bodies and brains.
Sure, the NFL has established a concussion protocol, but the damage continues.