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Playing with Players’ Lives: How the NFL Hid a Crisis Killing Athletes

The NFL has known for years that the game is dangerous for players. But they’ve been using their immense power to suppress studies linking concussions to long-term brain damage.

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Chris Nowinski: The NFL is an enormous business with more than $11 billion a year in revenue, and the job that they ask people to do to make that money can give them a brain disease, or actually multiple brain diseases. That’s established. 

Sean Morrow: That’s Chris Nowinski, former college football player, former WWE wrestler, and one of the biggest advocates around CTE – a degenerative brain disease that medical consensus links to sustaining repeated head injuries, like what someone might suffer in the NFL. 

We’ve all seen these images before – a player is seriously injured in front of millions of viewers and there’s public outcry to take action. But behind the scenes, there is a more quiet crisis happening in the NFL.

Chris was one of the first to notice when Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa likely suffered a concussion at a game in September.

How is it possible a human being can get permanent brain damage on national TV and we’re all just okay with it?

Because the NFL is an unstoppable force with a monopoly on a pastime intrinsically linked with American culture and economy. 

It’s a story of deep corporate greed, prioritizing profit for billionaires over everything else.

This is the Class Room, from More Perfect Union. 

Today we’re tackling the NFL with Chris Nowinski:

[News clip]: Emotional instability, depression and memory loss

[News clip]: Dementia, aggression, difficulty thinking, even suicidal thoughts

[News clip]: A 21-year-old took his own life

[News clip]: Medical examiners said he had the brain of a 65-year-old

[News clip]: The normal stresses of life became really hard for him to handle

[News clip]: For him, to take his own life, I can’t imagine how severe his anguish was

Sean Morrow: That’s the widow of Junior Seau, an NFL player who took his own life in 2012. Post-mortem, the National Institutes of Health concluded that he had CTE.

Since the first major studies linking CTE to professional football were released in 2005, the NFL has made 180 billion dollars.

In that time they’ve barely changed anything about their protocol, and continue to sacrifice players’ brains in the pursuit of profit.

But the medical community’s knowledge of CTE – and the attempts to cover it up – go even further back than 2005.

Chris Nowinski: When you actually go back into the history books, you realize that it’s been a controversy for 100 years It was around 1915, a West Point coach wrote a book and he talked about how it was unethical for any of us to be putting an athlete’s suspected concussion back in the game. In 1915. In the 1990s, the NFL started having a new concussion problem. Steve Young and Troy Aikman both had their careers ended by multiple concussions. And so at that point, the NFL said, “we’re going to take this seriously.” And they started launching their own research. 

They put somebody who wasn’t a neurologist or neurosurgeon or brain scientist in charge of it. They put a rheumatologist in charge of their concussion Committee, which should have told us something about how seriously they were taking this. What they ended up doing was publishing a bunch of studies, basically Big Tobacco-like studies where they designed them in a way that would only benefit the NFL’s position. They claimed that there were no long term effects from putting people back in after multiple concussions, even though they didn’t study anybody after their career. 

Sean Morrow: And the NFL is able to push their studies and silence critical information because of the immense power they wield.

Chris Nowinski: The NFL is the most valuable media property in the United States. 90 of the top 100 watched television programs each year NFL games. The media networks battle over the rights of the games, because they’re so profitable. 

Sean Morrow: The major media companies – Comcast, Disney, Fox, Viacom, and now Amazon – pay the NFL billions of dollars to air football games. The latest media rights deal is worth 100 billion. These companies are willing to pay all that because airing football games is immensely profitable.

The average NFL game brings in more than 17 million viewers, and that’s not even playoffs or the Super Bowl. It’s a huge billboard and advertisers want in, giving the NFL unimaginable power over mass media. 

Chris Nowinski: The NFL has a lot of influence at the senior levels of media. If we think back to 2007, it was the New York Times who took the leap of assigning somebody full-time to the concussion and CTE beat that allowed this to become a national story. 

People like HBO, Real Sports stepped in to cover this because that’s what they did. But even they got pushback from the NFL, because they are business partners on different shows. What I learned over the years is if you did a bad story about the NFL, you got a phone call from the NFL offices saying how unfair you were being. If you were a television company, you were then told “we will be remembering this when negotiation time comes up for deals.”

Sean Morrow: And it’s not easy for players to speak out either. NFL players might have what some would consider a dream job, but look at how the league interacts with their union, the NFL Players Association.

Chris Nowinski: If you are in a leadership role, the NFL Players Association and you fight back against the NFL or say bad things in the media, you’re much less likely to get signed later on in your career. And so there are plenty of leaders from the NFLPA who have their careers ended early.

It’s not that dissimilar to Colin Kaepernick for speaking out about something that made people unhappy. They’re really unhappy if you fight from the union side. I have been told from those players that they’ve been punished for that. 

Sean Morrow: Even with the union, the NFL exploits players, like when the union negotiated to at least cut down on hits to the head in practice where players aren’t paid.

Chris Nowinski: And they negotiated for that, but they actually were forced to give up some money for that in the collective bargaining process. So the NFL made them bargain for their own health by taking away money. And so that’s sort of an interesting window into how the NFL thinks about this. So they’re like, if you want to survive, you got to give us more money. 

Sean Morrow: And if players do just ‘shut up and play’ and take the hits? They’re still screwed.

Chris Nowinski: The more concussions you get, the more you get a reputation as somebody who has a concussion problem, and the less likely a team is to invest in you. And I first saw this actually very close up, because my college roommate played in the NFL, and in 2006, he was the only NFL player to get two concussions during that season. When free agency opened up, my roommate did not get the interest that he had gotten six months earlier because he was told he had been labeled as a concussion guy. 

Sean Morrow: So they can’t win: speak out and they can’t get drafted, take the hits and they can’t get drafted. In 2016 players had one victory with the NFL – thousands of player lawsuits were consolidated into one big federal case. The NFL refused to admit any wrongdoing, but still agreed to some payouts to players. 

Chris Nowinski: But when you actually see what people are getting paid. It’s a drop in the bucket for their years of brain health and their years of lost wages, for them having another career. If you can’t think straight. If you have cognitive disorders in your 40s and 50s, it’s almost impossible to earn a living afterwards. So we’re talking about years and years and years where you can’t have a job, because of all the hits you took to the head.

Sean Morrow: But you might be thinking: why should I have sympathy for people who play a game for a living and could be making millions of dollars? Playing professional sports is a privilege, right? 

Chris Nowinski: The idea that players are doing this willingly, it has a little bit of a dark side to it. Because when they started playing, they were children. You start it maybe as young as 5 or 10, you don’t understand the risks, you’re playing a very dangerous game. Now you get recruited to college. Very few people can turn it down because it’s expensive for college. 

And then when someone says, “Hey, do you want to make money for this thing you’ve been doing for basically free for the last 10 or 20 years?” It’s really hard to say no. Especially when in that culture, they’re still not telling you what the risks are? 

We now know, beyond any doubt, that playing football will cause CTE in some people. So the idea that we are recruiting 5-year-olds and putting a helmet on them for a sport that will give them a brain disease, when they have 25 other options that will not give them that brain disease has to change.

We have a brain bank full of young athletes who died by 30 with CTE and most of them, you can draw a straight line from playing that sport, and most of it being football and mental health problems that led to their early death. 

Sean Morrow: But the profit-driven motive of the NFL in sacrificing children’s brains is even more cynical than you’d think.

Chris Nowinski: The NFL is actively recruiting children to the game of tackle football, a game that they will now or should admit will give some of them CTE. And they’re doing it not because they’re actually even trying to create a pipeline of future NFL players. They’re trying to create a pipeline of future fans. 

They’ve even learned that flag football doesn’t create that sort of sticky relationship – you have to put the same costume on as your hero. And if you go play football yourself, your entire family turns into a football watching family.

Sean Morrow: Football is deeply tied to the American identity. But that doesn’t mean we can’t question the monopoly that’s been corrupting the game, and sacrificing players in the pursuit of profit.

Right now, the NFL has complete unchecked  power over how football operates, and they’ve used that power to siphon lots of money away from working Americans to a select few.

The league is jointly-owned by the owners of the 32 teams, 30 of whom are billionaires. The league made $11 billion last year – that’s $350 million for every owner.

These are men and women who made their billions in hedge funds, real estate, oil, private equity, and we’ve put them in charge of a monopoly overseeing something seen as a necessity to many Americans.

To make that monopoly even more profitable, they knowingly sacrificed the health of hundreds of players and used their power to escape culpability.

The billionaires who own the NFL need to be held accountable for the damage they’ve wreaked on their players’ brains. 

The players are who make football great, and just like the rest of us, they’re workers too.

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