Requiem for a Running Back
Of the many sayings attributed to Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, the one that seems most relevant to football today is not about winning, the pursuit of excellence, or the importance of will and character, but rather this: “Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport.”
Collisions are the essence of football. They are intended to occur on every play in every game. Football, Lombardi would say, comes down to blocking and tackling. Every block and tackle is a collision, and every collision could bring some measure of pain. When Lombardi was a boy in Brooklyn, his father, Harry, a tough little man who ran a butcher shop, pounded into him the notion that pain was all in his mind.
The truth is that Lombardi himself had a low pain threshold. He was often disabled with injuries when he was a member of the Fordham line romanticized in the 1930s as the Seven Blocks of Granite. But like many effective leaders, he drew on an understanding of his own weaknesses as a means of eliminating them in others. When he was a prep coach at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, he would line up across from his young players and order them to charge at him while he bellowed “Hit me! Hit me!” At Green Bay, Lombardi would cackle with delight during training camp when it came time for the one-on-one collision drill known as the nutcracker.
I grew up in Wisconsin during the 1960s, when Lombardi’s Packers were winning five championships in nine seasons, and later wrote a biography of him, which might explain why, although baseball is my preferred game, the Packers are my favorite team in any sport. The seasonal progression from radiant fall Sundays to frostbite playoff games in the darkening winter and the superstitions that come with watching the Packers are part of my emotional life, bringing joy and anguish, and if that is pathetic, it is a condition I share with millions of National Football League fans. But my attachment to football has been loosened by an increasing sense of guilt about whether I am complicit in supporting an unacceptably debilitating and duplicitous enterprise. America’s superpower game has never been more popular, yet evidence against it is amassing on many fronts, none more troubling than what science now says about the long-term ramifications of those collisions. I’ve wondered whether I could resolve the conflict between my attraction to the game and concern about what it does. On a larger scale, I’ve wondered whether football could repair itself and be made safer.
In a search for answers, I studied a diverse collection of books, articles, transcripts, and films about football. They included three books that considered the physical, sociological, and financial aspects of the sport to support their theses—Steve Almond’s manifesto Against Football, Gregg Easterbrook’s response, The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football, and Gilbert Gaul’s Billion-Dollar Ball, a deeply reported look into the corporatization of the college game and how it can take precedence over academic concerns.
The rest dealt mostly with the neurological effects that football collisions can have on the brain. Two were films: the well-publicized Concussion, a Hollywood movie starring Will Smith as the Pittsburgh pathologist who discovered a neurodegenerative disease in the brain tissue of deceased football players that came to be known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and the not-yet-released documentary Requiem for a Running Back, about Rebecca Carpenter’s quest to understand her troubled father, Lew Carpenter, who played in the NFL with Lombardi’s Packers fifty-five years ago and suffered from CTE. I also read transcripts of television interviews on the topic of football brain trauma conducted by Charlie Rose and PBS’s Frontline; and the essential writings of Steve Fainaru and his brother, Mark Fainaru-Wada, especially League of Denial, a book that documented two decades of obfuscation and deceit by the NFL in dealing with brain injuries.
Before all else, football must be identified for what it has become, far beyond the blocking and tackling—a colossal entertainment business that benefits from an economic system tilted in its favor.
The NFL, operating as a monopoly exempt from antitrust legislation, brings in $11 billion a year. The owners have been reported to pay their hand-picked commissioner, Roger Goodell, an annual salary of over $35 million. Most of the money comes from television. Easterbrook notes that on the list of the most-watched television events in American history, the Super Bowl holds the top twenty spots. Sunday Night Football on NBC has been the top-rated show on any channel since 2011, and ESPN’s Monday Night Football has been the number-one cable show since 2006.
The football games of the major college teams and conferences are not far behind as businesses, even as they enjoy the benefits of nonprofit tax status. Several conferences, such as the Big Ten, have their own lucrative television networks and, as Gaul writes, “are operated like entertainment divisions, with CEO-style executives and celebrity coaches collecting Wall Street–level salaries.” At the University of Oregon, known as “Nike U” because of the largesse of one billionaire alumnus, Phil Knight, founder of the shoe company, the equivalent of more than $180,000 was spent on each football player, by Gaul’s estimate. The “student-athletes” are tutored in the “Taj Mahal of academic services” buildings, a $42 million glass-and-steel modernist structure off-limits to other students, and trained in a Football Performance Center that reminded Gaul of an upscale shopping mall, replete with plush Ferrari leather meeting seats and locker rooms with “floor-to-ceiling glass walls and marble flooring imported from Italy.” The academic honors program at Oregon is housed in a basement.
Just as with movie stars, pop idols, and other big-time entertainers, any comparison of NFL salaries to those of other professions can be depressing. In 2013, according to Almond, the Minnesota Vikings paid a defensive end $1 million per game “to maul opposing quarterbacks.” For that same price, communities in a state then facing a budget deficit could have hired 474 elementary school teachers or 661 police officers. Fans tend to accept the disparity as a fact of life in our market-driven, celebrity-loving society. They fund most of it, not only by writing monthly checks for cable sports channels and buying game tickets and team merchandise, but also indirectly through the tapping of public funds and granting of tax breaks so that wealthy owners can profit from new and better stadiums.
In Seattle, where Seahawks fans are admiringly called the 12th Man because of the decibel level of their relentless cheering, nearly three quarters of the construction funds for CenturyLink Field came from Washington State taxpayers. “The owner, Paul Allen, pays the state $1 million per year in ‘rent’ and collects most of the $200 million generated,” Almond writes. “If you are wondering how to become, like Allen, one of the richest humans on earth, negotiating such a lease would be a good start.”
All of the above is accepted as troublesome by Easterbrook, Almond, and Gaul despite their disparate conclusions about the fate of football. Gaul, with his focus on college football, has the most provocative perspective on what comes next. The monetization of a superficially amateur sport has made poorly funded programs like those of New Mexico State or Alabama-Birmingham poorer and rich programs like Ohio State and Oregon richer. When Gaul asked the commissioners of twelve conferences, including the Big Ten and the PAC conference in western states, if they were worried about their bubble bursting, “they only laughed in response.” This was the gilded age of college football, Gaul concluded, but “the thing about gilded ages is they eventually collapse on themselves.”
How might they collapse? Whatever the football community does about making the game safer, Gaul saw signs of another problem looming ahead—the unstoppable force of technology. Schools that now profit from football should
be concerned about the disruptive implications of tablets, cell phones, and other gadgets not yet imagined…[and] the younger generation of fans who aren’t nearly as committed to the live-game experience as their parents and grandparents were…. Even students at mighty Alabama are leaving at halftime and not coming back. It is that little portable screen they keep fiddling with to distract themselves.
In their comments on the merits of the game, Easterbrook and Almond draw on a wide range of arguments, but in the end the crucial divide involves brain trauma. Easterbrook’s assessment is summarized in his title: The Game’s Not Over, even if the NFL is “broken and needs reform.” He calls it “the quintessential American sport, a magnificent incarnation of our national character,” and praises its aesthetic beauty, the way it brings together fans of disparate races and incomes, and how it provides an outlet for emotion and manliness in an artificial universe where, unlike the real world, nothing terrible occurs.
The problem, Easterbrook argues, is not at the pro level but earlier, in “youth football”—played by adolescents—and on high school teams, where the vast majority of concussions occur in brains that are more vulnerable. There are about two million boys playing youth tackle football and another 1.1 million on high school teams, while there are about two thousand in the NFL. Easterbrook would prohibit tackle football for kids below a certain age. He believes that changes in NFL rules and improvements in equipment will diminish the likelihood of long-term brain trauma for the pro players. He advises:
Yes, keep watching the NFL. The games are fabulous; the players know the risks and are well compensated. I watch the NFL on television avidly, and attend many games with enthusiasm. I never feel the slightest compunction. You shouldn’t either.
Almond, a reformed Oakland Raiders fanatic, struggled with conflicted feelings for years, but finally concluded that “our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” Where Easterbrook sees the sport as that magnificent incarnation of the American character, Almond asks:
What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America…features giant muscled men, mostly African- American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage?
And he sees no reason to trust that the NFL will clean up the game: “As fans, we want to believe that league officials will choose the righteous path over the profitable one. This is nonsense and always has been.”
In the debate about football and brain trauma, Mike Webster’s dead brain started it all, in a sense, and Chris Borland’s living brain intensified the discussion. Separated by forty years, their stories weave together through the writings and films I examined on the subject.
“Iron Mike” Webster was a Hall of Fame center who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, won four Super Bowl rings, and died in 2002 at age fifty. By then he was a broken man who lived in a pickup truck, estranged from his family, shocking himself with a Taser and attaching his teeth with superglue. It was his brain tissue that Dr. Bennet Omalu—the main character in Concussion—examined at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, leading to the discovery of CTE. Flashbacks depicting Webster’s tormented last days, as portrayed by actor David Morse, are among the movie’s most telling scenes.
As Concussion unfolds, the NFL responds to Dr. Omalu’s findings about Webster’s brain by calling him a quack and claiming that the CTE discovery is bad science. The campaign against him continues even after he documents strikingly similar damage in the brain tissue of other troubled former players who died too young. This reaction became part of a pattern. When Alan Schwarz of The New York Times started writing about traumatic brain injuries and football, Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner, said dismissively that this “is one of those pack journalism issues, frankly.” The NFL formed its own study committee, stacked with doctors affiliated with the league. As League of Denial documents, the goal was to obfuscate the problem. Theirs was the junk science, not Omalu’s. One scientific paper declared: “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.” Webster endured more than 70,000 blows during his long career.
Chris Borland was an inside linebacker who played one brilliant season for the San Francisco 49ers, then retired in March 2015 at age twenty-four after studying the potential long-term effects the game might have on his brain. “I want to be seventy-five and healthy if possible,” he told Rebecca Carpenter in her documentary. One magazine labeled him “the most dangerous man in football.”
Lombardi and Wisconsin connect the two. Webster grew up on a potato farm in northern Wisconsin revering the Packers during the 1960s while they were winning five championships. He went on to play center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison before reaching the NFL. League of Denial opens with a scene of Webster at Pittsburgh’s training camp as a slow and undersized fifth-round draft choice in 1974 proving himself by excelling at the brutal nutcracker drill that Lombardi made infamous. Borland, whose family came from Wisconsin and moved to Ohio, grew up idolizing Lombardi. After my book appeared, he sent me a local newspaper photograph showing him in sixth grade dressed as Lombardi in a comically oversized camel-hair coat and stocking cap, presenting a book report on my biography of the coach.
Like Webster, Borland played college football at Wisconsin. His roommate was from Rhinelander, where Webster went to high school. Webster was a hero in the Wisconsin football pantheon when Borland played there. His Hall of Fame plaque hung outside the locker room. Borland took Webster’s determined approach to the game as the model of a way to prove himself, but though football was important to him, it was not the only thing. Reporters in Madison considered Borland an unusually thoughtful and independent athlete. In 2011, he joined the mass protests at the state capitol against Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda.
At training camp during his first season with the 49ers, Borland suffered a concussion, and from then on, even as he excelled in games, he thought about retiring. He made the decision after reading League of Denial and consulting with Robert A. Stern, an expert on brain trauma and a professor of neurology at Boston University. By then, there was no debate about the validity of CTE, though it could only be diagnosed posthumously by examining brain tissue. Without acknowledging guilt, the NFL had settled a class-action lawsuit filed by thousands of former players charging that the league for years had covered up what it knew about traumatic brain injuries. (Although the players were awarded a total allotment of nearly $1 billion spread out over twenty years, the deal was largely considered a win for the owners; to collect the money the players had to waive the right to further litigation.)
Stern’s colleague, Ann McKee, had discovered CTE in the brains of scores of deceased football players of several generations, including Frank Gifford, a member of the Hall of Fame who died in his eighties, and Junior Seau, who killed himself at forty-three. But it was Webster whom Borland could not get off his mind when he decided that the risk of playing was not worth the reward. The 49ers responded by sending him a bill to repay much of his signing bonus. He still owes about $300,000. A few months after he retired, he visited his old high school coach in Ohio, who asked him whether he could teach his young players a safer way to tackle. Borland politely declined, explaining: “I think that’s a really difficult thing to do.”
The stories of Webster and Borland and Dr. Omalu all appear in the documentary Requiem for a Running Back, along with several powerful encounters that Rebecca Carpenter and her producer, Sara Dee, had with aging players and their families. No scene in the dramatization Concussion can match the agony of watching John Hilton, who played tight end in the NFL from 1964 to 1974, lose his train of thought, his eyes watering, a look of sheer desperation washing over him, as he tries to explain his mental condition; or the pain on the face of the wife of Mike Pyle, a center for the 1963 champion Chicago Bears, as she tells Carpenter, “One day you wake up and think, I don’t have a husband anymore. He’s sitting next to me, but…” The current estimates are that nearly 30 percent of all NFL players will suffer some form of dementia by the time they are sixty-five. Most players, unlike Borland, will still say it is worth the risk. But David Hovda, the head of UCLA’s Brain Injury Research Center, explained to Carpenter, “Brain injury does not happen to one person. It happens to an entire family.”
Rebecca Carpenter had spent years trying to understand her father, Lew, who grew up near the cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta, started as a running back at the University of Arkansas, and became a football lifer, ten years as a player, a coach for thirty-one more. On the field, Rebecca said, “he was beautiful, and I mean really, really beautiful,” but at home his anger and withdrawal had cast a shadow over her childhood and later became so pronounced that his wife, after a long and loving marriage, felt no choice but to leave him.
When he died at age seventy-eight in 2010, his family received an inquiry from Ann McKee, the neuropathologist in Boston. She had read Carpenter’s obituary, saw that he ostensibly had never suffered a concussion during his career, and asked whether his brain could be examined as a control in the CTE studies. The family agreed, and months later Rebecca was in Boston looking through a microscope at the brown strands of tau protein that had riddled her father’s diseased brain tissue. McKee said to her, “On a scale of one to four, four being the worst, your father was a four.”
Since it cannot be diagnosed in living players, CTE is not a fully understood disease. Its symptoms appear to vary widely from severe dementia to depression to bursts of anger. But Lew Carpenter’s brain reinforced what leading neuroscientists now believe—that it is not severe concussions so much as the repetitive subconcussive blows that football players endure over a career that are more often the cause, the toll of thousands of collisions and jarring movements that shake the brain inside the skull. This calls into question whether the NFL’s concussion protocols and changes in rules can fix things. As Susan Margulies, a concussion expert at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to Charlie Rose, no helmet has been devised that can “effectively reduce the rotational acceleration, that sloshing within the head that’s happening in the brain itself.”
In late November, during the middle of my research, I announced to my wife that I was “off football.” The cumulative effect of what I had read and viewed seemed too damning for me to continue as a fan. But this decision also happened to coincide with a Packers loss to the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving night. A team that had started the season 6–0 was now 7–4, and it was exasperating to watch them struggle. Was I “off football” or conveniently using my newfound knowledge as a rationalization to avoid the pain? I spent the following days with anything but football: no college games on Saturday, no NFL on Sunday or Monday night. I imagined what it would be like to be Garry Wills, who once told me that he had never watched ESPN.
Green Bay’s next game was the following Thursday night, against the Detroit Lions. I tried to resist watching but gave in, clicking on the television in our hotel room for the start of the game. With the Packers trailing 17–0 before halftime, off went the set. This served me right for being weak, I said to myself. An hour later, unable to sleep, I checked my cell phone and saw that the score was 23–21 Detroit.
No debate now. On went the television, and I watched the final tense minutes—the Lions’ completion on third and long that seemed to clinch the game; the Packers getting the ball back one final time with less than a half-minute remaining; the desperate multilateral play that seemed to end it all as Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ quarterback, was tackled with the clock reading 00:00; the penalty flag against a Detroit lineman for yanking Rodgers’s face mask, allowing Green Bay one last untimed play; the snap, Rodgers retreating and feinting left, barely avoiding a sack, rolling out to his right, gathering momentum as he approached the line of scrimmage and launched a remarkable gung-ho spiral, the ball arcing as high as a punt, nearly scraping the rafters of indoor Ford Field before descending toward the end zone seventy yards downfield and floating into the hands of the felicitously named Richard Rodgers, who had turned and backpedaled and jumped high to make the catch in front of a scrum of teammates and opposing defensive backs. HE CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT! WE WON! WE WON! I screamed, waking up my wife if not the entire tenth floor of the hotel. Easterbrook’s The Game’s Not Over took on a new meaning.
I quit smoking cold turkey thirty years ago; this was more difficult. Of all the people I had come across during my research on football, Chris Borland was the one I admired most. I wanted to support him in every way I could, yet he had played and I had only watched and now I could not yet bring myself to stop watching, even though that made me feel less than virtuous. I was not alone with these conflicted impulses. Ann McKee, who had studied scores of diseased football brains at Boston University, acknowledged that she remained a fan. “I have, like, these two faces,” she told Almond as he was making his case against football. McKee grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, a Packers fan like me. Among the artifacts in her office was a bobblehead doll of Aaron Rodgers.
And what of Rebecca Carpenter? Was she off football now? Yes, she wrote to me, and in truth it never gave her much pleasure. This said, she acknowledged how marvelous it could be. “That Aaron Rodgers pass with zero seconds on the clock: Who didn’t think that was beautiful? Holy shit, it’s an amazing game!”