Could Football Fade Away Like Boxing?
I have no idea if Dr. Oz is a good or bad doctor but I do know this: He is an Oprah Winfrey creation, much like Rachel Ray and Dr. Phil.
In pop culture, that carries an enormous amount of weight. Dr. Oz might be a superb doctor, his credentials seemingly are outstanding but exactly what does a cardiothoracic surgeon and TV personality such as Dr. Mehmet Oz know about the safety of football?
Probably not a lot, since he is not working with people like Chris Nowinski, who is co-founder and executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), a non-profit organization dedicated to solving the sports concussion crisis through education, policy, and research. Nowinski also serves as co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (BU CSTE).
Chris also serves as an adviser on the NFL Players Association Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, the Ivy League Multi-Sport Concussion Committee, South African Rugby Union Concussion Working Group, and as a consultant to Major League Lacrosse. He is a Ph.D candidate in Behavioral Neuroscience at Boston University School of Medicine.
It is unlikely Dr. Oz treated people like George Visger, Brent Boyd, Dave Pear, Gene Atkins, Steve Bartkowski and a host of others who have talked to me about the after-burn of the significant head injuries that they suffered on the field. But Dr. Oz is a very useful prop to an industry that the CEO and President of the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame, Steve Hatchell, called “under siege.”
Make no mistake — the entire football industry from the youngest levels to the NFL is under some sort of siege because head injuries in players young and old are a big issue, especially in the media.
The NFL rolled out Dr. Oz with Commissioner Roger Goodell and others at a Chicago event to petition players’ mothers to not be swayed by traumatic brain injury information. There is a standard line that goes something like this: Football teaches you discipline (although that seemingly doesn’t fly when one considers NFL players were arrested between the Super Bowl last February and the start of training camp this past July), teamwork, sacrifice for a common goal. Valuable life lessons.
Sure there is a little danger in football but if you learn the basics, you might make it through football in good shape. The little danger includes possible head injuries, morbid obesity and hypertension, not to mention injury pain.
There is heat on Goodell to do something about the injuries. Goodell really can’t do anything, as he works for 31 owners and a board of directors in Green Bay that ultimately make decisions on how the game should be played.
There should be heat on college presidents, chancellors, provosts and trustees too to make college football safer, but somehow those educators have eluded the limelight.
The real people who should feel pressure are school district administrators and school board members around the country who green light funding for junior high school and high school football programs. There will come a time, no matter who the NFL trots out (even Oprah herself) to bless football, when school board trustees are going to make some tough decisions on funding football and football insurance or cutting teaching staffs.
That will come quicker than we think.
Once upon a time in the U.S., the three most popular sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. As television spread in the 1950s, football gained a stronghold in the American culture. It was the perfect TV game and fit into an ideal three-hour period in a once-a-week setting.
The NFL’s popularity exploded. The NFL was built on violence, a dash of sex (aka cheerleaders), gambling and some incredible federal legislation that violated the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1961 and 1966 when JFK signed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 into law and President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the American Football League-National Football League merger in 1966.
As the NFL grew, boxing lost athletes to football and fans to football. By the 1980s, boxing was nearly finished in its downhill descent. In January 1986, boxing supporters realized there were two problems that needed to be solved to save it: The sport had to be safer and someone needed to take care of broken-down boxers.
There is a lesson that the NFL and football industry should learn from 1986: Football needs to be safer, and the industry needs to take care of broken-down players.
Ron Schaffer and his associates were putting together a Hall of Fame that was scheduled to open its Las Vegas doors in 1987. But the Hall of Fame was just a piece of Schaffer’s redesign of boxing.
Schaffer’s group wanted to take the idea one step further. They planned to house former boxers who were down on their luck at the facility and planned to establish a training center that would have emphasized safety in the ring.
Schaffer indicated his group would not stop just at honoring the greats of the game and providing housing. The group wanted to set up insurance and pension plans for former boxers, because a boxer is an independent contractor.
“I think now is the time,” Schaffer explained to this reporter in January 1986. “The sport is probably under more pressure than it has been in since its existence. The fact is the government is pressuring the sport; the A.M.A. (American Medical Association) is pressuring the sport and so on. At this point, the sport needs a banner to rally behind. Our group is the logical focal point for the sport of boxing.”
Schaffer headed what was a non-profit group, called the Boxing Hall of Fame. Among the members of its board was boxing referee Davey Pearl. Schaffer noted that it would be Pearl’s job to teach aspiring refs how to judge a fight from a safety view point.
“Davey says that he feels the most important person inside that ring from a safety standpoint is the referee,” said Schaffer. “He tells us that a lot of referees need additional training. Also, there are a lot of trainers who have not had a good formal training in various aspects of physiology that would enable them to properly train their fighter, so that the fighter will be less susceptible to injuries.”
Fighters get hurt in bouts. Talk to a boxer and he will tell you that more injuries occur in sparring matches. The boxer will go on to say that not too much can be done in those sessions to prevent injuries. In 1986, however, Schaffer thought that problem could be solved.
“Doesn’t that go right along with the training that we are talking about?” he asked. “We can train the trainers, train the seconds and train the cutmen and the managers. We want to have an ambulance at every fight. The fact is that safety and the additional training and education of all of those people that are close to the fighters will make this sport safer.”
Schaffer said that the group wanted to establish chapters in various cities across the country that will train boxing people in safety procedure.
Former middleweight champion Carmen Basilio approved the idea. Basillo was involved with an attempt to establish another Hall at the time but he thought Schaffer had the best idea.
“This is better. They are going to do something else than being a Hall of Fame. Fame is very fleeting,” said the former champion. “It means nothing when you are finished. This can be some kind of security or pension fund for the fighters who need help. I think it’s great.”
Schaffer’s Hall of Fame never got off the ground and many boxers fell into the American safety net of early social security insurance and Medicare. Some ended up on welfare.
The AMA made some noise about boxing but the sport hasn’t changed. The AMA is quiet on the football injuries and unhealthy dietary habits of certain players.
There are quite a number of professional football players who have ended up the same way as those old boxers who had nothing. There seems to be no real inventory available on the physical condition of players who competed in junior high school, high school, junior college and college football and semi pro leagues. Boxing still has a few big days a year with major championship fights but for the most part, boxing is a forgotten sport in the U.S. This isn’t to say football is headed in the same direction but people like Goodell and Hatchell, who are spokesmen for the industry, know there is a problem and that white heat is being drawn to them as the media, players’ parents and coaches, and other anti-concussion groups roar about safety issue and long term brain damage.
That’s why Dr. Oz is used as a prop. He is popular, he has a great TV presence and by all accounts, he is an outstanding doctor. But Dr. Oz isn’t a head specialist. The industry knows it has to change to keep a supply of players in the system, and using a prop like Dr. Oz to reassure mothers and fathers that football is safe for their children is a cosmetic but important step.
The NFL doesn’t want to see more PBS documentaries like League of Denial reach the public speculum. Dr. Oz is the first step in the offensive to make sure the public is satisfied with football. The war for the loyalty of football fans and the realities of long term football injuries is on.
The football industry does not want to end up like boxing.
Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.