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NFL's dirty little secret: Players suffer

By Jeff Pearlman, Special to CNN
  • Jeff Pearlman says money is NFL's first concern as it pushes for more games in season
  • Concussions, dementia are common, he writes. Players are often walking wounded
  • Roughly 100,000 high school players suffer concussions every year, Pearlman says
  • NFL indifferent to its players' health, he writes, and pressured Toyota over truthful ad

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman is a columnist for

(CNN) -- The business leaders of the National Football League used to have a secret.

It was a deep, dark secret, one they kept written on a microscopic piece of gold-plated paper, locked behind a door, behind a vault, behind a 20-foot-long man-eating anaconda in the basement of its New York offices.

The majority of the world's secrets are easily uncovered. This one, however, stood as a modern-day equivalent of the inner workings of the Bavarian Illuminati. Nobody was ever supposed to suspect. It was passed down from generation to generation; only the most trusted and knowledgeable of NFL officials were ever genuinely aware of the truth.

Now, however, in Year of Our Lord 2011, the secret has somehow escaped professional football's clutches, only to land in the midst of mainstream society.

The world is doomed! The empire is conquered!

Playing football is (gasp!) bad for you.

The NFL wants to make money, its participants' futures be damned.
--Jeff Pearlman

Yes, it is true. Playing football is bad for you. Bad for the neck and shoulders, bad for the arms and legs, really bad for the brain. See how NFL players look like muscular human-stallion hybrids, what with their fire hydrant forearms and refrigerator-sized calves and 4.3-40 times? Check back in a decade, when a shockingly large number will have trouble limping from the couch to the refrigerator without stumbling to the ground in agony. In the worst cases, some will struggle to remember their own names.

The stories of past NFL players-turned-walking (or not walking) wounded are heartbreaking and endless. The great Earl Campbell can barely stand up. Neither can the great Wilber Marshall. Or the great Dave Pear. Or the great Wally Chambers. John Mackey, the legendary Colts tight end, suffers from frontotemporal dementia and lives in full-time assisted living. Ralph Wenzel, an NFL guard from 1966-73, also suffers from dementia and can no longer dress, bathe or feed himself. Ted Johnson, a former Patriots linebacker and only 38 years old, shows early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Yet even though we are all now relatively well-versed in the risks that come with America's most cherished sport, the NFL -- the ultimate corporate monolith -- doesn't want you to think about it. Or worry about it. Or, ahem, be aware of it. Just kick back and drink your Budweiser.

The stories of past NFL players-turned-walking (or not walking) wounded are heartbreaking and endless.
--Jeff Pearlman
2010: Playing despite concussion risk
Warner: 'Something has to change'
2010: Sufferers demand concussion law

As reported in The New York Times, the league recently demanded that Toyota significantly alter a 30-second advertisement that cites the danger of football (Pathetically, Toyota gave in). The spot, which most sports fans have seen by now, focuses on the automobile company having contributed crash research to those scientists looking into football concussions. In the ad, a mother worries "about my son playing football."

Brian McCarthy, an NFL talking head, told the Times that "we felt it was unfair to single out a particular sport. Concussions aren't just a football issue."


As Alan Schwarz, the Times' writer, rightly noted, researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, report that roughly 100,000 high school football players suffer concussions every year. Wrote Schwarz: "The second through ninth-ranked sports combined reach 100,000."

In other words, the NFL has a helluva lot of nerve. Ask any NFL executive about pro football's commitment to player health, and he'll almost certainly blather on about higher fines for head-to-head hits and better equipment and blah, blah, blah.

But behind the talking points is a harsh reality: The NFL wants to make money, its participants' futures be damned. Need proof? As the league and its players face a possible 2011 lockout, one of the major issues is the owners' insistence that the regular season schedule increase from 16 to 18 games. That means two more full-speed games of pounding, of shattering, of twisting, of slamming, of hurting. Every week throughout the seasons, fans are greeted with the Monday morning news of this guy suffering a concussion, that guy suffering a torn ACL. The last thing players need is more contact time.

Hines Ward, the veteran Steelers receiver, recently told Sports Illustrated: "The league doesn't care about us anyway. They don't care about the safety of the game. If the league (were) so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games on? You talk about you don't want players to drink ... and all you see is beer commercials. You don't want us to gamble, but then there are (NFL-endorsed lottery scratch-off games)."

Sadly, Ward is right. As it heads toward another Super Bowl, the NFL's hypocrisy looms larger than ever.

This isn't about a commercial.

It's about a commitment to health.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.