Chances are – if you’re reading this – you follow the NFL.
You almost certainly enjoy the NFL.
Perhaps you even love the NFL.
But do you
trust the NFL?
Not likely, given the evidence that suggests the actual players don’t
trust their own league or their own teams and the widely held assumption
that the NFL is about as endearing and sympathetic as Roger Goodell’s
condescending news-conference face.
Frankly, not even those four guys on Mount Rushmore look down on the rest
of us as relentlessly as Goodell does. Or as dispassionately.
In a survey conducted by The Associated Press this season, only 47 out
of 100 NFL players said they thought their teams had their best interests
at heart in terms of health and safety.
And the respondents weren’t just asked about their “team”
in the most general sense but also specifically about their coaches and
their club’s medical personnel.
“Some of the guys I hear stories from,” Jacksonville running
back Denard Robinson told the AP in a story released Sunday, “they
don’t trust the team opinions.”
Of all the disabling injuries possible in the NFL, fractured faith must
be one of the most difficult to repair, which is where the Hoag Neurosciences
Institute enters this billion-dollar, billion-doubt game.
Before the Rams announced they were returning to Los Angeles, the NFL already
had moved back to the Southland, to Newport Beach.
“What we’re doing isn’t a research project,” says
Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, the institute’s executive medical director.
“This is a medical service being provided for these wonderful athletes
who enriched our lives on all those Saturday and Sunday afternoons.”
In November, Hoag was selected by the Cleveland Clinic as a West Coast
location for the NFL Players Association’s Brain and Body initiative,
which is designed to provide health assessment and medical assistance
for the league’s alumni.
The first four clients are scheduled to launch the program at Hoag next
week. Each of the former players will go through a comprehensive health
screening, from the physical to the mental to the emotional.
“It’s sort of a super-duper physical,” Dr. Brant-Zawadzki
says. “We’ll cover everything with them completely. We’re
starting with four players, but we’ve been told the floodgates are
about to open.”
When the majority of players in any legitimate survey say they have doubts
about the sincerity of their employers, well, aren’t these professional
sports leagues always preaching to us about the importance of integrity?
Like many of you, I, too, have enough suspicion about the NFL’s methods
to fill this entire week of Super Bowl hype. I’ve written critically
about the league’s long-standing tradition of building itself up
on the broken backs and concussed brains of its players.
The combination of past ignorance and present arrogance can be a lethal
one, as the stories of depression, dementia and suicide among former pro
football players mount like the rap sheet of a serial killer.
At the Hoag Neurosciences Institute, at least, some of the latest strides
will be taken in the pursuit of altering certain long-standing traditions.
So comprehensive is this program that even the former players’ sleep
patterns will be studied.
“Football is a wonderful game, but it does need to be made safer,”
Dr. Brant-Zawadzki says. “I don’t believe football should
be outlawed. But it should be transformed. It would be a shame to see
He considers himself not only a football fan but a terrific one, the doctor
noting that he harbors a sufficient and appropriate dislike for Tom Brady.
Having attended Stanford, Dr. Brant-Zawadzki specifically says he always
has rooted for John Elway, meaning his heart Sunday will be with the Denver Broncos.
“I have great respect for athletes, especially ones skilled enough
to play professionally,” he says. “That’s why being
involved in a project like this is very fulfilling. They put their bodies
on the line for us to be entertained. It’s like ballet with different
forces and a different skill set.
“It’s a work of art, really. The mental stimulation and visual
component sports provide are priceless. You look at someone like (Rob)
Gronkowski. He’s a super human artist out there. It is a phenomenal
thing to witness.”
That is, when the players are playing. Defensive end and two-time Super
Bowl champion Justin Tuck officially announced his retirement Monday even
though, at age 32, he certainly could continue.
Then there’s wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who, after nine seasons,
is reportedly stepping away from the NFL despite the fact he won’t
turn 31 until the Detroit Lions’ third game next season.
The temptation is to call this a trend when it’s probably more of
a new reality, players quitting when they still have their health and
their senses, when they can still remember the memories they made.
The allure of leaving a league like the NFL is now as easy to understand
as the allure of making it there in the first place.
Perhaps this is all part of the sport’s transformation, players like
Tuck and Johnson taking it upon themselves to act, while, at places like
the Hoag Neurosciences Institute, the rebuilding of trust is more of a
group effort, one as noble as it is needed.
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