The toll of football

I never watch CBS News Sunday Morning, but I stumbled across it this morning in time for a portion of a very nicely done report on the potential harms resulting from playing football. Sally Jenkins, one of the deans of American sports commentary, was among the primary interlocutors for the segment. She’s become a high-profile critic of the NFL in this regard.

Among the points of interest:

1) Jenkins was critical of the proposition that it is necessary for kids to start playing tackle football at an early age if they aspire eventually to an NFL career. She noted that Tom Brady didn’t start playing tackle football until high school. Archie Manning, father of Peyton and Eli, also agreed that tackle football could come later. His own boys, he said, didn’t start playing tackle until middle school and that flag football could establish a fine foundation for younger players to build on.

2)Mo Rocca, the segment correspondent, also interviewed Tony Dorsett, the 1976 Heisman Trophy winner and long-time star for the Dallas Cowboys. Dorsett is now 61 and has reported having significant memory loss and other symptoms associated with CTE. He told Rocca that he was convinced that team executives and the NFL knew about the risks of playing football, including the neurological risks, long before that became public knowledge. The Cowboys declined to comment, on the ground that no one who worked for the team when Dorsett was playing is still with the organization. The NFL also declined to comment, though it released a statement to CBS that it would be happy to discuss health and safety issues at any time (except this one, apparently). It’s worth noting that when Rocca asked Dorsett whether, if given the chance, he’d do it all over again, Dorsett said he would.

3)Jenkins specifically criticized the NFL because it only covers the health insurance of retired players up to five years after they finish their careers. Because the potential health effects often don’t become fully apparent until that window has closed, this amounts to buck-passing by the NFL onto the American taxpayer. Comparing CTE to black lung, Jenkins said there needed to be the equivalent of a Coal Act for football.

That act called for, among numerous other health and safety measures, called for:

“specific procedures for the development of improved mandatory health and safety standards, and provided compensation for miners who were totally and permanently disabled by the progressive respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of fine coal dust pneumoconiosis or “black lung“.

Jenkins noted that nothing scared NFL owners more than this sort of federal oversight.

The CBS piece didn’t touch on this, but the difference in union strength between football and baseball is germane here. Among the major emphases of MLBPA leadership has long been pension and retirement benefits. And the results have been remarkable. If you’ve been on a major league roster for even one day (that’s *day*, not year, not month, not week), you are guaranteed health insurance coverage for the rest of your life.* (The NBA Players’ Association announced last summer that it would, forthwith, provide health insurance to all living ex-players).

The gap here between football on the one hand, and baseball and now basketball on the other – especially given the differences in danger between the former and the latter two.

(*By the way, after 43 days in the major leagues – six weeks and a day – players qualify for the minimum lifetime pension benefit of $34,000 a year).

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