Death, brain damage, paralysis: cognitive dissonance and tackle football

Death, brain damage, paralysis: cognitive dissonance and tackle football

It's getting harder and harder to enjoy watching the Bears each week. Not because Caleb Hanie makes Jim Miller look like Kurt Warner, but because of moments like Johnny Knox's chest bending toward his back. We could not see the injury on the original telecast, so when the camera flashed to a writhing Knox, my friend Doug and I made the old "bruised ego" joke. Then we saw the replay and had a Willis McGahee moment (:35 on tape): "Will Allen with two big shots, one on Winslow, and then this one -- oh MY goodness. Oh lord! (pause) That is a serious knee injury for Willis McGahee."

FOX went to commercial after the Knox hit, and when they returned Knox was still down, surrounded by a team of physicians and trainers. He'd been moving his arms throughout the ordeal, so that was good; I watched Reggie Brown's paralysis live in 1997, which was simply awful (7:18), and it was clear from the start that Knox was not paralyzed. Tweets came in with reports on Knox's condition -- it was initially termed a "mid-back injury," and later it was announced that Knox would undergo back surgery on Monday (today) to stabilize a vertebrae in his back.

"Johnny has total movement throughout his body, has total use of his extremities, which is good," said coach Lovie Smith on Sunday. "He is not paralyzed or anything like that."

I didn't see that quote until this morning. What really shook me was a tweet late last night from Tribune Bears reporter Brad Biggs, a quote that is attributed in the article above to a team spokesman: #Bears say prognosis for Johnny Knox's career and quality of life are good.

That's the quote that shook me. Do I really spend my Sundays watching a block of sports entertainment in which we need reports concerning a player's future QUALITY OF LIFE? I don't have to worry about that in basketball. Professional football has always been filled with terrible injuries -- S.I.'s famous "The Carnage Continues" issue is nearly 20 years old -- and studies of its affects on the brain have been in the public football discussion for the past few years.

Yesterday's game wasn't the first time I'd been bothered by pro football's harmful effects. I wrote a moderately decent full length screenplay six years ago in which the "Jack" character tells his girlfriend that he thinks the NFL will fall out of favor with the American public because of injuries. In October 2010 I traded tweets with writer Patrick Hruby after reading his column arguing essentially the same thing.

Meanwhile, two recent articles have me thinking about these dangers in new ways. One was a story by Slate's Josh Levin called "James Harrison: the villain the NFL wants." That story argued that the league stands on the punishing, helmet-to-helmet hits by Pittsburgh's Harrison as the scourge of an NFL player's future livelihood, when in fact it's the million little hits absorbed by the body on average plays that will cause the most damage. Hruby wrote the same thing in 2010:

Concussions can occur when the head hits something. A hard plastic helmet. Or a knee. Or the ground. They also occur when the head moves quickly and violently even without suffering a direct impact, like during a blind-side hit.

In other words:

* Helmet hit? Possible concussion.

* Non-helmet hit? Possible concussion.

Helmets aren't the thing. Hitting is the thing.

The second story was an interview with former Carolina Panthers all-pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, an absolutely remarkable read in which Jenkins confirms what Levin and Hruby wrote about injuries: it's not so much about the few highlight reel hits, but about the thousands of moments of brutal contact. That's what makes tackle football such a punishing sport. Says Jenkins:

You ever been in a car crash? Done bumper cars? You know when that hit catches you off guard and jolts you, and you’re like, what the hell? Football is like that. But 10 times worse. It’s hell.

I got my first N.F.L. concussion against Green Bay, my rookie year. I jumped, and my feet got clipped, and I hit the ground face-first. Bang! No shoulders. No chest. Nothing. Just my face hit. I got up, and I had the punch-drunk feeling, seeing starbursts and feeling giddy. I knew where I was. I knew what was going on. I also knew I had my bell rung. I made tackles back to back, and I remember one coach saying, the way he’s playing right now, the concussion probably did him some good. I played the whole game.

The debate about concussions wasn’t there yet. I’ve had more than 10, including college and the pros. Nobody cared. And that’s the thing. We play football.

I remember one game, at Carolina, my second year. We played Arizona, and the double team weighed 780 pounds combined. They just kept double-teaming me, hoping I would fold and cave in. I didn’t. But that was probably the most painful day I had.

From the double teams, over the years, I wore the left side of my body down. I was past hurt. I was at the point of numb. Like my body was shutting down nervous systems, so I didn’t have to deal with pain.

The numbness started at the very beginning. I couldn’t feel part of both arms. I couldn’t feel part of both legs. It was worse on the left. I’m just starting to get feeling back in my left side. Look, football is no joke.

Here in Chicago, we've seen key members of the '85 Bears lose either their lives or their quality of life to football.Wilber Marshall can't walk, his defensive teammate Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied, and their coach Mike Ditka has become an activist for pushing the NFL to support retired players. That doesn't even include guys like Dan Hampton who waddle. All of this is nothing new...

...yet it took watching Knox's body fold like a travel suit case and then seeing that Biggs tweet to really put a new spin on my enjoyment of tackle football.

And yet...

A few nights ago I had a great discussion with a friend of mine who just turned 25, and who played four years of high school football at Mt. Carmel. He spoke in reverent terms for the life lessons he gained playing football, and how the impact of those lessons came flooding into his life years after his football career was finished. He never played past Carmel, and yet when I called him last night to talk more about it, he was adamant: football had given him the skills needed to compete in the world. What do you get from football that you don't get from other sports? I asked him. What are the benefits.

He told me it was about everyone coming together for a common goal, how no one man can win alone.

But that's the same in soccer, I said. What is it about the form and violence of football?

"It's a life sport," he said. He spoke about fighting for inches, about being warriors. He spoke about having just a few seconds each play to achieve, to win, and how when those few seconds are up you return to the huddle and prepare for the next few seconds.

He took pride in the challenges to both mind and body. "You don't have to be terribly smart to be a basketball player," he said, "not compared to football." He also said that football was the ultimate definer of the truly great athletes, that more professional football players could succeed in other sports than other athletes could succeed in football, that if you could make it as a football player, only then were you truly a GREAT athlete.

And always, again and again, he came back to the idea of being a warrior and the glory therein. "It's just like the movie Gladiator," he told me. "That's us."

It's an idea Jenkins discussed as well:

I can’t blame anybody for my death. I made the choice to play football. I made the choice to walk through the concussions. I could have stopped. I could have said, my head hurts. It was my choice, as a man. We consider football a gladiator sport because we understand you’re going to get hurt. You’re putting your life on the line. You might not die now, like in an old Roman arena, but 5, 10 years down the road, you could. You know that.

I wouldn’t change anything.

And later:

What you hear from guys like Ray Lewis, James Harrison, what they’re saying is we’re well aware what we’re signing up for. The violence, we love it. The madness, we love it. We love measuring ourselves in it.

Those guys express themselves with their pads. You soften the game, you’re taking away their freedom of expression. Nobody wants to see flag football, and now, you might as well give guys flags, tell them to hug afterward, all that.

The violence is what I remember. Like against Buffalo in 2009, when I had the game of my career. Or the time I slapped a lineman out of the way in Houston with one arm. Winning, the physical part, the mayhem, finding the line between insanity and sanity, that’s the exact reason why you play. That’s the reason fans like football in the first place.

A guy like James Harrison, he’s possessed, and that’s the guy you love to play with, love to watch. He doesn’t need to be babied.

Like my friend, Jenkins also spoke about the confidence he gained from the sport:

When I was a little kid, I got picked on. I didn’t start hitting my growth spurts until high school. I was the smallest kid in my class in junior high. When you get bullied, you either cower and shy away from the world, or you go ballistic. I didn’t get to the point where I felt like shooting people. But I fought back once I could.

I've got a busy day today, one that may well include watching tonight's Steelers-49ers game in San Francisco. James Harrison won't be playing -- the NFL suspended him for his hit on Cleveland QB Colt McCoy. With Patrick Willis and Troy Polamalu suiting up, there will be plenty of big hits to go around. And plenty of small ones. Some future Johnny Knoxes maybe. Some future Dave Duersons too.

Jack M Silverstein covers the media for Eye On Chi. Hit him on twitter at @ReadJack.


I will be co-hosting the Jarrett Payton Show today from 10:30 to 12:30. We will most certainly be discussing Johnny Knox and football injuries. Listen live at, and call 312-564-7375 to join the conversation.

2ND AUTHOR'S NOTE, DEC. 20, 2011:

Two more stories I want to add to the mix, one I forgot to include yesterday, and one that just ran today. The first is Hunter Thompson's terrific column "Death In the Afternoon" from February 2001 about the racing death of Dale Earnhardt. I was writing so fast yesterday morning that I skipped over the HST story, but it's a doozy, one of the best stories from his ESPN days. It was on my mind when Knox went down. A tidbit:

On the surface it was just another bad crash on a racetrack down in Redneck country. What the hell? It happens all the time. But this one had a resonance that echoed all over the country. It was the death of a national hero for no good reason at all -- just an Occupational Hazard of the Speed business, shrug it off, forget it.

But it was more than that. People noticed it, like they would definitely notice if Michael Jordan had been instantly killed by a brutal & deliberate foul to keep him from scoring in the final seconds of a close game.

Or if John Elway had been killed during a routine play in the last two minutes of a scoreless Super Bowl by a 300-pound blitzing linebacker, who knew he would get a big Bonus for knocking a famous quarterback out of the game. Permanently. Dead from a broken neck.

Those ripples would have been noticed far beyond the city limits of Denver. And the killing of a hero like Elway could not have been shrugged off by somebody saying, "Sorry, but that's the way the game is played."

The second is from, a piece by Jordan Conn about Mike Utley's famous post-paralysis thumbs up. When Knox went down, Utley was on my mind too -- indeed, anyone old enough to care about football in 1991 probably thinks of both Utley and Dennis Byrd each time the action on the football field offers even a hint of paralysis. Conn actually mentions Earnhardt in his story, and about the Utley connection, he writes:

I asked about the meaning of the thumbs-up. Does it give permission to move on? Yeah, he said, it does. But he thinks that's a good thing. He certainly doesn't begrudge his teammates for playing without him, or the fans for cheering them on. "I'm still pissed they didn't win the Super Bowl," he said. "I could have had a Super Bowl ring."

So if it's permission to carry on, then does the thumbs-up let people off the hook? For Utley, the question is irrelevant. Because if you're talking about culpability, then you're talking about victimhood, and Utley refuses to see himself as a victim. "Here's the thing you have to think about," he said. "I chose to be on that field. I chose to cross that line. I chose to listen for the snap count. You go back and watch it. As [quarterback] Erik Kramer starts moving his foot, and as that ball hits him in the ass, my right hand and foot are moving backwards. The other linemen have not moved yet, but I'm already moving. I chose to play this explosive game, to hit someone so hard their eyes roll back in their head. I chose to be there. I chose all of it."

Utley's attitude matches that of Kris Jenkins, my friend Carlton (the friend referenced above), and even my colleague Jarrett Payton who, during yesterday's show, said he would not change a lick of his football career. Payton, however, said he has reservations about allowing his soon-to-be-born son to don the pads. Interesting stuff all around...

--- JMS, 12-20-11

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