Why I’m saying goodbye to football

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by Roxanne Jones

(CNN) — I fell in love on a Monday night. Now, many may say a teenage girl can’t know about such things. But that night as I watched Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett roll downfield 99 yards for a touchdown, I fell head-over-heals in love with the NFL.

It was January 3, 1983 — Monday Night Football, Dallas vs. Minnesota. I’d never seen anything so inspiring. Dorsett was so free, so graceful and so powerful to me. He was focused and determined. Watching him break free of his competitors, those who wanted to bring him down and stop him from reaching his goal, I was in awe. And I knew then that his run capsulized all that I wanted to accomplish in my life.

That football game is one of my most cherished childhood memories. I have been a passionate NFL fan since that moment — though I switched my loyalties to the Philadelphia Eagles, my hometown team. My family has never understood my love affair with the league. They have balked as play dates, family events, even church services have been rearranged or skipped to fit my football calendar. I ended up spending much of my career in sports journalism, a dream job if ever there was one.

But after 30 years, my love and respect for the game is fading. And I’m seriously considering giving up football completely. I don’t want to, but I am left with little choice. I’ve come to this pass because of a recent airing of “League of Denial, The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” the PBS documentary that details the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries.

Based on a book by journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the program examines the NFL’s attempt to cover up medical science that has linked Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, called CTE, to concussions in NFL players. Players with CTE have battled depression, memory loss, and in some cases dementia.

The NFL consistently has denied any connection. But many of the men who play the game feel differently.

“I think I’m just paranoid. But … from their standpoint, I think they are looking forward to covering their own (butt) more than anything, more than player safety,” Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl champion Terrell Suggs told the Baltimore Sun.

Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, whose concussion in 1994 was featured in the documentary, told PBS:

“I do not have a son; if I had a son, I wouldn’t necessarily discourage him from playing football, but I don’t know that I would encourage him to play, either … I don’t know what the data show, but I haven’t sensed there’s been a reduction in head injuries. With that in mind, that’s concerning. As long as we’re having contact and as long as there are collisions, there’s going to be head injuries.”

The NFL, which did not participate in the documentary, agreed in late August to a $765 million settlement in a concussion lawsuit with more than 4,500 players and their families.

The proposed settlement allows the NFL to avoid a public trial to fight accusations that the league concealed what it knew about the dangers of head injuries. Under the terms of the pending settlement, which is still awaiting approval by a judge, the NFL likely won’t have to disclose internal files about what it knew, or when it knew of any links between concussions and permanent brain injury.

When I watch the games today, the awe is gone. Instead, I thank God that my son never wanted to play football, that it was basketball that stole his heart. And I find it ironic and a bit disingenuous that the NFL, in an effort to make the game more attractive to its 44% female audience, adorns the players and the field in Breast Cancer pink. Imagine where breast cancer research would be today if the science around the cause of the disease was rejected, or covered up. Imagine if women were told to ignore the warning signs of this killer disease, or if we were denied access to lifesaving treatment.

Today, instead of telling kids how football helped to inspire me to go after what I want in life, I advise them and their parents to avoid the game at all costs. It’s not safe at any level. Play other sports.

I’m not alone. The Hall of Fame Giants linebacker Harry Carson, who was a leading voice in the documentary, doesn’t believe the game is safe for children today.

“I pray parents understand all they’re getting into when they allow their kids to play football,” he said. “My oldest son luckily gravitated to basketball, and as a doctor he understands what concussions are about. My younger son didn’t play, and to this day I’m grateful,” said Carson, who begs his daughter not to let his grandson play.

“Because concussions happen all the time on every level of football, the long-term damage is terrible, and we’re seeing evidence of it all the time.”

I agree. I’ve worked with former NFLers who suffer blackouts in midsentence, after being diagnosed with numerous concussions over their careers. And many of us knew Junior Seau and others football players who have taken their own lives. Too many of us in the sports industry stood by and watched yesterday’s heroes implode, or fall into depression in retirement.

It’s easy to sit back and pontificate about why so many players are violent, both on and off the field, or how they ended up with ruined lives. We often blamed the players themselves. “They were irresponsible men, or had bad agents, girlfriends, wives who took advantage of them,” we explained. We blamed everything but the game itself for so many ruined lives and serious psychological problems.

Now I see that I have been an enabler, blindly protecting the game — the game that afforded me a lucrative career at ESPN. How could I criticize any NFL commissioner for doing the same? We have all made a very comfortable living off the game and the backs of men like Harry Carson, Tony Dorsett and Junior Seau.

I want to save my relationship with the league but it needs to own up about CTE.

Stop endlessly denying the findings of medical science that say playing football can cause permanent brain damage. End the lies. Just admit we have a problem. That is the first step. Stop the slick marketing campaigns to keep telling our children all they need to learn is a “safe way to hit in football,” while denying each hit comes with a dire consequence.

This relationship is toxic. If my beloved NFL continues to lie and deny while men and boys are suffering and dying, then it’s time for this fan to say good-bye.

Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women’s topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

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