Tonight in New York City, football executives will change the lives of hundreds of young men at the NFL Draft. Young men from around the country will see their fortunes arrive with the call of their name from the podium. They will be feted with signing bonuses and performance bonuses and endorsement contracts and millions of dollars in salary. And then in the fall, we’ll all trudge out to our local stadia to cheer on these same players to victory.
But what will we be watching? Actually, we’ll be invited into the workplace of two football teams, a workplace as cruel and debilitating as any in the nation. Over the past several months, members of Congress have investigated the prevalence of concussions and neurological injuries arising from the game of football, and the results have been unsettling.
Are professional football players at greater risk of dementia and other neurological problems?
The question took center stage in Congress on Wednesday during hours of testimony from doctors, retired athletes and National Football League executives. A congressional committee waded through conflicting perspectives on past and current studies, and urged the use of greater precautions to help protect participants in one of America’s most popular pastimes [...]
“Surely, an $8 billion a year industry can find it within its budget to make sure players are adequately protected and that any victims of long-term brain disease are fairly compensated,” said Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
These are “life and death issues. They go to the heart of our nation’s most popular sport, and equally importantly, they affect millions of players of all ages and their families.”
The New York Times has done a particularly good job of covering this issue. Through their coverage, you can see the NFL first deny, then admit the long-term effects of concussions on their employees; allow the co-chairs of their concussion committee to quit, and select new ones; set new rules on players returning from concussions (they now have to wait longer); and yet continue to deny the magnitude of the problem, rejecting the evidence that concussions and repeated contact can lead to long-term brain damage.
But that evidence is very clear. Take the case of former NFL lineman Ralph Wenzel, now living in an assisted living facility:
The five paper-clipped sheets that were slipped into a wire basket at the Van Nuys State Office Building looked no different from the other workers’ compensation claims filed by welders and cashiers. But this packet was different: it will almost certainly become a test case in considering National Football League teams’ liability for the dementia experienced by retired players.
The claim was filed by Dr. Eleanor Perfetto on behalf of her husband, Ralph Wenzel, contending that his dementia at 67 is related to his career as an N.F.L. lineman from 1966 to 1973… They estimated the case’s potential value at more than $1 million if it reaches its conclusion, probably in two or three years [...]
After watching her otherwise healthy husband begin to lose his mental faculties in his mid-50s and be placed in an assisted-living facility at 64, Dr. Perfetto has become one of the most outspoken voices in football’s dementia debate. She testified at a United States House Judiciary Committee hearing on brain injuries in October and served as a resource for other spouses of former players with dementia; in December 2008 she tried to attend a meeting between N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell and retired players but was turned away.
“Having a judge deem this is work-related would move this forward and keep it very visible,” said Dr. Perfetto, a senior director at Pfizer who holds a Ph.D. in public health from the University of North Carolina. “I think when they look at all the information it will just be undeniable.”
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anybody. The repetitive stress of banging heads with other large men equipped with helmets and pads is bound to take a toll on the body and the brain. Football players are well-compensated for the risks they take, but the cumulative effect of constant hitting is undeniable. And football owners and medical personnel, along with the culture inside locker rooms, keep players in danger and on the field even when they’re injured. This PBS story on Hall of Famer John Mackey is simply devastating.
However, I notice a difference between how the concussion story has played in media and on Capitol Hill versus, well, every other workplace in America. When football heroes are faced with a hazardous workplace, there are multiple hearings, and massive media coverage, and serious pressure on management to fix the problem and make the workplace safer. When your manufacturing plant, or hotel, or restaurant, or other place of business, has an unsafe workplace, there are no cameras, there are no hearings, frequently there are no inspectors. This is the problem that the Protecting America’s Workers Act intends to fix.
We don’t have spectators at our jobs. We don’t make millions of dollars. We cannot expect the kind of pressure on our bosses to fix our problems. Government must ensure safe workplaces for everyone, from the football star to the mine worker. And so we need PAWA to update the rules for worker safety and create the kinds of penalties to make employers change their behavior.
I worry about the stars who will be drafted tonight, and the hazardous work environment they will face. I also worry about the rest of the workers in America. Someone needs to look out for them, too.
POSTSCRIPT: Next week, April 28, is Workers Memorial Day, a date to honor those workers who have died on the job. I hope you’ll take a moment to think of them.