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Greg Connors’ Mixed Media: Easterbrook rises to the NFL’s defense

The revelation last week that former Raiders great Ken Stabler suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was the latest piece of evidence in what might be called The Case Against Football.

The list of former NFL players whose brains were believed to have been damaged by collisions or concussions during their careers includes the late Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Frank Gifford and Mike Webster. Former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley talked candidly about his depression and neurological struggles with The Buffalo News’ Tim Graham in November 2015.

PBS’s “Frontline” made waves with its documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” which aired in October 2013. The film was based on a book by the same name, written by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. A prominent figure in the book and film was Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who was one of the first researchers to publish findings linking CTE to football players. Omalu was played by the actor Will Smith in the 2015 film “Concussion.”

More than a few commentators have asserted that the game of football might not be around in another 10 years, as evidence about brain damage turns young people against the game, as well as possibly leading to lawsuits that could bankrupt the NFL.

Then there is Gregg Easterbrook, a Kenmore West graduate, a contributing editor to The Atlantic and author of the popular Tuesday Morning Quarterback column that now resides on the New York Times’ website. Easterbrook is bullish on football’s future. His most recent book is “The Game’s Not Over. In Defense of Football” (Public Affairs Books).

While the author is an unabashed fan of the pro game, he is hardly a cheerleader for the NFL. He refers in the book to league Commissioner Roger Goodell as “a water boy who makes eight figures.” He is strongly critical of the billionaire team owners who demand public subsidies for their stadiums.

And he acknowledges the high-profile cases of domestic violence associated with NFL players such as Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. However, he points out, statistically NFL players are less likely to be involved in domestic violence, or to commit crimes, than American men as a whole. That being said, Easterbrook also points out that the NFL does not take violence against women seriously enough. If it did, he writes, O.J. Simpson’s bust would not remain in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, nor his name on the Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Easterbrook’s book looks at the game from many angles − some flattering, many less so. And while the book’s title could imply that the author is a brain damage denier, he is anything but. A central argument he makes is that the NFL has made the game somewhat safer in the past few years by putting in rules changes to discourage helmet-to-helmet hits and tightening its concussion protocols, putting the players at less risk than in years past. Players are more aware than ever of what the risks are, he says, and they are pretty well-compensated for assuming those risks on the field.

Before leaving for Santa Clara, Calif., to watch The Big Game on Sunday, Easterbrook spoke to The News by phone about his book and the state of football.

Q: Is your defense of the NFL essentially a libertarian or free-market argument, that football is something we enjoy and don’t need to be protected from?

A: Well, I think children need to be protected from it. Kids under the age of 13. I say (in the book) that youth tackle shouldn’t be played. But society accepts that children should be protected from a lot of things. ...

I can only wish that a libertarian perspective would come to football because one of the many ironies of the NFL is that although the owners and the coaches talk rock-ribbed self-reliance, in fact they are all addicted to public subsidies. Direct subsidies for stadiums, tax favors, the antitrust waiver that the NFL enjoys.

Q: When it comes to the NFL, you point out that the league has done more to address the risks of brain damage. So you believe that in the future, we won’t see as many cases like Junior Seau, Dave Duerson or Mike Webster?

A: It’s impossible to know, we won’t know for 20 years, but I think when the current generation of NFL players reaches late middle age, that they’ll have fewer degenerative neurological conditions. Awareness of helmet-to-helmet problems has gone way up, practice contact hours have gone down.

As recently as five years ago the NFL denied there was such a thing as second-impact syndrome. And all of the health research now points to the second impact as being more dangerous than the first one. And now with concussion protocols and players being held out of games and practices for a week or two, now the risk of second impact is not eliminated, but it’s reduced a great deal. So I think the current generation of players is likely to have fewer problems but we won’t know for sure for another 20 years.

Q: Your book also says that if a clear link between head impacts and CTE is proved, society may “need to reassess its debt to combat veterans and its enthusiasm for contact sports.” So you are saying that such a link has not been proved yet, but if it is, football could be in big trouble?

A: Oh yes, especially at the youth and high school levels. It might continue at the professional level, but then question would be, where would your professionals come from if high schools stopped playing?

As you know it’s impossible to diagnose CTE in a living person. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie “Concussion” and I’m sure you know the work of Bennet Imalu. I think he’s made an important contribution, but all that he’s really shown is that older professional football players who die after exhibiting dementia also have CTE. That’s all that he’s shown and that’s actually not very much. It could be that everybody who exhibits dementia before death has CTE. That’s totally unknown.

So suppose some genius invents a safe diagnosis for CTE in a living person. And suppose it shows that only combat veterans and football players and others who engage in head-to-head contact events have CTE. Then you’re going to see a real across-the-board social assessment of whether contact sports should be played. And not just football; you know the concussion rate is dangerously high in girls soccer. So you could see a whole reassessment of that.

On the other hand, suppose that genius invents the test for the living and it turns out that half the country has CTE. Then this whole objection to football would be completely dropped and no one would make these complaints about football anymore.

Q: The book says that society directs a lot of its anger over this issue toward the NFL, but it’s high school and youth football that we should be more concerned about. You did some coaching of your sons’ football teams, so I wondered if as a coach you had any first-hand experience with concussions?

A: I followed Archie Manning’s advice. (Easterbook writes in the book that Manning would not allow his sons Peyton and Eli to play tackle football until seventh grade.) I have two boys … and they both played in high school and one of them was a starter in college. I did not let them put helmets on until they were 13. When they were younger I coached flag football, which I think is the right thing for young kids. When they turned 13 then I started coaching youth tackle football, which I think can be a good experience for kids if you have a coach who’s conscientious and is more concerned with a learning experience than with screaming for touchdowns. And there are lots of conscientious youth league coaches.

But here’s a good example. About 10 years ago, I found that to be any kind of youth league coach in Maryland you had to submit to an FBI background check to discard the very, very tiny possibility that you were a registered sex offender. ... You did not have to take a sports first-aid class. You didn’t have to know the symptoms of heat stroke and concussions. You didn’t have to know how to diagnose and treat concussions. You didn’t have to know any of that stuff, which was a hundred times more likely to be a factor when coaching youth sports than sex abuse would be.

Now that’s gradually changed. Maryland and most states have finally begun to require youth and high school coaches to take sports first-aid classes and have certification in those subjects and that’s one reason why I think future players will suffer less cognitive damage than the ones of the past.

Q: In an interview you did with Colin McEnroe on Connecticut Public Radio, you mentioned the fact that you, Bill Simmons and Keith Olbermann are all no longer working for ESPN, which you say is not a coincidence. Did you feel that your outspokenness about the NFL and Roger Goodell caused any friction for you while ESPN was running your column?

A: Let me preface by saying, in my opinion that’s not a coincidence because I can’t prove it.

If I could prove it, I would. Oh yeah, there was a lot of friction. Me, Simmons and Olbermann are very different people in many ways, as you’re aware, but the one thing that we have in common is that we are outspoken critics of the NFL. … The three of us, we made statements on our own authority about what was good and bad in the league, and I think that’s what really drove the NFL crazy about the three of us. I heard on many occasions that various NFL officials called ESPN editors and ESPN management officials to complain about me and I’m sure they fielded calls about Olbermann and Simmons as well.