Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The NFL's Biggest Fumble

FOOTBALL IS AT a fascinating crossroads. In one sense, it is the most popular sport in American history. Each year the Super Bowl is the highest rated show on TV, and around 90% of the top 25 shows are NFL games. The NFL's TV contracts keep getting richer and richer, with no end in sight.

At the same time, some people see the end of football altogether lurking on the horizon. There is a growing mountain of study proving the multiple concussions, as well as frequent lower level head trauma, is a harbinger for mild brain damage, early onset dementia and many other brain related injuries. Congress called a House judiciary committee hearing, and some very damning evidence was presented. This has caused concern amongst many different constituencies. Over 1,500 former NFL players are suing the NFL for knowingly withholding and misrepresenting scientific findings on the dangers of football related head trauma. There has been a rash of suicides by former players, most famously Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. The latter's recent suicide sent shock waves throughout the country, and caused many to wonder if brain trauma from his playing days was a factor in taking his own life.

This also affects parents. Many mothers and fathers are beginning to question whether to allow their sons to play football. Youth football participation is on the decline. Even Tom Brady Sr. now says that he's not sure he would have let young Tom play football with the current information. Somewhere Jets and Colts fans bemoan their fate. This effects fans as well. Football fans have long known of the physical toll that playing football has on the human body. It just takes common sense to see that numerous violent collisions will lead to future back pain, knee surgeries and hip replacements. Even so, football fans felt that this deal was fair. The players get fame and fortune, and have to risk their long term physical health. That fans could deal with.

Brain trauma is something else entirely. Fans don't want to feel that players are literally losing their minds in an effort to entertain them. The mainstream football fan would not support a sport where two people fight in a ring until only one survives. That is a level of blood lust well beyond our comfort level. NFL football is slowly creeping towards that extreme. If fans begin to feel that every NFL game is made up of 90 players who are bludgeoning each other to a life of brain damage and early onset dementia, the guilt of watching such a sport might cause fans to turn their TV's off for good.

The NFL knows this all too well, therefore they have embarked on a spirited campaign to publicize their concern for player safety. Players are also starting to realize the importance of creating safer work conditions. To that end, in the collective bargaining agreement signed last summer there were severe limitations instituted about the frequency of full contact practices. Current and future players were also granted lifetime health insurance, and the league created new rules to force concussed players to sit out for longer periods of time. The NFL also reinforced penalties and suspensions for players who tackle by leading with their helmets or hit defenseless receivers.

While these measures are a step in the right direction, they are not uniformly enforced. The penalties are given arbitrarily, and the referees don't seem to know when to apply the new rules. Concussed players are held out longer, but their have been some very public errors made. Browns QB was obviously concussed in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but then allowed to return two plays later.

The bigger problem is the question of hypocrisy. How much are the NFL and its players really concerned about player safety? There seems to be many obvious rules they can enforce in the name of player safety and yet they fail to do so. The NFL rulebook requires basic levels of safety equipment, but there are many potentially helpful equipment items that the players are not required to wear. The NFL rule book states:


Article 5 It is recommended that all players wear hip pads, thigh pads, and knee pads which reasonably avoid the risk of injury. Unless otherwise provided by individual team policy, it is the players’ responsibility and decision whether to follow this recommendation and use such pads. If worn, all three forms of pads listed above must be covered by the outer uniform. Basketball-type knee pads are permitted but must also be covered by the outer uniform.

Why doesn't the NFL force the players to wear the maximum safety equipment to prevent inuries. This applies to head injuries as well. The Green Bay Packers seem to have special helmets that help prevent concussions, and yet they are allowed to keep the identity of this >special helmet a secret. Why isn't the league forcing teams to wear the most advanced helmets? In a league that fines you for wearing the wrong color socks, why don't they fine players for wearing insufficient equipment? In the last collective bargaining agreement there was an agreement to start testing for Human Growth Hormone (HGH), and yet the players have stalled and the testing has not started. The league was willing to lock out the players for financial reasons, so why not lock the players out until HGH testing begins? If the players are serious about safety, then why are they stalling on HGH testing?

These questions are only amplified when it comes to college football. College Football players lay in a vague netherworld of employees and students. The NCAA has been peddling for decades the myth of the “student-athlete”, but their case is slowly eroding. The Atlantic excoriated the NCAA in a piece entitled “The Shame of College Sports”, showing the blatant hypocrisy of the NCAA. The term “student-athlete”, now used by the NCAA as a term to describe their ideal participant, was merely a legalistic ploy to avoid having to pay workers compensation to their “non-employees”. The fact is, the average Division I college or football player has a market value of well into the six figures, and the top players provide a multi-million dollar value to the university at the price of an annual scholarship.

The physical risks taken by college football players are not much different than NFL players. However, college football players are not compensated for their work. The NFL players negotiated in their last collective bargaining agreement lifetime health insurance for current and future players, but college players don't even get that. Even though universities seem more than capable of providing health care. The players can't unionize, due to the fact that they are not employed, so their work conditions are at the whim of their coaches and the all powerful NCAA. Can the NCAA be trusted to do what's best for the players? History says no. While the players do get full scholarships as well as room and board, those scholarships are subject to annual renewal, and top schools routinely sign more scholarship players than they are alloted, and then quietly choose to not renew players they are no longer interested in. Only now, after much pressure, is the NCAA allowing schools to commit to full four year scholarships.

From a Jewish perspective, what obligation does the NFL and the NCAA have to their players?

The Torah says “And you shall make a parapet for your roof that you shall not bring blood upon your house” (Deuteronomy 22:8). If you have a balcony or roof where people traverse, then you are obligated to erect a fence or gate to prevent people from falling. You are responsible for the well being of people who are invited into your home, by the mere fact that you have welcomed them in. When you are in a position of authority, you are also on some level responsible for the well being of your subordinates. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 95a) relates that King David was punished for the deaths of Nov, Doeg, Ahitophel, Saul, and his three sons. He didn't kill them, but through his position of authority was indirectly responsible for their death. This concept is compared to the employee/employer relationship as well. Though an employer can not be tried criminally if an employee dies on the job performing normal work functions, but he is required to seek atonement for the death he may have indirectly caused.

Rav Ben-Zion Meir Hai Ouziel (1880-1953), the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Palestine writes (Responsa Mishpatei Ouziel, 4 – Choshen Mishpat, no. 43) learns from the above sources that an employer has an ethical, moral and legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their workers. They are required to spend the necessary funds to provide for their safety, even at great expense. He writes that since the industrial revolution the potential dangers for workers is much greater, and the employer must respond by providing as safe an environment at possible.

In Jewish law, even an eved ivri, a Jewish indentured servant (someone who works off a debt he is unable to repay with personal service up to six years), is given a number of rights. He can't be given demeaning work, and lives the same lifestyle as the master. He is not allowed to be treated as a slave, but must be treated as a worker with dignity and respect. Jewish law states that he eats the same type of food, sleeps on the same type of bed and if there is only one pillow to be found it goes to the indentured servant. We must respect, protect and look after those who help us and work for us, not treat them as lowly servants. To do so decreased the employee's dignity humanity and causes the employer to look down condescendingly on those below his socio-economic level. The Torah never wants that to occur.

The NFL and the NCAA are morally bound to do more to protect their players, to provide for their needs and to truly look out for their safety. It is not too late for them to do so, but they are running out of time, or football as we know it might be gone forever.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco