Pro football left me with a neck injury. Watching pro football, I
mean. At least three of the games that started at 1 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday
went thrillingly down to the wire, two of them bleeding into overtime, and as I
sat in a sports bar jerking my gaze from the television showing the Colts to the
one with the Seahawks to the one with the Rams, I suffered mild whiplash. I ache
as I write.
The whole 2012 season has been like that: seesaw contests, last-minute heroics.
The spectacle presented by the National Football League has perhaps never been
Or uglier. And on Sunday, there was also a reminder of that, the overtime games
overshadowed by the anguished examination of a murder-suicide, just a day
earlier, involving the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. Belcher, 25,
shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, then himself. They left behind a
baby girl, Zoey. Chiefs players are already talking about a fund for her. That’s
apt, but they should be talking about a whole lot else as well.
There’s something rotten in the N.F.L., an obviously dysfunctional culture that
either brings out sad, destructive behavior in its fearsome gladiators or fails
to protect them and those around them from it. And while it’s too soon to say
whether Belcher himself was a victim of that culture, it’s worth noting that the
known facts and emerging details of his story echo themes all too familiar in
pro football over recent years: domestic violence, substance abuse, erratic
behavior, gun possession, bullets fired, suicide.
His death was the most stunning N.F.L. news of the last few days, but not the
only peek into a world of tortured souls and crippled bodies. In The Times, Judy
Battista reported that this year would be a record one for drug suspensions in
the league, a result in part of an apparent rise in the use of the stimulant
Adderall. The record could reflect heightened vigilance by league officials, but
still: the high stakes, physical demands and physical agony inherent in pro
football indisputably encourage drug taking, and some oft-medicated players
graduate to years of addiction problems.
The scientific journal Brain just published a study by Boston University
investigators of 85 people who had received repeated hits to their heads while
they were alive and were examined posthumously for degenerative brain disease.
Sixty-eight of those people had such disease, which can lead to mood swings,
dementia, depression. Fifty of them had played football, 33 in the N.F.L.,
including Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety who shot himself fatally
in the chest last year after sending his ex-wife a text message requesting that
his brain tissue be analyzed for football-related damage.
The study’s publication follows the consolidation earlier this year of more than
100 lawsuits involving more than 3,000 former N.F.L. players and their families,
who accuse the league and its official helmet maker of hiding information about
the relationship between injuries on the field and brain damage. It also follows
the revelation this year that the New Orleans Saints engaged in a bounty program
by which defensive players got extra money for knocking opponents out of games.
In May the former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, a veritable legend
whom I’d known for years as Nemesis No. 1 of my beloved Denver Broncos, shot and
killed himself, and in a heartbreaking assessment of his demise five months
later, the San Diego Union-Tribune noted that “within two years of retiring,
three out of four N.F.L. players will be one or more of the following: alcohol
or drug addicted; divorced; or financially distressed/bankrupt. Junior Seau was
In the same article, the newspaper reported that the suicide rate for men who
have played in the N.F.L. is nearly six times the national average.
The Union-Tribune maintains a database of N.F.L. players arrested since 2000.
The list is long, and the league is lousy with criminal activity so varied it
defies belief. The quarterback Michael Vick of course staged inhumane dog
fights; the wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg
with a gun he’d toted illegally into a nightclub; the wide receiver Dez Bryant
was accused of assaulting his own mother.
How all of this misfortune and all of these misdeeds do and don’t relate to one
another isn’t clear. But to be an N.F.L. fan these days is to feel morally
conflicted, even morally compromised, because you’re supporting something that
corrodes too many lives.
The Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said on Sunday that Belcher’s bloody end left
him wondering “what I could have done differently.” That’s a question that
everyone in the N.F.L. should mull.
And we fans must demand it. On Monday morning, what didn’t feel right wasn’t
just my neck, but also my conscience.
PHOENIX, N.Y. — Football coaches and school administrators at John C.
Birdlebough High School congregated in a small room off the library Monday,
huddling around a computer for a most painful and unusual review of game video.
They examined every play that one student was involved in, assuming the role of
They were trying to discern which collision of the hundreds in a football game
at Homer High School on Friday night might have caused Ridge Barden, a
16-year-old defensive tackle, to fall to the turf in the third quarter and die
within a few hours. The coroner attributed Barden’s death to a subdural
hematoma, or a brain bleed.
“There’s nothing here; there’s still nothing there; there’s nothing there;
there’s nothing there — and now he’s laying on his stomach,” Jeff Charles, the
head coach, said while watching the sequence frame by frame.
As those who play and coach football learn new ways to improve safety — through
training, medical response and equipment — sometimes they are left to
contemplate this: brains remain vulnerable, and even the most ordinary
collisions on the field can kill.
Teenagers are especially susceptible to having multiple hits to the head result
in brain bleeds and massive swelling, largely because the brain tissue has not
yet fully developed. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport
Injury Research, Barden was the 13th high school player to die from a brain
injury sustained on a football field since 2005 and the third this year.
Including college and youth football players, there have been 18 fatalities
With heightened attention focused on brain injuries in football in recent years,
Barden’s death delivered an unwelcome reminder that even the best-known
practices sometimes fall short. As it happened, the Senate Commerce Committee,
the latest group in Washington to explore the topic, held a hearing Wednesday to
discuss concussions in sports and the controversial marketing of
Barden had no history of head trauma and showed no concussion symptoms, his
coaches and father said. The Cortland County coroner’s office said the autopsy
showed no evidence of a pre-existing problem.
Barden’s helmet, a Riddell Revolution, was purchased by the school two years ago
directly from Riddell. It was reconditioned after last season and recertified
for use in 2011 by Stadium System, a company based in Canaan, Conn., that
reconditions helmets for hundreds of schools around the country.
Two certified athletic trainers and three student trainers from the nearby State
University of New York at Cortland were on hand and treated Barden on the field,
and emergency medical technicians arrived with an ambulance within minutes.
“You can have the perfect plan in place but if all of these things happen, it
can still result in a catastrophic injury and death,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, the
chairman of the department of exercise and sports science at the University of
North Carolina and a leading researcher on sports concussions.
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, director of the Michigan NeuroSport concussion program at
the University of Michigan, was among the witnesses who testified at the Senate
hearing Wednesday. “Those kind of injuries are very rare, they’re catastrophic,
they will happen and there’s no real way of preventing them through equipment,”
he said about Barden’s death in an interview after the hearing. “That’s going to
happen any time there are impacts to the head of significant force.”
After reviewing the video, the coaching staff deduced that the critical blow was
sustained on Barden’s second-to-last play, a routine collision with an opposing
lineman at the line of scrimmage. But Barden appeared to be fine as he prepared
for the next play.
At first, after collapsing, he was groggy but responsive and coherent, Mr.
Charles said. Barden told his coach that he had sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit
and that his head hurt. Barden rolled over on his back then sat up on his own,
but his condition quickly deteriorated. He began moaning and closing his eyes.
When asked to stand up, he tried but immediately collapsed.
The emergency technicians planned to take Barden to University Hospital in
Syracuse, about 45 minutes away, but they rerouted when Barden went into cardiac
arrest. While the crew performed CPR, the ambulance drove three minutes to
Cortland Medical Center instead.
When Barden’s father and grandmother arrived from Phoenix, the doctor told them
he was dying; only CPR was keeping him alive. At 10:18 p.m., less than two hours
after the seemingly ordinary play at the 6-yard line, Barden was pronounced
Dr. Guskiewicz said the only way Barden might have been saved from a subdural
hematoma would have been if he had undergone immediate surgery to relieve the
pressure on his brain. But a CT scan would have been needed to diagnose the
problem, and, according to accounts, Barden’s condition deteriorated too quickly
for him to have a CT scan.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon at Boston University and a leading expert in
sports-related head injuries, said that in cases similar to Barden’s, in which
the person was conscious right after the hit before quickly deteriorating, he
had discovered that the subdural hematoma was not the cause of death but rather
massive brain swelling. And in many cases the condition began with a previous
hit and a second impact was the lethal blow.
Dr. Cantu said he could not speak to the particulars of Barden’s case without
examining the brain.
“All I can simply say is that when I see this precipitous deterioration, my ears
immediately go up and I wonder about second-impact syndrome in association with
subdural hematoma,” Dr. Cantu said, adding that an original blow can be
sustained off the field. “But it’s the second impact that’s the lethal part.”
Students, coaches and administrators remembered Barden this week as a straight-A
student who would walk a long way from his home to school for voluntary workouts
in the summer. Friday night’s game was his first start with the varsity team.
The community was left wondering what could have been done differently. The
coach, Mr. Charles, contemplated whether he could return to coaching football.
His team’s last game of the season has been canceled.
“I will never bad-mouth the sport of football,” Mr. Charles said. “I played it
and I loved it and I’ve coached for years, but it does make me take a second
look at it.
“I’ve had a few people asking if I’d coach again, and you know what, I don’t
know. Right now I think the irrational thing would be to say: ‘No, I don’t feel
like coaching again. It scares me.’ But to be honest, I don’t know how it’s
going to affect my coaching. It scares me right now that I don’t know if I will
be a good coach.”
Barden’s father, Jody, said he had no objection to the sport in the wake of his
“I just don’t want a negative spin on this,” Mr. Barden said Sunday. “There is
no blame in this. I don’t want to scare kids from playing the game. Ridge loved
playing the game, and I know he wouldn’t want it to get a bad name.”