Player Safety in the NFL

“You only fail if you don’t finish the game. If you finish, you won. You have to measure by what you started out with, by what you overcome. Who wants to get to the end of their life and find out they haven’t lived at all? You’re going to fail — I did — but that’s O.K. because in your life no one is keeping score. Just finish”

Mike Webster, Pro Football Hall of Fame center


Reggie Nelson of the Jacksonville Jaguars hitting Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts in a 2007 game. Photo credit: Craig O’Neal via Wikimedia Commons.

Football is a dangerous game, but that is what makes it enjoyable to watch. Seeing a bone-crushing hit from a 300-pound lineman on a 190-pound receiver does not happen in any other sport. This sport comes with obvious physical abuse, but in the Nation Football League, players are not protected. After a dangerous and illegal hit has been made on a player, the result of the collision is a fine, which, compared to the average NFL salary, is irrelevant. You could argue that the team’s medical staff is well-trained and does their part in protecting the players, but many veteran players will do whatever it takes to get on the field, including taking pain killers. Calvin Johnson, retired receiver for the Detroit Lions, describes his experience in the NFL regarding painkillers in an interview with ESPN: “They were giving them out like candy” Johnson said. “If you needed Vicodin, call out, ‘My ankle hurt,’ you know. ‘I need, I need it. I can’t, I can’t play without it,’ or something like that.” The training staff does not force the players to take pills or play hurt, but the mindset of football players and the culture of the sport leads to players playing injured. The culture tells the athletes to forget pain, because if you are not playing through multiple injuries as the season progresses, you are not playing hard enough. Saint Louis Rams’ defensive end Jack Youngblood, for example, played through the 1979 playoffs with a broken leg. 

Playing injured is just something you do; it is expected, and Johnson knew his body was wearing down. Johnson was a star player with a major million dollar contract; imagine a rookie player fighting for a starting spot, willing to do anything to prove himself on the field. The unmanageable desire to play and the mentality of the sport, combined with readily accessible pain medicine, will have long term effects. This can lead to drug addiction, as well as future health problems, such as arthritis.

Despite all of these risks, the worst damage usually comes from concussions. “Concussions happen, if not on every play, then they happen like every other, every third play” Johnson said. The frequency of concussions he reports is astounding, and it shows the danger of the sport. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a disease much like Alzheimer’s in that it is a degenerative brain disease with similar effects, like memory loss and erratic behavior. The difference is that Alzheimer’s usually starts as people age, and there are strong hereditary and genetic factors. CTE, however, is from repetitive brain trauma. Both are major causes of dementia.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster died from CTE. He was known for his toughness on the field, doing things like wearing short sleeves during snowing games to show off his physical prowess. Unfortunately, his toughness, the attribute that made him a Hall of Fame center, would lead to his death. His years out of the NFL were shaky; he sold his Super Bowl rings, became addicted to painkillers, and was struggling with homelessness. He is one example of many to be destroyed by the game he gave his life to.

Collegiate’s own Ray Easterling (’68) (and University of Richmond (‘72)) played eight seasons with the Atlanta Falcons as a safety. The Easterling family, along with six other former football players, sued the NFL for knowing that football caused brain damage and not disclosing the information. In his later years, Easterling had been struggling with depression and was diagnosed with dementia. Later, he would commit suicide at the age of 62 due to his clinical depression. The underlying issue of the lawsuit as described by the players’ lawyer, Larry Cohen, was that “they were told for decades to lead with their heads, and the NFL would never admit that there’s any correlation (to later health issues).” The trial resulted in the NFL paying benefits to players discovered to have had CTE between Jan. 1, 2006 and July 7, 2014.

There are two main reasons why this settlement is horrible. First, it excludes a very large amount of players and does not plan to protect future players leaving the league, which again shows that the NFL does not care about their players. Second, CTE can only be diagnosed by autopsy, meaning that the player has to be dead before any benefits will be rewarded. This settlement does nothing to protect the future and nothing to help living players struggling with depression and dementia from CTE. The most the NFL has done to help is add new rules to limit collisions.


Picture of a normal brain and a brain with advanced CTE. Photo courtesy of Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

The NFL has added rules to help limit head to head contact, like moving the kick offs forward and adding the targeting foul. These rules do very little to protect players. A simple fine of $50,000 and an ejection from a game is simply not enough for player safety. The NFL does nothing to help retired players struggling with mental problems. In fact, in the past the league has denied concussions as causing CTE.

Brain disease and pain killers have been the main problems in the NFL for years now. Teams will do anything to keep their star players on the field. The NFL offers little to retired players struggling with CTE and does little to protect players. Through the next few football seasons, these problems will become more poignant and more awareness will be raised. Although Johnson is against pill popping, he doesn’t regret his career, and most players do not either. They love the game of football but can be haunted by its side effects.

About the author

Matthew is a senior at Collegiate and is currently waiting for you in the A gap.