National Football League Violence

Like several people I know, I taped the documentary on the NFL and its concussion issue that aired on PBS’s superior program Frontline. This excellent journalism made one think about the violence inherent in the sport, the issue of parenting and allowing your child to play a game that could not only harm his development but play a role in an early death. It also made me think about boxing and how many fighters knew what the sport was doing to their body and mind but they were poor and saw no better way out of their poverty.

One interesting take came from a long-time sportswriter:

For too long, sports journalists glossed over football’s violence. I was one of them.

John McDonnell/The Washington Post – Washington’s quarterback Robert Griffin III on the ground after getting a concussion in the 3rd quarter of a game against the Atlanta Falcons at FedEx Field in October 2012.


Leonard Shapiro is a retired sportswriter, editor and columnist at The Washington Post.

Early in the 1977 NFL season, after Washington Redskins running back Bob Brunet suffered a serious neck contusion when the knee of Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Randy White hit him in the helmet, I visited him at Georgetown University Hospital.

Brunet, who grew up poor in Louisiana’s Cajun country, was playing at a time when the average NFL salary was about $55,000 a year. I asked him that evening if the hit, which could have left him permanently paralyzed — it did end his career — had in any way made him rethink his decision to play professional football.

Absolutely not, he said.“You’re damned right I’d do it all over again,” he told me at the time. “I was a poor kid from the backwoods of Louisiana, and now I’ve given my wife and kids security for the rest of their lives. I know I’m going to have problems from football. But I accept that. I have no regrets. None whatsoever.”The game had allowed him to graduate from Louisiana Tech, earn a good living and escape the destitution of his native Lafourche Parish. After football, he moved to Baton Rouge, opened a successful seafood restaurant — the Galley — and raised his family. Most former players I’ve spoken to over the years view their playing days in the same way.I covered the NFL over four decades dating back to 1972. Now semi-retired myself and five years removed from day-to-day football coverage, I have one main regret: not focusing more of my reporting and writing on the absolute brutality of the sport, particularly the painful post-football lives of so many players.

Instead, like many other sports journalists, I spent much of my career writing positive pieces about the league and its players — puffy features and breathless accounts of thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. I certainly covered my share of serious NFL warts: mounting injuries; the use of steroids and amphetamines; team doctors prescribing far too many painkilling pills and injections; the derogatory Redskins name; and, for many years, the dearth of African American quarterbacks, head coaches and ­front-office personnel. But until the past decade or so, most of us glossed over the brutality of the sport. Shame on us.

Some believe that a CBS documentary, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” first aired in 1960, may have sparked the popularity of professional football. Huff was a celebrated New York Giants linebacker halfway through a Hall of Fame career at the time, and the documentary gave viewers an up-close look at the sound and fury of the pro game, using mini-microphones to pick up trash talk and the high-decibel thump of body against body, helmet against helmet.

Half a century later, a highlight-driven sports culture, fueled by ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and YouTube clips, has increased the emphasis on Big Hits — the wicked shots heard ’round the football world.

“I think that may have been true six to eight years ago,” ESPN coordinating producer Dwayne Bray said of this culture during a public forum in August on violence in the game. “I think we’ve been very restrained on the issue. If there are hard hits, we report the news. . . . I think even as the NFL and the parents are being educated, ESPN and other media entities are being educated.”

Surely sports television plays up the contact of the game. Certainly, the stations and the league are aware of the money that is tied to keeping the game entertaining and exciting to the most people that they can.

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