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You can blame the NFL for CTE, but not for ignoring player safety

PaVaSteeler recently wrote an article about some upcoming movies on the history and harms of the condition now known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). A long time fan feels the need for perspective. The league can be responsible without being guilty, and it matters because we as fans are in exactly the same boat.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports


I want to be clear about that up-front. This article was prompted by an innocent enough comment that someone made in reaction to PaVa's article about upcoming movies on the history and harms of CTE. It started when I flinched at a line that went something like this: "Webby was too good a man and a player to deserve the fate he suffered."

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not the nicest person in the world. There are some people out there whose grave I'd be happy to dance on. But I wouldn't wish Webby's fate even on them. If you're the kind of sick monster who would, please keep it to yourself because none of us want to know that you're out there and free of confinement. But the fact that CTE has (and will) cause such terrible harm is not the same thing as saying that the NFL or anyone else "sinned by allowing it to happen."

I will be the first to agree that the NFL has a financial responsibility to help football-related victims of CTE and to prevent future damage from continuing to happen. I'll even give you a quasi-legal justification for that point of view: To me the NFL should be treated like a manufacturer that sells a defective widget. Widget makers are liable for problems in their product even if those problems turn up decades later, and even if the designers did everything possible could to prevent the harms they knew about. Why should the NFL be any different? [See endnote].

But that is a financial duty that applies even without some moral failing. And that distinction - between being "financially responsible" and "morally responsible" - deserves a closer look. Just like my hypothetical maker of widgets, the men in charge of the NFL may be accountable for CTE here on earth while being totally blameless in the eyes of Providence. [Or New Haven if you prefer a locale with a different zip code].

I grew up in the 1970's and can remember every year of Mike Webster's amazing career. I am here to tell you that even then the NFL had a long history of slowly recognizing "excessive" dangers in the game and legislating to bring them under control. Facemask tackles weren't banned until the 1950's, and even then the rule only applied to "tackles." You could grab and twist a facemask in any other situation up until 1962. Why the new rules? The only concern was player safety.

The clothesline tackle is another example. Dick Lebeau's more-famous teammate, Night Train Lane, was the master of that technique and fans loved it, but in the 60's the league banned it nonetheless. I'd bet there are people on this list who could compile a double-digit list of safety innovations enjoyed by Mike Webster and his teammates that were totally unknown back in the "good old days" before he got drafted in '74.

Even more changes were made during the years that Webby played. "Head slaps" were the dominant pass-rushing move of the 1960's and 70's. Ever wonder how Deacon Jones get so many sacks? It's because he'd mastered the art of walloping offensive tackles on the side of the head so hard - through the helmets! - that he could stroll on by while they stood there stunned (a/k/a concussed). Joe Greene was just as good at it, though he was an even bigger man playing against smaller linemen (like centers). The technique became illegal in 1977, three years after Webster came into the league.

I can also remember 70's-era pass rushers proudly explaining (on national TV!) how the "pads" on their arms were built up and hardened to be more like casts than cushions. The Raiders were particularly notorious about that, but I'm totally sure that other teams did it too. If memory serves, the popularity of that weaponized approach to pass rushing continued until the 1980 rule changes that defined "clubbing" as a personal foul. That is another example of a change implemented in the middle of Webster's playing career that was designed to protect people exactly like him.

The rules against clipping and crackback blocks also came about in '79 or '80. They didn't help Webby per se because he was a starter by then, but the up-and-coming centers who played on special teams certainly benefited. Other positions saw safety-first changes as well, such as the limits placed on defensive backs who liked to pick the receiver up and spike him head-first into the artificial turf. (It still amazes me that necks weren't broken on a regular basis).

Hindsight may prove that the the league didn't do enough or do it fast enough, but no one can complain that the men in charge simply ignored the dangers faced by those who played a very violent game.

As for the "fair warnings to the players argument" ... the medical diagnosis of "CTE" may not have existed during the glory years of the 1970's and '80's, but everyone knew the term "punch drunk." My Dad made no bones about warning me that many of my NFL heroes would suffer from that problem just the same as boxers did. Joe Louis was a common example, and I can remember an actual discussion we had after watching Ali suck up punches in the Thrilla in Manilla.

Make no mistake about it - 90% of the players would have happily accepted the risks anyway even if they'd been warned in excruciating detail. They just would have demanded more money. And as Hamlet said, "Aye there's the rub!" If threats to player safety really were ignored, no one needs to look any further than good old money for the true explanation. Owners, players, executives, and everyone else in the game - including the players - were far more worried about unionization and salary levels than they were about the long term effects of multiple head traumas.

So ... I'll grant that the NFL can be blamed for moving too slowly, but that's a far cry different than accusing the actual men who made those choices of "indifference" to life and limb. Financially liable ... yes. That makes sense. But liable before the throne of the almighty (and/or the Mayor)? Not so much.

Disagree if you want, but don't be too quick about it until you spend some time looking in the mirror too.

Fans love to say that the NFL is a business, but we aren't too fond of the corollary: A business (the NFL) responds to its customers (you and me) even faster than it does to employees (like the players). Care to take odds on whether the NFL's fan base opposed those safety-based changes I described above? Vigorously, violently, and ever so vocally? Each and every one of the new rules? Damned straight [we] did! If you've ever uttered words like these - "Just put them in dresses and attach a few flags while you're at it..." - you're part of a long and not-so-noble tradition.

We spent the money instead of reaping it of course, and that makes a difference when it comes to financial responsibility. But from the purely moral point of view...? You tell me. I don't see much difference.

Okay, end of rant. Like I said in the beginning, none of this is intended as some kind of excuse that would let the current NFL avoid payment for the mistakes, miscalculations, and other "defects" it built into the game back when. But paying for mistakes is not the same thing as paying for "sins." And IMHO that's a distinction that really ought to matter.


[ENDNOTE] The legal approach I described above is called "Strict Liability In Tort For Product Defects" and (in both fact and theory) it treats a maker of physical widgets very differently from a 'mere' maker of rules like the NFL. The hurdles are so big that I believe the plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit didn't even try to make that argument, and would almost certainly have lost at the trial court level if they did. But that's another discussion and I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the analogy is about the way I think the world ought to work, more than the way it actually does.