NFL ‘magic show’ makes the reality of football disappear

A glance around the “news” coverage of the Super Bowl shows the National Football League has done it again. It’s convinced the skeptical world of journalism to fall head over heels over the celebrities who latch onto the Super Bowl, and the theater surrounding the “big game.”

It’s hard to tell where the public relations arm of the NFL ends and journalism begins when a Super Bowl comes to town. The league’s ability to tamp down a discouraging word is how the NFL has become a billion-dollar nonprofit organization.

The NFL is really good at this. This week, it’s throwing money at a few local groups and reaping the benefit of favorable media coverage. Blue lights, big musical acts, a corporate takeover of Nicollet mall. Star gazing at the Mall of America. It’s all part of a magic show that makes reality disappear. The spectacle is so immense, we’re puppets and can’t help ourselves.

So, it’s unlikely that even with the benefit of a microphone from the New York Times, anyone is going to pay attention to Emily Kelly, the wife of a former NFL player, whose story has been told hundreds of times before by other spouses and family members, and former players who can still string words together to form a sentence.

The NFL destroyed her husband’s brain in order to provide us with entertainment.

“It seemed like one day, out of the blue, he stopped being hungry,” she writes today in the New York Times Sunday Review. “And often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal forgotten around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel.

The more friends and family commented on his gaunt frame, the more panicked I became. By 2016, he had shrunk to 157 pounds. That’s right, my 6-foot-2 football-player husband weighed 157 pounds (down from around 200 when he was in the N.F.L.). People were visibly shocked when we told them he had played the game professionally.”

Rob Kelly continues to deteriorate, she says.

Her questions went unanswered for so long, she stopped asking them.

Then she found a Facebook group with 2,400 women, all connected in some way to a former NFL player.

Our stories are eerily similar, our husbands’ symptoms almost identical: the bizarre behavior I had tried to ignore; the obsessive laundering of old clothes — our washing machine ran from morning till night.

It was comforting and terrifying all at the same time. Why did so many of us see the same strange behaviors? “Our neurologist said they do it to calm their brains,” one friend told me.

Symptoms consistent with C.T.E. are a recurring topic in the Facebook group. They include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression and anxiety. These problems become apparent sometimes years or even decades after a player hangs up his helmet.

One woman may write a post, desperate and afraid of the man her husband is becoming — the rage, mood swings, depression, memory loss. A man so drastically different from the one she once knew. Hundreds of comments will follow, woman after woman confirming that she is going through the exact same thing.

She says she doesn’t know if the public really understands how widespread the problem is, and she used to have the same reaction to the stories that you probably do now. They knew what they were signing up for.

But when all those big hits happened and the fans cheered, did they cheer in spite of knowing a man just greatly increased his risk for dementia?

Was anyone worried about an A.L.S. diagnosis or a C.T.E.-related suicide at 40 after their favorite player suffered repeated blows to the head on the field? No, they cheered and they celebrated because they didn’t know. And neither did we.

We know now, though. We just choose to look the other way, because, hey, is that Justin Timberlake?

The New England Patriots have won five Super Bowls thanks to the constant mantra from its legendary coach Bill Belichick: “Do your job!”

The perpetuation of the league that destroys the brains of its players depends in large part on journalists not doing theirs.

  • Al

    I heard Chris Nowinski speak a few years ago on chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Sobering. Makes me thankful I have daughters and that football and hockey with checking are, at least, probably off the table.

    • Jerry

      Watch out for soccer

      • BJ

        Very little full speed 2 person collisions in soccer. Heading and other things for sure, but not anything close to sports that are built on running into other players at high speed.

      • lusophone

        Yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, you do have to be careful with soccer. I had a friend in high school who had at least a couple of concussions back then. Although, he was the kind of player who would go all out on the field. At least with soccer, you can reduce your risk by the way you play the game.

        • Kassie

          I recently was reading about someone who gave themselves a pretty good concussion bowling. Basically slipped on the approach, hit their head on the floor, and needed an ambulance to leave. Life is dangerous.

          • lusophone

            Yeah, I don’t bowl much, but when I do, I feel kinda like I’m on skates with those shoes.

        • Jerry

          Just like you would think you would be safe in baseball, until you see examples like Koskie and Morneau.

      • Al

        Dude, I know I can’t list every sport that’ll give concussions, but I’m glad those two are off the table.

      • Veronica

        Swimming seems pretty safe.

  • Chris Hatch

    I found this supercut of concussions from this season stomach churning:

    I quit watching football a couple years ago and this just reinforces my decision. It’s hard to walk out of my work each day and be surrounded by all the hype for this game.

    • Ickster

      I saw this a couple of days ago as well, and it sealed my decision to stop watching.

  • Mike

    Local journalists share a large part of the blame for why the NFL gets away with this. Even the Star Tribune has been nonstop fawning coverage of all things football for the past week.

    So yes, while the NFL has a very sophisticated propaganda (I mean, public relations) operation, it doesn’t follow that the great majority of journalists have to play the role of slack-jawed yokels in awe of the celebrity stardust being sprinkled around our humble burg.

    These are many of the same people who want to persuade us that they (and the Twin Cities) are so sophisticated and worldly. Not so much, I’m afraid.

    • Gary F

      I watch the local morning news shows at the gym. It’s sad.

    • Jim in RF

      Love the “Even the Star Tribune…” Very unlike them; totally out of character.

  • Dan

    “We just choose to look the other way, because, hey, is that Justin Timberlake?”

    I was highly amused with his answer to a reporter’s question yesterday, that his son “will never play football. No, no.” I imagine the NFL was not.

    Also yesterday, Rob Gronkowski was cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol… anyone surprised?

  • Gary F

    A buddy of mine was driving home from work on 494 in the Bloomington/Eden Prairie section at about 5PM. The freeway way packed, as expected. He saw flashing lights behind him and sirens blowing. The road was packed, so, as people were trying to make room for the emergency vehicle, my friend finally was able to pull over on the shoulder, while a state trooper was honking his horn with full siren and lights.

    Ambulance? Fire truck? Car accident? Fire? Someone having a heart attack?

    Nope, Two fancy coach buses, probably one of the Stupid Bowl teams. That’s public relations for ya.

    • MikeB

      Everyone should be appalled by this, even if the NFL is paying for this (I have no idea). Law enforcement should be doing other things than escorting entertainers through public roads.

      • Gary F

        At rush hour.

    • crystals

      I think the Pats are using Winter Park as their practice facility, so it was probably them heading from there back to their hotel at MOA. (This explanation is not an endorsement of the behavior, and yet…GO PATS.)

    • John

      They did that on Monday or Tuesday as well (don’t recall which day). I was headed west on 494 near 35W at about 3:30. They were coming east.

      I was annoyed with it then, and I am still annoyed now.

    • lusophone

      This pisses me off so much.

    • Yep. Photographic proof from a friend who was in rush hour traffic on 494 and had to pull over .

      • lusophone

        Just steaming right now.

        • X.A. Smith

          The really sad part is that some of those folks pulled over are probably excited to get to see the buses.

      • Gary F

        “Friend” ? Bob? Wouldn’t a “friend” still have 89.3 on their radio dial at about that time?

        • Jeff

          They’re listening to Barreiro. I listen to MPR from 3-5 PM at work then Barreiro on the way home. If they were Viking’s buses we’d be singing a different tune.

        • He’s a fly-boy. They don’t usually listen to public radio, and if they do, I’ve noticed, it’s classical music.

  • Brian Simon

    Gotta say MPRs fawning coverage is pretty irritating. “Where to see celebrities!” Really? That’s news now? “JT party at Paisley Park!” Why should i care? “Out of town newscasters sure are bundled up!” Gimme a friggin break.

    Cant wait for this to be over.

  • Gary F

    The more recent generations of ex-NFL plays who made a lot better money than the old guys, were paid greatly to take that risk.

    Its the Wally Hillgenberg type of guys, who weren’t even in good enough shape mentally to make their speech when inducted into the hall of fame. Most of the old time guys had second jobs in the off season, no big contracts for those guys. How many old Vikes do we see just smile and wave, and not actually get interviewed?

  • Guest

    This is the very same thing as “Punch Drunk” old fighters (think classic movies) and also Iraq vets “changing” even with no wounds. A brain is THEE most complicated thing in the world.

    WWI vets came home with the smoking habit, even then they were called “coffin nails”. It took decades before the public agreed.

    • Kassie

      My great-grandfather was “gassed” in WWI and that lead him to leave his family and have mental health issues his whole life. I would guess he wasn’t gassed, but had PTSD. As for my other great-grandfather who was in the war and just decided to not move home, but move to Canada and start a different family? I don’t know what that jerk’s excuse was.

      • Guest

        I am sorry for your family. Please bear in mind some vets saw stuff they couldn’t bear.

  • The world is changing and American football is one of the things that will change – or simply go away. Part of it is simple demographics, with the ascendency of young people who have less interest in head banging cartels and instead favor massive multiplayer online games. The mindset that tags along with football is slowly exiting the stage. For example, you can see it with the closing of Harley plants. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an eventual glut of used firearms on the market as boomers have to give up their arsenals. And organized religion is on the skids among youth.

    • BJ

      And everything you mentioned is completely terrifying to many people over 60.

      • That would be guys like me – over 60. But I’m sort of a bemused observer of life in general and have seen this coming for quite some time, so it’s not really terrifying – it’s one of those “it is what it is” kinda things.

    • Rob

      Never been much of a fan of organized religion, and wouldn’t be sad if football – which is a hacking, slashing and maiming sport – went away. But I’d be bummed if Harley totally closed up shop.

      • jon

        Co-worker and I were just talking about what harley needs to do to stay in business..

        First off the idea that young people are killing off motorcycles is ludicris to anyone who looks at the data… over all motorcycle sales are flat to slightly down, worst estimate was down ~2% year over year… Harley is down 8-10% year over year, and had a ~50% market share… meaning manufactures that aren’t harley are probably doing pretty well.

        But harley keeps trying to sell a product for a premium price to people who don’t have money. When I can get a 250 dual sport from honda for $3-4K and harleys start at $10k for a bike the dealers will actively try to dissuade you from purchasing (because it’s a girls bike or what not with such small displacement) it’s no wonder people who don’t have a ton of money aren’t purchasing them…

        They could also modernize… I hear they are pushing an electric bike in the next 18 months and if they can get that to either a reasonable price point for the performance (like outcompete zero motorcycles for the electric market) or come out with a premium product that just blows everything else away, they can do well there… but it has to carry the harley name, and it has to look like a harley. Anything else will probably be a flop. (like victories electric motorcycle, empulse I think, discontinued, thing looked like a street bike not a cruiser, and they needed something that looked like it should have had a V-twin)).

        I think the electric bike from harley is going to flop personally from what I’ve seen of it, and I think it might very well be the end of harley because of it.

        • Rob

          As a long-time Harley rider, I share your perspectives. The “sweet spot” for Harley of middle-aged and older people with the financial wherewithal to shell out $18 to 25 large for a bike (which, in this part of the world, can only be ridden, realistically, between March and October) continues to collapse.

          As to an electric Harley, that’s a sure way to dilute the brand without doing much to improve the company’s fortunes – just as the company’s attempts to lure younger buyers via smaller, less expensive bikes that don’t look or sound like Harleys has been.

          • There’s no doubt that Harleys have a sort of cachet, but the demographics are inescapable. I saw the news about their upcoming electric, but that just won’t have much appeal to the potential buyers who can actually afford one.

      • Jerry

        That’s the problem when you base your business plan in only appealing to those who are increasingly too old to ride motercycles. I guess that is why they are so into selling merchandise and pickups now.

        • Rob

          Old Harley riders don’t quit riding – they just buy a three-wheeled Hog (which start at about $30k). : )

  • Jeff

    Might want to listen to Kerri Miller at 10 am.

  • Ben Chorn

    In other news, Ryan Shazier is on his feet now and discharged from the hospital:

    He was injured December 4th and some feared he wouldn’t walk again.

  • Jay T. Berken
  • Post-program: It was an interesting hour. All of the participants were articulate and each added perspective. Two points of interest for me were “risk assessment” and “benefits”. Obviously the interplay between the two is dynamic and subject to a certain amount of confirmation bias, depending on one’s connection with the game.

    Here’s my beef: We heard that life has risks and you have to assess them and make decisions about all kinds of things, not just football. Fair enough, but the discussion underplayed the risk of brain damage and regurgitated the tired old trope of physical fitness as a benefit to school kids playing tackle football. “These are kids most at risk for high blood pressure – where do they go if not football?” This was after pointing out the ones who self-select football following the male hormonal surge in puberty.

    Where to start? First, we are talking (on the risk side) of brain injury. Frigging BRAIN injury! It’s not a risk you want to expose your kids to because it has lifetime consequences – for a junior high or high school game. It’s not like a broken arm. Second, (on the benefit side) there is zero evidence that playing football results in a longer, healthier life. In fact, attend a high school reunion and take a look at the physical condition those ex-jocks are in years after graduation. The kid who who was on the school newspaper staff is probably in better shape.

    If we really wanted to parse risk and balance benefits, we would look closely at the influence of big money in professional athletics. The money is arguably a “benefit”, and that filters down through the advertising industry and colors the coverage of “news” outlets. Trying to say that football is the antidote to “risk of high blood pressure” for kids who need physical conditioning as a matter of healthy development post-puberty is just plain silly.