NFL ‘magic show’ makes the reality of football disappear

Imagine Dragons perform at the EA Sports Bowl at The Armory on Thursday in Minneapolis. Omar Vega | Invision/AP

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.