Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” is one of the most thought-provoking business writers working today. He loves exploring data and finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas to produce revelatory content. His starting point in this October 2009 article for the New Yorker, though, is not a startling one:
“Playing football causes brain damage.” His primary case in point? Former Ram Kyle Turley.
“They sat me down on the bench. I remember Marshall Faulk coming up and joking with me, because he knew that I was messed up. That’s what happens in the N.F.L: ‘Oooh. You got effed up. Oooh.’
The trainer came up to me and said, ‘Kyle, let’s take you to the locker room.’ I remember looking up at a clock, and there was only a minute and a half left in the game—and I had no idea that much time had elapsed. I showered and took all my gear off. I was sitting at my locker. I don’t remember anything.
When I came back, after being hospitalized, the guys were joking with me because Georgia Frontiere [then the team’s owner] came in the locker room, and they said I was butt-ass naked and I gave her a big hug. They were dying laughing, and I was, like, ‘Are you serious? I did that?’
– The New Yorker: “Football, dogfighting, and brain damage“
For Turley to come forward and share stories like this represents a break of the ranks, a break in the code of the locker room, but only the latest and most explicit of stories that are being told all around football. We as fans generally don’t learn of events like this until something catastrophic happens. It took Lyle Alzado’s death to expose the rampant steroid use in football to the light of day. But in the case of head injuries, rather than a single tragic event, we have a building wave of publicity shedding light on the issue.
And now, after coming forward in Gladwell’s article, Turley is now providing key testimony as the US Congress investigates the seeming epidemic of concussions in football.
Former NFL player Kyle Turley told members of Congress on Monday that while he still had a severe headache, the St. Louis Rams cleared him for full-contact drills four days after a concussion seven years ago.
“Frustrated with being injured and wanting to prove my toughness to my teammates and coaches, I used my head more aggressively than I normally would have in practice, not understanding the damage I was doing to my brain,” Turley told the House Judiciary Committee. “I would like to tell you that this was an isolated incident — just as Dr. Casson would.”
The article is a topical one for Rams fans not only for Turley’s antics, which continue in detail. The heart of our rebuild is in our offensive line, and both Jacob Bell and Rams rookie tackle Jason Smith have missed time with concussion symptoms, with Smith missing six weeks and being held away from the practice field all together. The severity of his symptoms after so little game time as a pro cast a sudden sharp doubt on his status as a true “building block” for the franchise. Additionally, we saw Keith Null and Donnie Avery knocked out of the season’s last game with concussion symptoms, and both Danny Amendola and Kyle Boller suffered high-profile knocks to the head.
It’s callous to suggest any of these guys are “soft,” but it’s hard to hide our disappointment when our players leave the field, especially with the game on the line. And we cheer lustily when we see retribution, as when OJ Atogwe banged Kurt Warner to the ground, causing him to leave the game and miss his next start.
Cheering for the violence of the sport is a natural part of being a fan. We want our guys to not only be better football technicians and strategists, we need them to be physically tougher than our opponents. And a big part of our job as the 12th man is to maintain our players’ fighting spirit, to make our voices heard in the pit of action.
And this is the parallel that Gladwell draws between football and dogfighting:
At any organized pit fight in which two dogs are really going at each other wholeheartedly, one can observe the owner of each dog changing his position at pit-side in order to be in sight of his dog at all times. The owner knows that seeing his master rooting him on will make a dog work all the harder to please its master.
In other words, the devil isn’t just in Michael Vick, it’s in all of us.
It will be interesting to see these two debates collide in the St Louis sports airwaves. Are the same people who champion Vick also turning a blind eye to the increasing publicity that concussions have gained? Are the same ones who morally oppose Vick clamoring for reform in the way the game itself is played? And which attitude will prove dominant in this city, this fan base?