Liam Day discusses Tony Dorsett’s diagnosis and how it’s related to the other story dominating the NFL this week.
It’s been a bad week for the NFL. Heading into the second half of the season, there are any number of positive story lines for the media to focus on: the resurgent Chiefs, Peyton Manning’s record setting start, the Saints’ ability to bounce back after Bountygate, the Seahawks building on last year’s success to take the lead at the turn in the NFC.
Yet all anyone’s talking about is Richie Incognito’s bullying of Jonathan Martin and now come reports that Tony Dorsett is suffering from symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the condition I think it’s safe to say we can, at this point, call endemic to retired NFL players. As the former Cowboy great told ESPN’s Outside the Lines, he forgets where he is, has struggled with depression, and considered suicide, all telltale signs of the damage wrought by repeated concussive head injuries.
With every passing week, the news regarding head injuries in the NFL gets worse. As I’ve written before, that news hasn’t dented the league’s popularity, nor that of the sport overall. Participation rates at the youth and high school levels remain historically high.
The momentum to address the issue of head injuries in football certainly seems to be there. In August, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement with its retired players to compensate them for the damage done to their brains. Rather than put an end to future litigation, as the settlement was clearly designed to do, it appears to be just the tip of the legal iceberg.
As with most things, money will probably do the talking. If the NFL starts to see declines in attendance or, more importantly, television ratings, that is what will drive change. In that case, the ultimate responsibility rests with us, but, again, as I’ve written before, I am a hypocrite. Despite everything I know about the harm being done to the players I watch every Sunday, Bill Belichick’s Patriots remain must-see TV.
If change doesn’t come from the stands, the other place it’s likely to come from is the locker room. As in the stands, though, here too an attitude change is required. And the prevailing attitude in the average NFL locker room brings us from talk of Tony Dorsett and traumatic brain injury back to the other story of the week—Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. For the attitude that fueled Incognito’s alleged bullying of Martin, and was the alleged reason that the Dolphins’ coaches condoned it, is the same attitude that historically fueled players who played through concussions and allowed the NFL to ignore head injuries for as long as it did.
Earlier this week, Travis Timmons dissected the feelings of masculine insecurity that the Incognito-Martin case expose. In a modern world where traditional masculine virtues seem under assault, the NFL locker room is likely one of the last places in America where “a man can be a man” with impunity. Of course, as Travis points out, in the past being a man often involved otherizing men who didn’t meet your standard of masculinity. They were “Nancies,” “pussies,” “fags,” you name it.
But this type of hazing was meant to toughen you up, precisely the goal the Dolphins’ coaches had in mind for Jonathan Martin. Because, without toughening, how can one be expected to take the punishment that being an NFL player, particularly an offensive lineman, entails on a weekly basis. Because, without toughening, how can one be expected to play through pain.
It may not be an exaggeration to claim that the NFL exists, perhaps can only exist, on a foundation of hypermasculinity. Without the macho posturing, it might not be possible to get people to submit themselves to that level of punishment. So, in a weird way, the NFL needs Richie Incognito because without him it might not be possible to get the Tony Dorsett’s of the world to do what he did for a decade in Dallas.
Of course, I’m generalizing, but there can be no doubt of the correlation in the two behaviors. To play through injury, to continue to play after numerous concussions, as Dorsett, who is unable to say exactly how many concussions he suffered during his career, did, is simply a different, perhaps slightly more benign manifestation of the hypermasculine behavior displayed by Richie Incognito and the fans, teammates, and coaches who have come to his defense.
If you doubt that, take a look at player and commentator reactions to Jay Cutler, who was unable to play the second half of the Bears’ 2011 playoff loss to the Packers due to injury. You can find some of them here, in a compilation created by Sports Illustrated. You will notice, as you scroll through them, how eerily similar they are to the recent criticism of Jonathan Martin, who was attacked for not being tough enough because he didn’t confront Incognito physically over the abuse he was receiving from the older veteran.
So, you’re a sissy if you can’t play on a torn MCL and you’re not a man if you don’t handle repeated, orchestrated harassment by physically confronting your tormentor. Yes, I think it’s pretty clear that the two stories this week are related and that, if we are to address the one, we’ll have to address them both.