Off the record: Football continues to live in denial of its violent reality

Despite overwhelming evidence mixed with basic reasoning, football leagues continue to deny the sport is killing its participants.

Football is a dangerous sport—plain and simple. Let’s get that out in the open right away.

Outside of sports like boxing and UFC—if you want to label them as sports—football is quite possibly the most dangerous sport among them all. Heads bang against one another, bones shatter and ligaments tear with society watching each week as more and more athletes are carted off the field.

Watch the sport and you’ll instantly empathize with the sheer force the game is played with. Why, then, are we as a society following the lead of professional league’s commissioners still ignoring this reality?

Last week, prior to the 104th Grey Cup held in Toronto, CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge refused to admit there is a link between football and degenerative brain disease when speaking with media at the league address.

The statement comes as a surprise to some after the NFL, the American parent league to the CFL, was forced to pay $1 billion to nearly 5,000 former players in a class-action lawsuit in 2013. At the time, the court determined there was a tangible connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and playing football and that the league should have known about it. There was even a movie about it that aired last December, starring Will Smith, that caught the ire of many throughout the sporting community.

It’s concerning that Mr. Orridge would make this statement considering the CFL and NFL are playing the identically same sport, operating under versions of the exact same rules. In 2015, Frontline studied numbers from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University study researchers that examined the brains of 165 former football players who played at the high school, college, or professional level during their lives. In their results, they found CTE in 131 of the 165 brains examined (79 per cent), with 96 per cent (87 of 91) of professional NFL players showing signs of CTE.

While players in the CFL may not exert the same level of force as professionals in the NFL, any percentage between the 79 per cent of average football players and the 96 per cent of NFL players is one that would surely demonstrate a palpable link between CTE and playing football. Essentially, football is football whether you’re playing it south of the border or not.

Of course, one can somewhat understand why Mr. Orridge made such grossly negligent comments last week. His league is currently facing a $200 million class action lawsuit filed in the Ontario Superior Court in May by former players Korey Banks and Eric Allan, representing nearly 200 participants. The suit alleges that the league, former commissioner Mark Cohon and a Toronto doctor and clinic withheld information about how repeated concussions can lead to long-term cognitive disorders. Admitting to such a link would have essentially been the equivalent of entering a guilty plea, opening the door to millions being given to players in the future.

Unfortunately, the CFL is not alone in professional sports denying the existence of degenerative brain disorders like CTE and participation in the sport. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made similar claims despite CTE being diagnosed in as many as six deceased NHL players while he’s been fighting a similarly aimed class action suit of its own.

At the end of the day, what these sport leagues are doing is siding with business over humanity. That’s the sad reality; that the league’s leaders are more concerned with the colour of the ink in their bottom line than the health of the people making them that money. They care less about how their sports are reducing the life expectancy of their players than they are about increasing the popularity of the game.

In essence, the sporting industry isn’t alone in making this choice—both the food and technology industries make similar sacrifices. But that doesn’t make it any less grim.

That said, there is a shift in thinking that’s beginning to understand the dangers in sports like football with the hope of discovering ways to make them safer in the future.

Maybe after the commissioners are done counting the pennies in their pockets, they can join in the play, too.