Since 1960 at least 16 NFL players have died of injury, a game-related condition or a possible link to football, impacted by inadequate medical management. Meanwhile, “public football” stokes a hot Q&A with Irv Muchnick, the iconoclastic sports journalist whose new book chronicles fall of the game as we know it.
By Matt Chaney
Posted Saturday, February 28, 2015
Copyright ©2015 by Matthew L. Chaney
In 1960 America, a football player was not only exposed to lethal injury and illness of the extreme sport. Once a casualty, he was vulnerable to shoddy medical response as well, beginning in professional football.
A worst-case scenario unfolded October 9th in the new American Football League, amid a sweltering Sunday on the Texas seaboard, where the Houston Oilers hosted the New York Titans—the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and New York Jets franchises today, respectively.
Air temperature topped 90 degrees with dense humidity for the 1 p.m. kickoff at Jeppesen Stadium, and early in the game Howard Glenn, an offensive guard for New York, was struggling to stay on his feet.
Teammates thought heat was affecting Glenn in the first quarter, when he complained repeatedly in huddles. Titans offensive tackle Ernie Barnes urged Glenn to stay in the game since coaches wouldn’t allow him to stop and sit. Team trainers would support the coaches, Barnes reminded his buddy, and no doctor made the road trip from New York.
Collisions on the field were viscous, meanwhile. Football’s head-on contact had steadily increased since advent of hard plastic helmets during World War II. Face bars became standard by the mid-1950s, when physics, technology and human will converged to make head bashing commonplace in the game.
In 1960, Howard Glenn donned a double-barred face mask on his helmet. The muscular 6-foot-2, 245-pounder fired low into foes at scrimmage, neck forward and face-first—in the law of modern football—and sometime around halftime at Houston, two opposing linemen smashed Glenn between them.
Clearly injured, Glenn rose unsteadily. No stretcher was available on the Titans sideline so a teammate helped him off the field, but head coach Sammy Baugh ordered Glenn back to the huddle, witnesses later told The Houston Chronicle.
Accounts vary whether Glenn played in the second half, which he basically spent on the sideline. A spectator recalled seeing Glenn wandering near the Titans bench in a daze, unattended.
No one realized Glenn’s neck was broken, with a fractured cervical vertebra just below his brain.
Trainers helped Glenn to the locker room after the game. He undressed and sat nude on a metal folding chair, clutching a towel and quivering in labored breaths. A teammate, Art Powell, yelled at the trainers: “Why in hell don’t you get a doctor to him?”
Glenn deteriorated rapidly. The Associated Press would report he became “belligerent in the clubhouse then hysterical” as he fell from the chair, convulsing.
Two Houston doctors were summoned and Glenn was finally taken to a local hospital at 5:30 p.m., while rest of the New York team headed for the airport.
Within an hour Titans players learned Glenn had died, as their plane sat on a runway, and tackle Ernie Barnes wept in his seat. The two young black men had bonded as friends in Glenn’s short time with the team, especially for art, a mutual love. Now Barnes remembered their final scene together: Glenn stricken on the locker room floor as teammates rushed out from showers, dripping wet.
“The news shook my heart,” Barnes later wrote. “The hurt deepened and all I could see in my mind was Glenn’s body lying in the water on the cement floor. He died a lonely death. It took time and reasoning for me to get over Howard’s death… it enters my mind often.”
Authorities were perplexed for Howard Glenn’s case, initially. According to a Houston team doctor “Glenn wasn’t hurt in the game or… his injuries were not serious enough to be noticed,” reported The AP.
Some Titans officials readily discounted football as a factor, speaking with media that first night, and many observers believed heatstroke caused the fatality, Barnes among them.
But the next day an autopsy revealed Glenn’s neck had crumbled apart in the hours after injury, primarily because Titans staff failed to recognize or diagnose. Harris County medical examiner Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk said “the fracture was very near Glenn’s brain and did happen during Sunday’s game,” reported The AP. “He said death was not instantaneous because the edges of the fractured bone had to cut the spinal cord before death occurred.”
Jachimczyk remarked, “The unusual thing about these cases is not the quickness of death but that the victims even live at all.”
Glenn was buried at Louisville Cemetery in Mississippi, his native Winton County. Besides AFL experience, Glenn played for the New York Giants of the NFL and the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the CFL. Earlier, at Linfield College in Oregon, Glenn starred in football and track and field.
Following the tragedy, Barnes requested his release from Titans brass. “I told them I didn’t want to play on a team like this,” he said. Barnes retired from professional football in 1965 and his career as an artist blossomed; he died in 2009.
Contemporary blogger Bill McCurdy concluded that Glenn in 1960 was “a victim of the times and what can happen to those who play football under the worst of circumstances—or even the best of conditions.”
In American football today, detection and treatment of heartbeat arrhythmias and more cardiac malfunctions in young players remain inadequate, most experts agree. But football was primitive about managing cardiac risk during the Vietnam War era.
The NFL was no exception for lax action despite exploding revenues and expanding resources over TV rights and its merger with the former AFL. No uniform policy for cardiac management existed, basically.
League and franchise officials certainly knew young athletes suffered “heart attack,” in the catch-all term. Medical literature was plentiful by 1970 while sports pages and television reported cardiac incidents from multiple activities, regularly, led by basketball and football. Historically, two NFL players had died after games, Stan Mauldin and Dave Sparks, in the decade following World War II.
Moreover, the Detroit Lions had experienced recent cardiac fatalities off the field. Promising Lions tackle Lucien Reeberg, 21, died in the 1964 offseason [see below] while free-agent line prospect Ed Schreck, 23, was briefly under contract before he succumbed during heart surgery in 1968.
Yet the Detroit franchise stood unprepared for a third event, in 1971, and this time on national television. Chuck Hughes, 28, a 6-foot, 180-pound wide receiver for the Lions, was naturally gifted to catch a football. But a genetic heart defect stopped the blonde Texan on Oct. 24, apparently triggered by physical exertion.
Nearing end of the Sunday NFL telecast, Chicago at Detroit, Hughes dropped face-down after a pass pattern, “twitching uncontrollably,” a witness said, as a crowed of 54,419 “silently watched.”
Television viewers were horrified. “They turned the TV cameras on him [Hughes] for us until the spirit left him,” Barnard Collier would write for Esquire magazine, “and then they turned away.”
Time was precious for Hughes but Lions doctors had to be waved onto the field, by Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, because of a silly league rule. Then they could only roll Hughes over, pound his chest and deliver mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, unsure about his distress. An off-duty anesthesiologist charged out of the stands, like he could help.
While the Lions had prepared meticulously for playing the Bears, down to practicing Sudden change! for a turnover, no medical procedure was in place for sudden cardiac collapse of a player.
The football player was dying, his wife Sharon realized from the stands, and she began screaming. “After what seemed forever, Hughes was placed on a stretcher,” spectator Richard Bak later recalled.
An ambulance came onto the field and Sharon Hughes was summoned from the stands for ride to the hospital. But with everyone loaded, ambulance drivers groped for the misplaced ignition key. At this point Sharon figured it was too late for her husband.
“She stared at what the doctors were doing and she watched as Chuck’s ear turned slowly black and blue,” Collier recounted for Esquire. “Now she knew that Chuck was beyond reviving. After that, time slowed so much that hurrying did not matter. She kept thinking about their marriage and how much Chuck was in love with football.”
At the hospital, defibrillator shocks were administered but no heartbeat restored. Machines kept Hughes alive until he was pronounced dead at 4:41 p.m., an hour after the Lions game ended.
Team doctors still couldn’t pinpoint cause of death, whether it occurred at the heart or brain. “I’ve never seen anything like it in professional football,” said Dr. Edwin Guise, Lions physician.
Franchise owner William Clay Ford expressed bafflement. “I’m horrified and shocked. He [Hughes] was a great player and a great person,” Ford said.
An autopsy confirmed hardened arteries caused the coronary malfunction in Hughes, who had family history of heart disease.
In fact, Hughes had been tested for heart trouble months before his death, by cardio specialists at Henry Ford Hospital. Hughes was hospitalized again for chest pains in the preseason, after being crushed by tacklers in an exhibition game, but tests were negative and he returned to the football field.
Sharon Hughes, widowed with a toddler son, ultimately won a settlement of undisclosed amount from Ford Hospital. Her lawsuit against the facility and unnamed doctors alleged a heart problem had been detected but “they willfully and wantonly” failed to inform Chuck.
“The defendants well knew that Hughes was a professional athlete and as such was required to engage in strenuous physical activity not advisable for one who had suffered heart damage,” the complaint stated.
Sharon Hughes also won a $43,250 claim for workman’s compensation. Insurance representatives of the Lions, bound to indemnify the franchise for court losses and costs, had argued the death of her husband was unrelated to football.
From 1960 to 2010, at least 16 active or contracted NFL players died of a) football injuries, b) game-related conditions or c) possible link to the sport.
The annotated cases below are deaths of those players in the NFL and former AFL, collected in my ongoing review of news reports on casualties in football history. The incidents are harvested largely through electronic search of news databases.
I make no medical claim of the information and little for its scientific value. This qualifies as raw data, news content, comprising case leads in need of expert follow-up by multi-disciplinary specialists of medicine and science, particularly for establishing or dismissing a football link in the majority of incidents.
No qualified epidemiological team has ever been assembled and funded to reliably assess fatality rates of vast American football—none—despite a purported entity at the University of North Carolina, the so-called National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, funded by the American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
The NCCSIR has no facility of street address on campus. Officials have declined to answer my email queries since 2011.
Presently, 8 of 16 NFL cases below are omitted from “total” football statistics self-published by the sports academics representing UNC in Chapel Hill. None of the cases involves cancer, drug overdose or suicide. Likely some omitted cases can be verified as game-related, still, by credible researchers. Others probably cannot be accurately assessed for a football link, either way.
Deaths of NFL and AFL players in the last 55 years include the following cases available in news reports:
1960: Howard Glenn, 26, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound offensive guard for the New York Titans, of the AFL, died on Oct. 9 of a broken neck sustained in a game with the Houston Oilers. [See story above.]
1960: Ralph Anderson, 24, a 6-4, 225-pound wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, was a rising star in pro football and subject of a “tampering” lawsuit against his AFL team by the Chicago franchise of the NFL. But the talented athlete was diabetic, challenged to stay in the lineup, and in early November he missed a Chargers game. Anderson came back with big performances but was stricken again as he lay down on Friday night, Nov. 25. Anderson was found dead the next morning, and an autopsy ruled diabetic seizure as the cause. The athlete was survived by a 3-year-old daughter, and when the Chargers later played in the AFL championship game, the team voted that Anderson’s share of player proceeds be presented to his girl. Head coach Sid Gillman also gave his share to the child. Sources: Associated Press and United Press International.
*The death of Ralph Anderson was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded reviewers. His case is not included in 1960 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
1961: John Sherer, 20, a 6-3, 240-pound defensive tackle on the inactive list of the New York Titans, had foregone college football at the University of Miami after being drafted by the AFL. Sherer was a schoolboy legend in his native Pennsylvania, where he led a team of prep all-stars to victory over a squad of standouts from other states. Sherer barely missed making 1961 Titans roster, cut on the last day in training camp, so he played semipro football in hopes of getting a call from New York during the season. But on Sept. 26 Sherer collapsed and died following a gym workout in Philadelphia, of a reported heart malfunction. Sources: New Castle News and Associated Press.
1963: Stone Johnson, 23, a 6-1, 180-pound running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, AFL, was touted as one of the fastest men in pro football. Johnson had been a sprinter for the U.S. Olympic team in Rome and a football player for Grambling College. He left college football after being drafted by the AFL, but he suffered a broken neck as a Chiefs rookie, trying to tackle in an exhibition game against the Houston Oilers on Aug. 31. Emergency surgery stabilized fracture of the C5 vertebra and Johnson was placed in traction, but the spinal-cord nerve bundle was damaged and he died on Sept. 8. Some in football alluded to individual fault for the tragedy. Game officials were touting “head up technique,” their new theory for headless hitting, and the Football Coaches Association’s anointed death researcher chimed in, Floyd R. Eastwood. As a PE professor who went by “Dr. Eastwood” with the press, this college teacher held only a PhD in education, far short of a medical or science doctorate and follow-up certifications. Nevertheless, Eastwood routinely promoted untested concepts for casualty prevention in football—parroted widely by sportswriters—that placed responsibility primarily on individuals, not the system. Following Johnson’s death in 1963, Eastwood said “degree of skill” could dictate mortality of a football player, without mentioning the field physics of forward colliding in shatterproof headgear and pads. “Most injuries are sustained while blocking or tackling and if more players were trained properly in these respects, fatalities would take a sharp decline,” Eastwood declared. Sources: Associated Press and United Press International.
1964: Lucien Reeberg Jr., 21, a 6-4, 300-plus offensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, NFL, was a rising star publicized as the “baby-faced giant” of pro football. But Reeberg was unhealthy, ballooning as high as 317 pounds. Hospitalized in Detroit, Reeberg died of cardiac arrest caused by chronic kidney disease on Jan. 31, 1964. Reportedly the Lions had wanted Reeberg evaluated for weight loss when he mentioned blood in his urine to a nurse. Team physician Dr. Richard Thompson said, “The disease [uremia] will crop up one day and not the next, and as a result of this, the young people tend to ignore the disease.” Reeberg, a native of Bronx, N.Y., had played college football for Hampton Institute, which he left after being drafted by the NFL. In 2011, blogger Bill Dow interviewed Reeberg’s old roommate, former Lions linebacker Ernie Clark. “Lucien was Christmas morning,” said Clark. “I think about him all the time, and after he passed away my heart really wasn’t into football and I’ve never been the same.” Sources: Jet magazine, Blog.DetroitAthletic.com, Newspaper Enterprise Association, Associated Press and United Press International.
*The death of Lucien Reeberg was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded academics. His case is not included in 1964 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
1965: Mack Lee Hill, 25, a 5-11, 235-pound running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, averaged 5.2 yards a carry over two seasons in the AFL. Nicknamed “The Truck,” Hill suffered torn knee ligaments in a game and underwent surgery on Dec. 14. Complications developed, spiking Hill’s temperature to 108 degrees and causing respiratory distress and convulsions. Hill died on the operating table of a pulmonary embolism, blood clotting blocking lung circulation, attending doctors told the AP. But differing expert opinion followed, regarding a football link or none, as in hundreds of player deaths since the 1960s. The Kansas City Star reported that an autopsy by hospital pathologist Dr. O. Dale Smith involved “interesting speculation” to blame a rare form of heatstroke unrelated to football. Smith noted further research was needed, but he concluded “that the very strength of young Hill, especially his powerful musculature, contributed to his vulnerability to a temperature crisis in his body” during anesthetic and surgical stress, The Star reported. Football-funded analysts like Eastwood, however, apparently classified the Hill case as game-related of “indirect” cause.
1969: Frank Buncom Jr., 29, a 6-2, 235-pound linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, was a three-time all-star in the AFL and looking forward to the new season. Then blood clotting lodged in his lung arteries early on Sept. 14, Sunday morning of the opening game. Buncom’s gasping rousted his roommate in the team hotel, but the athlete died before medical help arrived. The linebacker and his wife Sarah had an infant son, Frank Buncom III, and an education trust fund for the child was established by players of the Bengals and the San Diego Chargers, Buncom’s former team. Decades later, 2015, the late AFL star’s grandson, Frank Buncom IV, committed to play college football for Stanford University. Sources: UTSanDiego.com, Associated Press and United Press International.
1971: Charles “Chuck” Hughes, 28, a 6-foot, 180-pound wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, died of a coronary attack suffered during a game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 24. [See account above.]
1979: James Victor “J.V.” Cain, 28, a 6-4, 225-pound tight end for the St. Louis Cardinals, was “a perfect physical specimen” who passed a preseason physical “in great shape,” reported The Associated Press. But Cain collapsed in humid 85-degree weather the night of July 22, after running a pass pattern without contact at training camp in St. Charles, Mo. Team doctors and trainers administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation to Cain, working without a defibrillator machine. “When [75 players] saw that CPR was started, it just got dead silent,” said Cards spokesman Steve Curran. “At one point, Coach [Bud] Wilkinson had the players on a line in prayer. They kept yelling, ‘Come on, J.V., come on, J.V.’ There were tears. It was very emotional.” Cain, a 6-year team veteran, was pronounced dead at a local hospital 90 minutes after he was stricken on the football field. A pathologist concluded the cause of death was cardiac arrest from an “extremely rare congenital condition” known as myocardial fibrosis. Sources: Associated Press, United Press International and Washington Post.
*The death of J.V. Cain was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded academics. His case is not included in 1979 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
*The death of Melvin Johnson Jr. was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded academics. His case is not included in 1980 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
1983: Larry Gordon, 28, a 6-4, 230-pound linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, was a highly regarded player who helped lead his teams to playoff victories and a Super Bowl, flashing brilliance throughout his seven-year career. Dolphins coach Don Shula still expected greatness from Gordon, his former No.1 draft pick from Arizona State gifted in athleticism and physique. On June 25, amid desert heat at 6 p.m., Gordon was jogging in preparation for upcoming NFL training camp when he collapsed near a relative’s home in Arizona, said police. Gordon, a Florida resident married with two children, was pronounced dead at a Phoenix hospital. An autopsy by medical examiner Dr. Heinz Karnitschnig identified the cause as congenital heart disease, idiopathic cardiomyopathy. “His coronary artery was in perfect shape. He didn’t have a heart attack,” said Bob Edwards, of the Maricopa County morgue. Toxicology exams found no drugs in the body; specifically, no cocaine was detected in a gall bladder sample. In 1986, as cocaine toxicity killed athletes in the NCAA and NFL, the question arose publicly regarding Gordon’s case. His brother Ira Gordon, a Phoenix drug counselor and former NFL player, told The Arizona Republic that evidence of cocaine use was found in a bedroom that Larry occupied at time of his death. Ira said he had personally requested the autopsy and toxicology assays that tested negative for narcotics. Sources: Arizona Republic, Miami Herald, Associated Press and United Press International.
*The death of Larry Gordon was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded reviewers. His case is not included in 1983 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
1998: Leon Bender, 22, a 6-5, 300-pound draft pick at defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders, suffered fatal mishap at his agent’s home in Atlanta on May 30, following team mini camp. An epileptic, Bender died on a bathroom floor at some point before a scheduled workout. Autopsy results were inconclusive while toxicology results were negative for drugs and alcohol. Bender had talked on the phone to family members until 3 a.m., including his wife Liza, before being discovered dead about noon. Bender’s epilepsy wasn’t lethal in itself, and a single episode couldn’t be detected postmortem—neither could some forms of cardiac malfunction. What was known, a grand mal epileptic had no body control in a seizure, which Bender’s family members believed he experienced in the bathroom then suffocated for his landing position and obstructions. Leon and Liza Bender had a 2-year-old daughter at time of his passing. Source: Associated Press.
*The death of Leon Bender was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded academics. His case is not included in 1998 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
2001: Korey Stringer, 27, a 6-4, 335-pound offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, reported to training camp as an All-Pro from the previous season. Oppressive heat enveloped most of the country as the Vikings opened workouts on Aug. 1 in Mankato, Minn. Several players struggled through drills and Stringer faltered and vomited, having to sit out. Next morning, Stringer was back on the field in full pads until collapsing amid 98-degree temperature and stifling humidity. By the time Stringer was transported to a hospital he was comatose with a body temperature of 108 degrees. Organs began failing, including both kidneys, until finally the heartbeat stopped, unable to be revived. Stringer was pronounced dead about 2 a.m. on Aug. 3, and public debate erupted. Vikings coaches met with media while Stringer’s teammates were kept off-limits for interviews. Head coach Dennis Green suggested the players preferred public silence. “It’s a private thing and they deserve their privacy,” said Green, who snapped at a reporter for questioning whether team medical personnel should be available. “We chose not to,” Green replied. “I’m not going to discuss that… so you can step back.” Offensive line coach Mike Tice said a newspaper photo spurred the tragedy, not decisions of the coaching staff, by shaming Stringer when camp opened, picturing him doubled over at the sideline, looking weak. So the prideful Stringer came back the next day “out to prove to people that he was a leader and that he wasn’t going to let anybody embarrass him like that,” Tice said. “It’s very unfortunate that he worked himself to death.” Elsewhere, football’s anointed death researcher, exercise professor Fred Mueller at UNC, withheld blame of Vikings staff when pressed on CNN by news anchor Carol Lin. “I just heard about this… I don’t really know any of the details,” said Mueller, demurring as the so-called expert who’d agreed to discuss the case on international television. Despite heavy evidence of heatstroke and negligence on part of the football system, “Dr. Mueller”—funded by football organs, with his PhD in education—speculated about the individual, Stringer, saying “there’s a possibility it could be attributed to some other health problems.” But Mueller would have to include this highly publicized death in his next “study” from Chapel Hill. Postmortem investigation including autopsy left no question that heatstroke killed Stringer, driven by lack of policy and prevention on part of the Vikings and NFL. Heat illness plagued every football level, contributing to deaths of an arena player, college player and a high-school player the same week as Stringer, and critics assailed the sport. Football officials had promised since 1960 to eliminate heat illness that experts declared was completely preventable—but practices and games had only come to start earlier in hot weather, over decades, and necessary measures weren’t standardized such as sideline ice bath in a kiddie pool. In August 2011, Kelci Stringer settled her final lawsuit against parties found culpable of her husband’s death, including the NFL and helmet maker Riddell. That same summer at least seven high-school football players and one coach collapsed and died from July 22nd to September 1st. Lawsuits followed, targeting schools and personnel for wrongful death of football heatstroke—a decade after Korey Stringer in the NFL. Sources: St. Paul Pioneer Press, New York Post, Associated Press, CNN, CBS News, ESPN.Go.com., Carlisle Sentinel, Reading Eagle, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, WSVN-TV, Miami Herald, Florence Morning News, Rivals.Yahoo.com, KDAF-TV, WTEV-TV, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB-TV, WXIA-TV, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, KLRT-TV, KRIV-TV, ABC News and Dallas Morning News.
2005: Thomas Herrion, 23, a 6-3, 315-pound offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, collapsed and died on Aug. 20 following a night exhibition game amid cool weather at Denver. An autopsy determined ischemic heart disease caused the death, blockage of a coronary artery. Greg Aiello, NFL spokesman, said Herrion “may be a case of an unfortunate hereditary condition that is not easily detected, even by the regular and thorough cardiac screening used by NFL clubs.” Herrion was clinically obese by criteria of the Body Mass Index, like a horde of NFL athletes, and controversy flared again over his death. So league officials changed their story regarding the plethora of 300-pound players, upwards of 500 behemoths in training camps every year, compared to less than 10 on record prior to 1970. Earlier in 2005, year of PED hearings in Washington, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and cohorts told Congress the herd of mammoths wasn’t because of widespread doping, drugs like anabolic steroids and synthetic growth hormone, but for a modern wave of “fat” athletes. They told politicians like senators John McCain and Henry Waxman that drug abuse producing artificial specimens in the NFL was an epidemic of the past resolved by “steroid testing.” Pot-bellied players had taken over, said league and union officials. But their excuse flip-flopped months later, when media criticized obesity in the league that impacted health of Herrion, as chronicled in my book, Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football: “Now officials contended the NFL primarily featured muscled specimens with low body fat, so the league could argue BMI standards were an invalid application for its athletes. League medical liaison Dr. Elliot Pellman said the question of obesity among players still had to be answered by research. The league was commissioning its own studies. ‘There’s a 1-in-200,000 chance that an individual the age of Mr. Herrion will suffer a sudden death,’ Pellman said. ‘It happens, and no one knows why it happens.’ Pellman said obesity was a cultural problem, not football’s. Officials dismissed a study, based on the BMI, that concluded virtually all NFL players were overweight or obese. Bears nutritionist Julie Burns said NFL players were abnormally muscular humans. Taglibue said, ‘We have athletes that are fitter than most people in society, bigger than most people in society, and doing things that are different and more demanding than many people in society.’ PEDs, meanwhile, did not apply. ‘Huh?’ remarked Sam Donnellon, the Philadelphia Daily News, on mixed messages from the league.” Additional sources: Contra Costa Times, Associated Press, NBC News and CBS News.
2007: Damien Nash, 24, a 5-10, 220-pound running back for the Denver Broncos, knew well about cardiac disease. Nash’s close older brother, Darris, 25, had a heart transplant for dilated cardiomyopathy, discovered for his cardiac episode while playing basketball. So Damien, training during the offseason at home in St. Louis, hosted a local fundraiser for the Darris Nash Find A Heart Foundation. Damien played a portion of the charity basketball game featuring his NFL and college friends then greeted people in the crowd. Festivities moved to Nash’s home in Ferguson, Mo., but he suddenly collapsed. Damien Nash was pronounced dead at a hospital, and initial autopsy results were inconclusive. Family members suspected a cardiac problem, but cardiomyopathy like his brother’s normally wasn’t genetic, said doctors. Such damage likely would have emerged already in Damien, for his life and job in elite athletics. And he passed several heart screens by NFL teams that his agent trusted as thorough. Damien did not drink nor use drugs, said family members, and toxicology results came back negative. Cause of death remained “undetermined” in the final report, issued by the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office. “It was a natural death of cardiac origin,” said a spokesman, “but we were unable to determine an exact origin.” Nash and his wife, Judy, had a 7-month-old daughter at time of his death. Sources: Associated Press, Denver Post and NPR.org.
*The death of Damien Nash was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded academics. His case is not included in 2007 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
2010: Gaines Adams, 26, a 6-5, 258-pound defensive end for the Chicago Bears, was an athletic specimen who had been drafted No.1, fourth overall in his college class, by Tampa Bay. Traded to Chicago midway through the 2009 season with 13.5 career sacks, Adams wore the label of “bust” but kept potential intact, like a 4.55-second speed in the 40, with no serious injuries or apparent heath issues. But weeks following season’s end, on Sunday morning, Jan. 17, 2010, Adams collapsed at home in Greenwood, S.C., and was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Autopsy found that cardiac arrest of an enlarged heart killed the athlete, who had no such family history. Relatives and friends were shocked. “I am honored to have been able to know [Gaines Adams] and to have been his teammate,” said Bucs center Jeff Faine. “A truly bright soul.” Sources: Sarasota Herald Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Associated Press and ESPN.com.
*The death of Gaines Adams was either missed or deemed unrelated to football by game-funded academics. His case is not included in 2010 football fatality data posted without scientific vetting on a website from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Football’s on-field tragedies of Howard Glenn, in 1960 at Houston, and Chuck Hughes, 1971 at Detroit, framed the period’s dangerously inferior medical planning and response for players of all ages.
During the Vietnam War era, America’s sparse emergency-care system led to more football deaths than any other factor, according to my review of severe casualties appearing in news. I’ve collected thousands of fatality and survivor cases, including about 350 player deaths from the 1960s and about 275 from the 1970s.
The subsequent reduction of football fatalities isn’t measurable in close terms, much less absolute numbers, say independent experts. Undoubtedly, however, the trend is due primarily to society’s widespread establishment of EMT crews, modular ambulances, life flights, emergency rooms and trauma surgery.
Within the game, the NFL has improved its own medical management—but not to the point of effecting “safer football” like officials claim today.
“Anyone with two eyes on a Sunday afternoon [in season] can see that’s not so,” said Irv Muchnick, the investigative journalist and independent blogger with cunning for exposing dark underbellies of sport-entertainment conglomerates.
Muchnick thoroughly dissects football ugliness, amid contemporary crisis for the game over brain injuries. He focuses on ill-resourced outback levels below the NFL, particularly the public schools and municipal “youth” leagues with millions of juveniles colliding in helmets and pads. Many American kids play tackle football on public property before they enter first grade, while they cannot legally drive a car until age 16 nor buy cigarettes until an adult.
Change looms, as Irv Muchnick chronicles in his new book, Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It, published by ECW Press of Canada. In an email Q&A for ChaneysBlog, Muchnick addresses football problems and more, notably his current co-investigation, with independent journalist Tim Joyce, of sexual assault in U.S. Swimming:
Q1. Discuss your new book, the circumstances drawing you into the football issues by 2010.
Basically, it went like this: In late 2009 my book on the Chris Benoit murder-suicide came out. The book immediately got inserted into the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Connecticut between Democrat Richard Blumental and Republican Linda McMahon. Blumenthal is a liar who claimed military service “in Vietnam,” when in fact he had a cushy stateside Reserves stint during Vietnam. McMahon is the wife of Vince McMahon and the former CEO of WWE. She poured $50 million of their wealth from this publicly traded company into the failed race against Blumental, and $50 million more into another failed Senate race two years later, against Chris Murphy. Such sterling choices in our democracy!
Alerted by the fine early work on football by Alan Schwarz in The New York Times, and aware that I had a unique perspective on and reportorial resources for the concussion crisis story, I waded in, and by late 2010 I had “rebranded” my blog, naming it Concussion Inc. I answered only to a crazy boss: me.
Benoit had been the first CTE study announced in 2007 by Chris Nowinski’s Sports Legacy Institute and Center for the Study of CTE in Boston. (The Benoit study was done by Bennet Omalu — now coming to the silver screen, but back then being written out of the story not just by the NFL but also by Schwarz, Nowinski, and Cantu, the Northeast Gold Dust Trio.) Chris Benoit’s father and now my good friend, Mike Benoit, had insisted throughout my research for Chris & Nancy that I was underplaying brain disease and overplaying drugs and other generic explanations for his family’s tragedy, and I came to see how right he was.
From there, all the connections flowed—principally Dr. Joe Maroon of UPMC … and WWE, and the NFL, and anti-aging huckerism, and the goofy hype for resveratrol supplements, and his proximity (at minimum) to the steroid/HGH abuse on the multiple-champion Steelers.
There was no major publisher market for the book I was writing, so like the late Red Smith, I undertook my “daily spelling lesson” at what I jokingly call ConcussionInc.net LLP. The topics and the obsessions were spontaneous responses to the news of 2010-11-12. My main narrative interest was in exposing the interlocking ecosystem of problems and commercial “solutions.” I hope that readers come away convinced that safe tackling, better helmets, better mousetraps are the filtered cigarettes of the 21st century. I credit a little-known fellow native Missouri writer by the name of Chaney with a game-changing insight on how state “concussion awareness” laws are not just bullshit, but jiu-jitsu bullshit— magically creating new private profit centers from the public trough, principally our public high schools.
Along the way, I jousted a couple of times with Bob Costas, an acquaintance-friend from the St. Louis sports mafia. The book collects and reorganizes all this material the way books are supposed to do: to put the author over.
In all seriousness, there’s some stuff there that I’m very proud of. No other journalist has gone deep with the story of Dave Duerson’s role on NFL-NFLPA disability benefits board. No one else has called out the Congress of Neurological Surgeons for giving Roger Goodell a standing ovation before his lame speech at their convention. No one else documented how the Centers for Disease Control accepted unprecedented private funding from the NFL for the federal government’s “concussion education campaign,” or how the National Institutes of Health helped Maroon and his cronies develop their phony, for-profit ImPACT program to the tune of millions in research subsidies.
Q2. What is “public football”?
There is an answer, perhaps not as flip as it sounds, that all of football is truly “public” football—up through and including the NFL, a phony nonprofit that gets municipal subsidies for stadiums (plus other things). Since this situation will probably get worse before it gets better, as the industry has both the federal National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control in its pocket, I expect that within a few years the Super Bowl will be coordinated with the Presidents’ Weekend national holiday: the regular season and playoff schedule will have expanded yet again, so that fans don’t have to go to work the Monday after the game.
The thrust of what we mean by public football, however, is taxpayer-funded programs at the professional sport’s feeder levels. I say go ahead and allow all the fools who want their sons to play club and private school football. But let’s get our public school systems out of it. “Death of football” ideology is wishful thinking, but with new levels of “awareness” of traumatic brain injury—and with the failed prevention costs and litigation flowing from that awareness—the goal of stamping out public football in this targeted way is achievable.
Q3. Furthering this point, you’ve been characterized as bent on banning football. But isn’t that a simplistic view of, or strategic response to, your argument in the debate?
I’m not out to ban football. Prohibition of just about anything is too blunt an instrument. It’s not fair to the zealous and it doesn’t work.
But adult statecraft involves more than simply rambling about personal choice. I find it amusing that many of those who accuse people with my viewpoint of “having an agenda” are blind to their own as they grasp at commercial rearguard initiatives, such as helmet technology, more “professional” coaching of kids, or tail-chasing Zackery Lystedt state laws. We don’t ban boxing, but it has a somewhat saner footprint on our culture than it used to have. We don’t ban tobacco, but cigarette marketing is curtailed and kids are protected.
Last rejoinder to this straw-man argument: I refuse to play the game of having to prove my bona fides before I can join the football debate. Put your guns down and let’s talk about football as an activity, not as a religion. I’m not an expert—thank God. But it’s better to have common sense than no sense at all.
Q4. Compare the “blogosphere” with traditional daily news media, when it comes to reporting and analyzing public issues in sport.
Let’s stipulate that new media and mainstream media types are simply blaring their bugles from different formations of the same march against human folly. I know that, minus the filter of an editor, I’ve shown my own ass plenty of times. It doesn’t matter if the public learns the truth about football from me or The New York Times or Professor Hieronymus Buttocks. And if Schwarz hadn’t started doing what he was doing in 2007, you and I are not even having this conversation today.
But did Schwarz and The Times take anything close to the number of shots downfield they should have? Give me a break. When Schwarz wrote about his buddy Chris Nowinski getting a $1 million NFL grant, the story all but giggled like a schoolgirl. After Bennet Omalu fell out with Bob Cantu, Schwarz basically blacked the former out of coverage, while quoting the latter in the venture-capital hype for Xenith, a space-age helmet company. In his account of the fed investigation of Riddell’s promotional claims, Schwarz treated the lying Joe Maroon with kid gloves. Schwarz’s takeout disclaimer on the death of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chris Henry was cringeworthy; The Times quoted NFL’s latest consulting face, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, to the effect that sometimes bad behavior is just bad behavior, and Schwarz reminded readers that nice white quarterbacks, like Steve Young and Troy Aikman, who also had sustained concussions, were not “on C block.”
Eventually Schwarz became associate producer of a documentary funded by the billionaire developer of the King-Devick Concussion Test.
I don’t want anyone to think I’m picking on Schwarz. Jim Litke, the national sports columnist for the Associated Press, has done some great stuff on how Roger Goodell co-opted Mommy sports bloggers with cornball clinics on “safe tackling.” But AP analysis of how state Lystedt Laws “lack bite”—thank you very much—are just playing “gotcha.” Nowhere do I see a single passage about how these laws were designed, in the first place, to offload football industry liability onto the public sector.
In an age of rampant advertorial, you’re daft if you don’t acknowledge that bloggers, social media, what have you, can be a useful check and balance.
Q5. Discuss your co-investigative series with Tim Joyce on sexual predator coaches and athletes in U.S. Swimming.
Swimming is the right next book in several respects. Because it’s a niche sport, Tim and I have more of the field to ourselves (though outlets like ESPN, of course, which for the most part ignore the story, do manage to “big foot” us from time to time).
Just as a large segment of our boy population is getting systematically brained in football, disturbing numbers of girls are getting raped at all rungs of our Olympic sports system. As with concussions, we are less interested in being designated cops than in following the money. The profiteers of so-called amateur sports and the nonprofits of “Child Abuse Inc.” play defense much faster than the public realizes or perhaps cares.
But to get down to business: 400,000 kids, 12,000 coaches — you don’t need an advanced degree in statistical analysis in order to extrapolate from the scores of known and under-reported cases; to factor in the forms of denial and cover-up; and to conclude that this is, bar none, the largest-scale molestation narrative outside the Catholic Church. It makes Penn State look like a garden party by comparison.
The hardest part to explain is that every institution has its own sick dynamic. In swimming, it’s not willy-nilly opportunistic pedophiles. Rather, there is a unique power imbalance. Most often it’s a 30-something male coach and an early or mid-teens star girl swimmer, who is emerging from the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and is desperate for adult approval, college scholarship, Olympic glory. Parents are asleep at the switch; they are totally invested until something bad happens to their own kid.
The rippling societal costs, in terms of life-long cases of eating disorders, substance abuse, and broken relationships and families, are incalculable. Yet all we see above ground is NBC’s feel-good patriotic package for a fortnight every leap year summer.
With the Rio Games upcoming, Tim and I are going deep with the story of Brazilian national Alex Pussieldi, who is the Rowdy Gaines of swimming coverage on the country’s SporTV network. Two years ago Pussieldi fled South Florida, where he had gotten his start in American coaching under the recently deceased Hall of Famer Jack Nelson, whom Diana Nyad credibly accuses of molesting her for years at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. In the course of reviewing thousands upon thousands of pages of discovery documents USA Swimming tried to suppress, Tim and I told the full story of the cover-up by that organization as well as local police, city government, and the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, of Pussieldi’s 2004 physical assault and Peeping Tom practices against a Mexican boy who was swimming and being boarded by him. Pussieldi was a major creep and international human trafficker, and his rise to prominence was aided by former USA Swimming president and conflicts-crazed consultant Dale Neuburger, who steers contracts with foreign national teams to coaches like Michael Phelps’ guy, Bob Bowman. Neuburger also was an architect of swimming’s scam offshore insurance subsidiary, the “United States Sports Insurance Co.” in Barbados. ESPN’s Outside the Lines still won’t tell its viewers, but all this is under investigation by the FBI and the Government Accountability Office.
Q6. The U.S. Swimming scandal is monumental with much yet to uncover and untold victims in need of light. So it doesn’t sound like you’re returning to football analysis anytime soon, not in your former diligence that produced the new book.
That is correct. The football follies are now out there for all to see and interpret. Geez, our friend Bennet Omalu is about to be portrayed by Will Smith. I’ll continue to comment on a connection or two as we move along–and of course I reserve the right to change my mind–but the focus of my energy is swimming and Rio ’16.
Q7. For what may be called the “genuine iconoclast” writer in sports issues, it appears there’s often little competition on reporting a problem, however terrible, because few media are willing to probe and pay the price to do so. Correct?
Yeah, no doubt I’m a little bit nuts, and I don’t have the excuse of having played football. Maybe I should have gone straight and gotten a real job, but it’s way too late for that. My name is on a Supreme Court case involving writers’ rights in new media, and Concussion Inc. is my third book, and I’m proud of those things. They’re not rewarding financially, but they’re rewarding.
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, teacher and restaurant cook in Missouri, USA. Chaney’s 2001 MA thesis at the University of Central Missouri involved electronic search for thousands of news reports on performance-enhancing drugs in American football, a project inspired by his experience of injecting testosterone as a college player in 1982 (Southeast Missouri State). Email him at email@example.com. For more information, including about Chaney’s 2009 book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, visit the homepage at www.fourwallspublishing.com.