MANHATTAN — National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell has got to be cringing just a little bit.
Radio Row at the Super Bowl is supposed to be a celebration of America’s favorite sport. Instead, the 2014 version at the Sheraton has been an advertisement depicting a lot of what’s wrong in the NFL.
In the first two days Dan Bickley and I have been conducting interviews, there’s been more talk of former players’ quality of life than there has been about the Seahawks and Broncos.
Former players of varying degrees have spoken about everything from concussions and suicide ideations to the beginning stages of CTE and marijuana as an alternative pain killer.
Former quarterback Ray Lucas, who played in 55 games with three teams from 1996 to 2002, told a harrowing story of the chronic pain he was in during and following his time in the NFL. After suffering through 19 concussions (that he knows about), Lucas was popping up to 80 pain killers a day.
The pain and addiction spun so far out of control for Lucas that he had planned his own suicide.
“I drove my truck to the G.W. Bridge and picked out my spot — where I was going to drive off of it that Sunday when my wife and my kids went to church,” Lucas said on Tuesday’s show.
Shortly after devising his plan, Lucas got help. Jennifer Smith, of an organization called PAST — Retired Athletes Pain Management and Medical Resource Group, phoned Lucas and said they would take his case. The former Rutgers star went to rehab, has been clean for three years and is helping other athletes dealing with similar issues.
Lucas was able to avoid becoming a member of a seemingly ever-growing list of former players who have taken their own lives.
The list of athletes dealing with chronic pain is never-ending.
Nate Jackson spent six years toiling in the NFL. His statistics don’t pop off the page. His list of injuries detailed more closely in his book Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile does.
In fact, Jackson was in so much pain, he regularly smoked marijuana during his playing days to deal with it.
“I believe it’s a viable alternate to the opiate painkillers that are really passed out like peanuts — Vicodin, Percocet,” Jackson said during his interview on the show. “I believe weed helped me a lot. It helped my body relax, it helped me unwind mentally. I didn’t need to reach for the pain pills, which don’t react well with my body.”
Considering Lucas’ story, Jackson’s argument makes a lot of sense. Not every player reacts well to or even wants to get involved with addictive prescription drugs. But to ask them to deal with the pain they go through without some sort of medication is foolish. Jackson painted the picture of an NFL where many players dealt with their pain by smoking.
Then there’s the story of Leonard Marshall, the two-time Super Bowl champion defensive lineman of the New York Giants. Marshall, like many former NFL players, has been diagnosed with the early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
“Every one of the symptoms, I’ve been associated with,” Marshall said. “Frontal lobe damage, chronic memory loss issues, the emotional roller coaster ride that you go on from having CTE — pretty much every facet associated with CTE.”
Marshall believes when he started playing football, he didn’t have all the facts about the toll the sport could take on his body and more importantly, his brain.
“I knew when I signed up that I was probably going to have a broken arm or a broken wrist, maybe a problem with my back or something wrong with my neck — I knew I was going to have some of that stuff,” he said. “But what I did not know is I was going to have the issue of cognitive brain injury. I didn’t know I was going to have that.”
Problems like what Lucas, Jackson and Marshall have endured are not by any means universal, but they are very common. Common enough, in fact, to lead to a difficult question: Is football even safe for human beings to play?
That theme has been far too prevalent this week in New York. Despite Goodell’s efforts to make the league more safe, the nature of the sport will always lead to devastating injuries — both in real time and later in a player’s life.
It just seems strange that a high-profile location like Radio Row at the Super Bowl is providing a platform for players to talk about their safety concerns during the league’s biggest party.