Baseball has long been hailed as America’s pastime, but it’s fair to say that football has overtaken it as America’s sport of choice.
Millions flock to fill massive college football stadiums on Saturdays, and the National Football League (NFL) practically owns Sundays for half the year. The NFL made up 75 of the 100 most watched broadcasts in 2021 — a year that included the Tokyo Olympics. Last year’s Super Bowl brought in a staggering 99.18 million viewers.
To suffice the point, football is king in America.
While the passion for football in this country is sky high, the attention paid to the many dangers posed to players is arguably much lower. It’s likely because of football fans' rabid love for the game that they so easily overlook the massive threats posed to players' health. For years, football fanatics have romanticized bone-crushing hits. In fact, ESPN used to have a segment called “Jacked Up” dedicated entirely to glorifying hard hits. Fans can still be fans while also recognizing that the game has done a poor job of protecting its participants.
The most urgent threat in football are assuredly concussions, as the game’s violent nature means frequent hits to the head are almost unavoidable. The 2015 film “Concussion” starring Will Smith spotlighted the perils football players face with concussions and brain injuries. It highlighted the NFL’s mishandling of concussions — how Dr. Bennett Omalu’s research on the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) connected to concussions in football. Omalu was scrutinized and ostracized for his work, but was eventually proven right.
Perhaps the case he is most well known for evaluating is that of former Wisconsin Badger football player Mike Webster. Webster was an All-Big Ten center for the Badgers, and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a legendary career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sadly, Webster may be known less for his accomplishments in football and more for what football did to him.
Webster was patient zero for CTE, becoming the first NFL player to be diagnosed with the disease. After his playing career ended, Webster showed severe signs of mental deterioration — including making violent threats, wandering off and living in vehicles and train stations, and other signs of declining mental health.
Webster played football for over 20 years and endured so many hits that it was estimated he suffered the effects of 25,000 automobile crashes during his career.
Webster was stripped of everything because of CTE. He later died at age 50 due to a heart attack, but that was just the final blow to a damaged man. Webster’s story is not representative of all football players, but is a cautionary tale akin to others who have played the sport.
To many, football represents joy. The familial aspect of rooting for the same team and watching them together creates valuable memories. But it isn’t always joyous for the players.
Many who deal with significant pain like Webster are forced to resort to painkillers, which if taken incorrectly, can lead to severe side effects, including death. Per the National Library of Medicine (NLM), misuse of opioids or painkillers is described as “taking too much medicine, taking someone else’s medicine, taking it in a different way than you are supposed to, or taking the medicine to get high.” According to a study conducted by Drug and Alcohol Dependence, NFL players who are retired misuse pain medication at four times the rate of the average population.
ESPN commissioned its own study, done by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, which surveyed 644 NFL players about their use of prescription opioids during their careers. Of those surveyed, 52% said they used some form of prescription opioids while 71% said they misused them. Although safety measures have improved as time has progressed, football players are still suffering from football-related impact, and many feel forced to resort to painkillers — which can have numerous consequences.
Chris Borland, one of Wisconsin’s most decorated defensive players in program history, has been on the frontlines of discussing painkillers' negative impacts on football players in recent years. Borland was no ordinary player — he was named to the first team All-Big Ten in 2012, and was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Borland was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
However, Borland only played one year before retiring over concerns of repeated head trauma.
The Badger legend then turned his focus to bringing attention to concussions and how football players truly deal with serious injuries. Borland was featured in the documentary series “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” about the former New England Patriots tight end who was diagnosed with a severe case of CTE after dying by suicide in prison in 2017. Borland talked about the overreliance of painkillers in football, and specifically mentioned the use of the drug Toradol.
According to the National Library of Medicine, Toradol is used to relieve moderately severe pain and is only meant to be taken for five days at a time. According to NLM, the drug can cause ulcers, bleeding, kidney failure and even death. In the documentary, Borland criticized Wisconsin’s football program for its administration of painkillers.
“At Wisconsin, I was taken aback by how serious practice was taken. I was playing on every special team, I was running scout team, I was running with our twos on defense. Objectively, just like, too much of a load for anybody. And I saw, you know, a line of our upperclassmen with their pants to their knees just waiting to get their Toradol injection,” Borland said in the series. “To see that at 18, that was really enlightening to just how seriously it’s taken. Kind of my first glimpse at, ‘This is very real. It’s a big industry. And they’re willing to put in basically kids, young men, in situations that will compromise their long-term health just to beat Northwestern.’”
Legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre admitted recently to having an addiction to painkillers in 1994. Favre said he looked to painkillers after suffering a separated shoulder in 1994, and his use persisted for the next couple of years. Throughout the span of the 1995 NFL season, Favre suffered two seizures, and he has since said he would take multiple painkillers at a time.
On his podcast “Bolling with Favre,” he confessed, “I found that if the pain lingered, if you know what I mean, I could get more pills. And it snuck up on me. It was two pills that gave me a buzz, and then it was four. At its peak, I was taking 16 Vicodin ES all at one time."
As football accounts for its past, the issue of concussions and player health came back on to the national scene a couple weeks ago because of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The quarterback showed signs of instability after a hit against the Buffalo Bills, but returned to the game and played again just days later on Thursday Night Football. Tagovailoa would go on to suffer another big hit and this time was diagnosed with a concussion.
Tagovailoa’s injuries essentially forced the NFL to augment its concussion protocol, as players now cannot return to the game if they are showing signs of a lack of coordination because of poor muscle control, otherwise known as ataxia. This case showed that the NFL was willing to improve its efforts to improve player safety, but there is still a way to go if true progress is to be made.
Through the warnings of different football players, it’s clear the negative health impacts that can result from the sport are daunting. The intensity and grueling nature of the sport have led numerous players to rely on painkillers, and many of them have admitted to dangerously misusing them.
Football may be America’s sport, but a reckoning must happen in the very near future on how it deals with players' health before the horrifying stories of past players continue to be reality for football’s next generation.