Early in the 1977 NFL season, after Washington Redskins running back Bob Brunet suffered a serious neck contusion when the knee of Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Randy White hit him in the helmet, I visited him at Georgetown University Hospital.
Brunet, who grew up poor in Louisiana’s Cajun country, was playing at a time when the average NFL salary was about $55,000 a year. I asked him that evening if the hit, which could have left him permanently paralyzed — it did end his career — had in any way made him rethink his decision to play professional football.
Absolutely not, he said.
"You’re damned right I’d do it all over again," he told me at the time. "I was a poor kid from the backwoods of Louisiana, and now I’ve given my wife and kids security for the rest of their lives. I know I’m going to have problems from football. But I accept that. I have no regrets. None whatsoever."
The game had allowed him to graduate from Louisiana Tech, earn a good living and escape the destitution of his native Lafourche Parish. After football, he moved to Baton Rouge, opened a succesful seafood restaurant — the Galley — and raised his family. Most former players I’ve spoken to over the years view their playing days in the same way.
I covered the NFL over four decades dating back to 1972. Now semi-retired myself and five years removed from day-to-day football coverage, I have one main regret: not focusing more of my reporting and writing on the absolute brutality of the sport, particularly the painful post-football lives of so many players.
Instead, like many other sports journalists, I spent much of my career writing positive pieces about the league and its players — puffy features and breathless accounts of thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. I certainly covered my share of serious NFL warts: mounting injuries; the use of steroids and amphetamines; team doctors prescribing far too many painkilling pills and injections; the derogatory Redskins name; and, for many years, the dearth of African-American quarterbacks, head coaches and front-office personnel. But until the past decade or so, most of us glossed over the brutality of the sport. Shame on us.
Some believe that a CBS documentary, "The Violent World of Sam Huff," first aired in 1960, may have sparked the popularity of professional football. Huff was a celebrated New York Giants linebacker halfway through a Hall of Fame career at the time, and the documentary gave viewers an up-close look at the sound and fury of the pro game, using mini-microphones to pick up trash talk and the high-decibel thump of body against body, helmet against helmet.
Half a century later, a highlight-driven sports culture, fueled by ESPN’s "SportsCenter" and YouTube clips, has increased the emphasis on Big Hits — the wicked shots heard ’round the football world.
"I think that may have been true six to eight years ago," ESPN coordinating producer Dwayne Bray said of this culture during a public forum in August on violence in the game. "I think we’ve been very restrained on the issue. If there are hard hits, we report the news. . . . I think even as the NFL and the parents are being educated, ESPN and other media entities are being educated."
In one of the hardest and most spectacular hits of recent years, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney dislodged the helmet — and the football — from Michigan running back Vincent Smith in a fierce backfield collision during last season’s Outback Bowl. It has been replayed endlessly — not least by ESPN. The network’s "Sunday NFL Countdown" show looked back on the hit and gushed about Clowney’s NFL draft possibilities. ESPN’s "Sport Science" segment reveled in the power of the hit and the physics of the force it generated, without mentioning the physical risks of such a tackle.
And did I mention that Clowney won the "ESPY" — an award given out at the network’s hokey annual Oscars-like show — for best play of the year?
Parabolic microphones used by all the networks capture the bone-crunching sound of player collisions, and slow-motion replays demonstrate how heads collide, necks snap back, arms and legs bend grotesquely (think Joe Theismann). And who can forget ABC’s old "Monday Night Football" introduction, which featured two empty helmets colliding and then exploding on impact? Mercifully, that violent imagery is no longer being used.
Still, the violence continues, highlighted this month in a riveting PBS "Frontline" documentary titled "League of Denial," which focused on the NFL’s longtime mishandling of concussions. It was based on the book of the same name by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, and these works reveal how the league for many years would not admit that on-field concussions could lead to harmful consequences for players both during their football careers and afterward.
In late August, attorneys for more than 4,500 former NFL players settled a lawsuit against the league, claiming it knew about concussion issues for decades before it created its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994. Many of the players listed in the lawsuit or their dependents said the former players are suffering from dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological ailments. Suicides, most recently that of former San Diego star linebacker Junior Seau, also have occurred.
The $765 million settlement, which some critics say does not provide nearly enough compensation, will be used for treatment of injuries, research and player compensation. That’s good news for past and present players who risk life and limb to entertain America.
But it’s not just the NFL that needs to fess up. The news media — television, print and digital — also must take some responsibility for frequently glorifying the unadulterated mayhem of this perilous competition. This includes all those war images in our prose: all-out blitzes, bombs down the field, defenders striking like heat-seeking missiles and head-hunting linebackers.
We should have been on this story far earlier. It’s not as if this was a deep, dark secret. At every Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony each August in Canton, Ohio, it’s difficult to ignore former all-pros limping, leaning on canes or rolling onto the stage in wheelchairs. In conversations with countless former players, we hear about replaced knees, hips and shoulders, surgically repaired necks and backs. Worst of all, there’s clear evidence of memory loss and dementia from concussions either undiagnosed, shrugged off or totally ignored.
One player I know recalled being knocked out 10 times in his final season of football. He often was allowed to go back onto the field when he seemed to have regained his senses. That player now calls me "Buddy" because he can’t remember my name, even though in 1986 I collaborated with him on a book about his life called "Tough Stuff."
His name is Sam Huff. He’s been out of the game for more than 40 years, and he competed in an era when the athletes were not nearly as big, strong and fast as today. Back then, players took the "off" in "offseason" seriously because they had to get second jobs to support their families. They used training camp to round themselves into game shape. In the modern era, training for the next season never seems to end.
Still, when Washington hosts the Chicago Bears at FedEx Field on Sunday afternoon, I’ll surely be in front of a TV set, in my favorite chair and riveted to every play, just like so many other millions of fans across the country and the globe. The game is appealing and appalling at the same time. And I have no doubt that all of us, news media included, will continue to feed the beast, even if the beast keeps feeding on its own.
Leonard Shapiro is a retired sportswriter, editor and columnist at The Washington Post.