You know you've flunked Management 101 when an unpopular Congress lays bare the flaws in how you're running your organization. But so it went Wednesday for Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, when he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to discuss the long-term effects of brain injuries on current and former NFL players.
Goodell is only the most recent sports honcho to be dragged in front of a congressional committee for a lecture on ethics and personal responsibility from a group of people whose own approval rating hovers near 20 percent. Beginning in 2003 and continuing through last year, Major League Baseball players and officials were hauled to the Capitol to testify, with varying degrees of candor, about steroid use. The upshot was tarnished reputations of some of the game's most famous players, perjury charges against one of them, embarrassment for baseball's brass -- and the Anabolic Steroid Act of 2004, no small accomplishment. Never an entity to leave well enough alone, however, congressional committees resumed steroid hearings in 2008, a session that degenerated into strangely partisan squabbling over star pitcher Roger Clemens' dubious claims of purity, and the dissipation of some of the goodwill Congress had achieved over this issue.
Sports is a big part of American life -- too big for politicians to ignore -- and Senate panels have launched sports-related inquires into everything from charges of bribery at the Salt Lake Olympics to accusations of football coaches videotaping opponents' signals to win Super Bowls. In June 2008, a congressional hearing into the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby led to voluntary reforms within the horse racing industry.
Time magazine once declared a House Oversight Committee review of steroids in professional wrestling "The Best Congressional Investigation of All Time" when Chairman Henry Waxman released reams of documents related to his doping investigation. Included in the paperwork was an interview with Stephanie McMahon, the Executive Vice President of WWE for Creative Writing, describing the career trajectory of charismatic fighters. "You really don't even have to be a good wrestler. Hulk Hogan was a terrible wrestler, and he still is," she told a group of no less than seven members of the committee's staff.
At Wednesday's NFL hearing, staff, media and members of Congress packed a room that included retired NFL players Jim Brown, Tiki Barber and Merril Hoge. Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) opened the hearing with a round of unsettling statistics about the health of former pro footballers, particularly their mental health -- due to the lingering effects of concussions.
Among Conyers' assertions: Retired NFL players are three times more likely to suffer clinical depression than the general population; players suffering concussions had five times the rate of cognitive impairment; and retired players were 37 percent more likely to suffer from Alzheimer's than Americans as a whole. He also described a 2009 study that found that 6.1 percent of NFL players over 50 reported receiving dementia-related diagnosis, five times higher than the cited national average, while players 30 through 49 showed a rate 19 times that of the national average.
These figures were later challenged by various witnesses, who said the numbers were flawed and could inadvertently scare children away from contact sports, and by Republicans on the committee, who wondered aloud about the utility of Congress spending five hours delving into the injury rates of 20,000 ex-footballers. As tragic as the numbers were, Rep Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said, "I am surprised this hearing takes precedence over reconsideration of the Patriot Act." Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) warned that Congress should not try to influence the upcoming labor negotiations between the NFL Players Union and the owners, and cautioned, "We cannot legislate injuries."
No, but they can draw attention to them. Gay Culverhouse told the story of her experience as the daughter of an NFL team owner. After spending years on the sidelines and in front offices, she said she saw a system in which team doctors saw their jobs as getting players on the field despite their injuries. "The bottom line is making money; if their players ain't playing and their team is losing, that's the bottom line," she said.
But after hearing of one former player dying, one getting lost on his way home from Starbucks, and others suffering from dementia so severely they could not fill out the forms to file for disability, she started speaking out. "I don't want to tell my children that another one of their favorite players is dead," she said. "This isn't working for me."
Next, Hoge, a former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears, told of a career-ending concussion, which he sustained in a game five days after a previous head injury. Hoge flat-lined at the hospital and was brought back to life, but needed two years to learn how to read again. Hoge now coaches youth football and urged Congress to help create protocols for the 3 million boys in youth leagues, as well as inexperienced coaches and parents who are first on the field after a head injury and often send children back into games based on the actions of college and professional players. "They do it out of ignorance," he said.
But as bad as his own NFL experience was, Hoge said, "There have been significant changes in the NFL. What happened to me would not happen again."
Really? During the hearing, several people raised the case of Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy winner for the University of Florida Gators, who sustained a severe concussion during a game in September. Tebow vomited on the sidelines before going to the locker room and being taken to a local hospital. His coach, Urban Meyer, told ESPN, "He's a tough nut. We think he's going to be fine." After relentless media attention, Tebow returned to the field to play in the Gators' next game.
Does it really take an act of Congress to keep Tebow off the field? And should Congress spend its time that way?
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Cali.), whose husband played in the NFL for six seasons, insisted that Congress has every right to intervene when NFL owners enjoy antitrust exemptions with the blessing of Congress but do not take care of their past players. "I think it is the responsibility of this Congress to take a look at the antitrust exemption that you have, and in my estimation, take it away," she said.
Some of the Republicans, however, aware that the new president of the NFL Players' Union is a lawyer with close ties to the Democratic Party, mused that maybe they were pawns in a larger dispute that is mainly about money. "If we make it an issue here in Congress, it will become an issue at the bargaining table," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
But as Mike Ditka, one of the NFL's legendary tough guys, said of the trouble facing today's retired players, "You can run studies for the next 20 years. Somebody's going to say, 'It's directly related, well, it's not directly related.' Who cares? Let's take care of them."