What The NFL Doesn't Want You To Know

by Corey Koyama

Untitled 16 by_ Daniel Workman.jpg

Artwork by: Daniel Workman

Get the pizza, grab a beer, and turn on the television—it’s Sunday football. Every Sunday, starting with the first weekend of September and continuing into the beginning of February, millions of people come together to watch their favorite NFL teams. The National Football League (NFL) is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. The league brings in elite players from all over the country for every position and combines them with the smartest coaches, best managers, and sharpest team owners.

Baseball was America’s favorite in years past, but as baseball’s popularity dropped, American football’s popularity rose. Soon enough, the NFL significantly surpassed the MLB in many regards. To put the difference in perspective, last year’s NFL Super Bowl with the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons drew an average of 111 million viewers.[1] Comparatively, last year’s MLB World Series accumulated about 28 million views.[2] Football is America’s sport, but there are many dark areas in the industry that the people don’t see. “As of January 23, 2103, there were 205 concussion-based actions pending against the NFL…while the allegations included myriad causes of action, five claims appeared most frequently: Negligence, Fraudulent Concealment, Fraud, Negligent Misrepresentation, and Conspiracy.”[3] In considering these allegations, it is important to remember that all professional sports leagues are a business. It is estimated that Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, pulls in around $20 million every year, just $5 million short of the highest paid players.[4]  Reluctance to put the health of athletes ahead of the needs of the business often plagues the league, thus, there are reasons why we don’t hear about most athletes after they retire.

            Football has the highest rate of injuries in all professional sports. Participants in the sport suffer from all sorts of injuries ranging from simple leg strains to fatal neck injuries. The most controversial injuries involved in football are injuries to the head/brain, such as concussions. One of many incidents deals with former University of Colorado football star, Rashaan Salaam, who recently killed himself due to depression.

Rashaan is the only CU Heisman winner (the MVP award for College Football) and was also drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears. In his rookie season, he started off incredibly strong, rushing for over 1,000 yards and winning the NFC Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately, Rashaan faced several traumatic injuries, and what seemed to be a promising career in the NFL would only last five more years. In 2016, Rashaan Salaam was found dead in a park in Boulder, Colorado with a suicide note. He was forty-two years old. For reasons unknown, his family decided to not let scientists test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). “There are four stages of CTE symptoms; the first includes ADHD, confusion, headaches, and dizziness. Second includes memory loss and social instability. The third and fourth stages include the most extreme symptoms such as dementia, movement disorders, tremors, depression, and suicidality.”[5] While it has not been definitively proven due to the lack of testing, Salaam could easily have sustained CTE during his years playing football. Depression was believed to run in his family, but his injuries seemed to be the main cause of his depression. The concussions and head injuries football athletes face during their careers often add up to destroy their mental and physical health, even years after their careers are over.

            When football athletes experience injuries, trainers give them heavy medication so they can resume playing as soon as possible. These medications are usually highly addictive. In an article from the Washington Post last year, Des Bieler writes about one of the greatest wide receivers, Calvin Johnson, and his experience in the NFL. In this interview, Johnson opens up about the outrageous behavior of the NFL in handling player’s injuries. He said that “painkillers were handed out like candy… If you were experiencing any pain, you could get as much Vicodin as you wanted”.3 Johnson surprised the world when he announced his early retirement after another incredible season; however, nobody knew what he was going through behind the cameras. He found himself taking the painkiller Toradol every day in order to continue to play. He felt that he needed to stop even if it meant to retire early.

In the article The Pain Never Dies, former lineman Walt Sweeney openly blames the NFL for his drug addiction. “As a rookie with the San Diego Chargers, Sweeney says he was given steroids, amphetamines, codeine, and Seconal by team doctors and trainers from day one.” [6] Sweeney, who is now fifty-six, is still addicted to the same drugs he took during his playing days. He has been hospitalized twenty-three times for overdosing and struggles to keep a steady job. Sweeney sued the NFL for causing his addictions, and won the case in the US Supreme Court. He was granted a $1.8 million pension plan from the NFL. He is not alone: as of today, thousands of ex-football players have filed lawsuits against the NFL for brain damage and addiction.

             Out of any professional sport, the NFL has the most cases of domestic violence. While domestic violence among NFL athletes has been kept largely under the radar, an incident involving Baltimore Ravens superstar running back Ray Rice has received exposure. “On February 15, 2014, Baltimore Raven's Ray Rice delivered a horrifying punch to his then fiancée (now-wife), Janay Palmer, leaving her unconscious in the elevator of the Revel Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Rice proceeded to drag Palmer's incapacitated body out of the elevator by her shoulders while the hotel surveillance camera recorded it all on video.” [7] Not only was this controversial because of how violent it was, but also because of how poorly the NFL handled the situation. Their initial reaction was to suspend Ray Rice for only two games. Weeks later, the media released the full video of Rice beating his wife in the elevator, after which the NFL kicked him off the team indefinitely. That the NFL made no effort to address the issue until prompted by the media revealed how little they cared for the personal integrity of their players.

       The NFL has grown immensely from its humble beginnings to become America’s favorite sport. Millions of people ranging from high school math teachers to the president of the United States watch their favorite football team every Sunday. As the sport continues to gain traction, the organization has become increasingly focused on business progression rather than the purity of the sport. Football fans are starting to realize that this isn’t the same professional football we were watching ten years ago. This year, the TV ratings for football have decreased. Perhaps, they will continue to do so if the NFL doesn’t start to take better care of their players. After all, without the players, there is no game. 


[1] Pallotta, Frank. "More than 111 million people watched Super Bowl LI." CNNMoney. February 07, 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2017/02/06/media/super-bowl-ratings-patriots-falcons/index.html.

[2] Patten, Dominic. "World Series Game 7 Hits Near Record Viewership For Fox & MLB – Update." Deadline. November 02, 2017. http://deadline.com/2017/11/astros-win-world-series-game-7-ratings-down-dodgers-mlb-fox-survivor-1202200057/.

[3] Reich, J. Brad. "When "Getting Your Bell Rung" May Lead to "Ringing the Bell": Potential Compensation for NFL Player Concussion-Related Injuries." Virginia Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, Spring2013, pp. 198-231. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=110585449&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[4] La Canfora, Jason. "Roger Goodell's base salary would be roughly in the range of $20M per year." CBSSports.com. November 19, 2017. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/roger-goodells-base-salary-would-be-roughly-in-the-range-of-20m-per-year/.

[5] Byars, Mitchell. “Drew Wahlroos, Former Colorado Buffaloes Linebacker and NFL Player, Dies of Suicide.” The Denver Post, The Denver Post, 8 Sept. 2017, www.denverpost.com/2017/09/07/drew-wahlroos-colorado-buffaloes-dies/.



[6] Reno, J. "The Pain Never Dies: Former Lineman Walt Sweeney Claims the NFL Turned Him into a Drug Addict and Ruined the Rest of His Life - and a Federal Judge Agrees." Inside Sports, vol. 19, no. 8, Aug. 1997, pp. 52-54. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=SPH456977&site=ehost-live&scope=site.


[7] Brown, Maleaha L. "When Pros Become Cons: Ending the NFL's History of Domestic Violence Leniency." Family Law Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1, Spring2016, pp. 193-212. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=116821737&site=ehost-live&scope=site.