It’s one of the most watched sports in the world – but there’s a dark side to the NFL which many fans don’t see.
This weekend’s Super Bowl LV clash between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs could have the highest viewing figures of any championship game in history – but some Super Bowl winners say the sport breaks athletes and pushes them to a “dark place”.
Many players suffer life-changing brain trauma while others are in so much agony even during their careers they need to be injected with painkillers to play, The Sun reports.
Martellus Bennett, who won the Lombardi Trophy with the New England Patriots in 2017, wrote an impassioned Twitter thread earlier this week, decrying the “physical and mental abuse” players go through to achieve NFL glory.
“Psychologically it’s some really dangerous s**t. To really play the game of football you have to some f****d up wiring in your head,” Bennett wrote.
“The other thing that happens is questioning if it was all worth it. When you struggle lifting up your kid.
“Or your mind doesn’t work right. You go broke you begin questioning if it was all worth it. And more times than not most would say no when truly being honest.”
The NFL has long been accused of prioritising its revenues over players’ wellbeing, with teams regularly injecting stars with painkillers to play through injuries.
And some truly shocking cases of criminal violence have been linked with players, from OJ Simpson’s murder trial to the ongoing domestic abuse charges against Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Chad Wheeler, which Wheeler denies.
But arguably the most serious problem comes from the nightmare brain disease which, in one study, was found to affect 99 per cent of players examined by researchers.
Here we lift the lid on the dark sides of one of the most popular sports on the planet.
MURDER OF A FORMER FRIEND
One of the most notorious stories from the NFL off the field in recent years was the case of Aaron Hernandez – a New England Patriots tight end who was convicted of murder.
Hernandez was given a life sentence for the 2013 shooting of his former friend, Odin Lloyd, while Hernandez was still playing for the Pats.
It’s still unclear why Hernandez threw away his promising football career to shoot Lloyd six times in a Boston industrial park.
His 2015 trial and an even a subsequent true crime docuseries about his case didn’t bring definitive answers as to his motive, with the Netflix program being criticised for including revelations about Hernandez’s sexuality which some saw as irrelevant to his crimes.
He was sentenced to life without parole for the killing.
But unquestionably the most shocking murder case associated with the NFL came in 1994 when OJ Simpson stood trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman.
The Hall of Famer running back’s legal proceedings became known as “the trial of the century” as it was closely watched by millions of people around the world for months.
Simpson was found not guilty in his criminal trial but was later found responsible for both deaths in a civil case brought by the victims’ families in 1997.
In 2007, he was charged with kidnapping and other felony charges for entering a Las Vegas hotel room and taking sports memorabilia at gunpoint.
A year later he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for the crimes but was released after just nine, in 2017, for good behaviour.
In 2017, Aaron Hernandez took his own life in his prison cell – his death came just five days after he was acquitted for a 2012 double murder unrelated to Lloyd’s killing.
Hernandez is one of several NFL players who have ended their own lives.
In 2011, Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson killed himself, leaving a message to his family asking for his brain to be examined after he’d died.
A year later Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker, ended his own life aged just 43, with some observers drawing comparisons to Duerson’s tragic case.
And then later in 2012, the sport was rocked by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s horrific murder-suicide.
Belcher shot his 22-year-old partner Kasandra Perkins dead in front of his mother before driving to the Chief’s practice facility, where he took his own life.
After Aaron Hernandez’s death, his family gave Boston University academics permission to study his brain.
They wanted to look for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease found in people who’ve sustained repeated blows to the head.
Its symptoms may include aggression, a loss of impulse control, and maybe even suicidal behaviour.
Hernandez’s brain was found to be a “classic” case of the disease which was surprisingly damaged for someone his age.
Duerson, Seau and Belcher were also all found to have CTE.
‘PEOPLE WHO PLAY FOOTBALL ARE AT RISK’
It’s not just a handful of players who’ve had CTE – hundreds of NFL athletes have suffered from it.
In one 2017 study, 99 per cent of the brains of NFL players studied were found to have CTE.
The diagnosis can only be made at autopsy so it’s unclear how many players are already living with the disease but have no way of definitively knowing.
Out of 202 deceased football players in the study – made up of a mixture of high school, college, and professional players – CTE was found in 177.
Shockingly, 110 of the 111 NFL players examined in the research were diagnosed with the disease.
“There’s no question that there’s a problem in football. That people who play football are at risk for this disease,” said Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center and co-author of the study, CNN reports.
“And we urgently need to find answers for not just football players, but veterans and other individuals exposed to head trauma.”
For its part, the NFL says it welcomes the research.
“The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes,” the NFL said in a statement, adding “there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE.”
Some players have been so concerned by the risks now associated with repeated head trauma and concussions that they’ve walked away from the sport in the prime of their careers.
In 2015, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired aged just 30, becoming one of the first players to quit over fears about brain injury.
And fellow linebacker Joshua Perry hung up his boots aged 24 in 2018 after suffering his sixth concussion for the same reason after playing just two seasons in the NFL.
“The last thing I want to do is put the health of my brain and my future wellbeing in jeopardy over a game and a paycheck,” he said.
‘DROP YOUR PANTS AND WAIT FOR THE NEEDLE’
Even while players are in the peaks of their careers, concerns have been raised about the league’s tolerance of athletes playing through injury or pain.
Injections of a powerful drug called Toradol are given to athletes as a short-term solution on game days – but the drug may have long-term consequences.
“I took one of those shots, a Toradol injection, for every game during the final three years of my career,” former NFL strong safety turned journalist Matt Bowen wrote for ESPN.
“Drop your pants and wait for the needle. It only stings for a couple of seconds.
“I’m sure Toradol has long-term (and negative) effects, just like the overuse of ibuprofen, but when you need that shot to get through three hours on game day, it is the final (and sometimes best) option.”
Bowen adds that when the drug wears off, pain can be worse than when the injury occurred – but he viewed it as worth it to continue playing.
The drug is usually only prescribed for short causes because it can lead to kidney damage.
Even more pernicious painkillers have affected the lives of many well-known NFL stars.
Legendary quarterback Brett Favre developed an addiction to the opioid Vicodin while being treated for a string of injuries in 1995.
“That was an MVP year for me,” Favre told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “But that year, when I woke up in the morning, my first thought was, ‘I gotta get more pills.’”
Issues with powerful pain killers have affected current players too.
Travis Kelce, the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs who was instrumental in getting the team to this year’s Super Bowl, has spoken out about his dependence on opioids while playing in the NFL.
“During my first surgery, I had no idea that these pain medications were something that I was going to want, that my body was going to want, and that I was going to feel uncomfortable if I didn’t have these,” Kelce told the Kansas City Star.
Thankfully he never developed an addiction – but many players find themselves using the drugs for years into retirement.
Last year, a study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found nearly 50 per cent of former players who reported using opioids in 2010 were still using them in 2019.
And a group of retired players even sued the NFL in 2017 alleging teams had violated federal laws governing prescription drugs and plied their players with powerful painkillers every season, the Washington Post reports.
But the NFL denied the lawsuit’s claims.
“The NFL clubs and their medical staffs continue to put the health and safety of our players first, providing all NFL players with the highest quality medical care,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said at the time.
“Any claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”
This article originally appeared on The Sun and is republished with permission