Maybe The NFL Itself Has Brain Damage

John Urschel is too smart to have waited this long.
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John Urschel is a doctoral candidate in applied mathematics at MIT. According to his bio page at the school’s website, he currently has “the fastest eigensolver for minimal Laplacian eigenvectors.”

Urschel.NFL

If you have no idea what that means, well, it means that Urschel is a smart guy. He’s also spent the last three seasons playing on the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line. This season will not be his fourth because, on Thursday, just before the first full-squad practice of training camp, he retired.

Urschel’s decision to quit football and focus full-time on math and his pending fatherhood came two days after the latest news regarding the sport’s scourge: brain injuries. This week’s report in the Journal of the Amercian Medical Association found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players examined, and 177 of 202 former football players in total.

While that report was not mentioned in Urschel’s statement regarding his retirement, you don’t have to know centroidal Voronoi tessellations to do the math on this one. This is a man who had a concussion in 2015 and talked about how it impacted his math work. It’s also a man who said in January that even though it was “irrational,” he planned to continue playing football.

In a vacuum, this is one man with another career path making a reasoned decision. Beyond Urschel, though, there is far more trouble for the NFL. The league now faces an existential crisis, but is choosing to address it by doing everything it can to run away with its ears covered while screaming “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”

Or, the way that the NFL put things in its response statement to the Boston University study in JAMA: “As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE. The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.”

The NFL’s commitment is so strong that, as reported by The Washington Post, “Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce have written a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking whether the league intends to fulfill a commitment to provide an additional $18 million of funding for research (out of an initial pledge of $30 million) by the National Institutes of Health.”

The league said it is working with the NIH “regarding potential new research projects and the remaining funds of our $30 million commitment.” Sounds great, but, you know, write a check?

So, the NFL has a thoroughly begrudging relationship with science at the same time that the headline finding in a J.D. Power survey was that protests of the national anthem by since-blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players were the top reason people watched less football last season. At least, that was the headline on ESPN’s piece by the inimitable Darren Rovell, while Deadspin correctly skewered both his reporting and the survey itself, whose conclusion was that, overall, more people were watching football – even though television ratings were markedly lower.

Meanwhile, last week, three NFL teams were victorious over former players in a lawsuit in which the players accused the teams of pumping them full of painkillers to keep them on the field while injured.

Also, there’s the story of reserve wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, cut by the Dallas Cowboys after he was charged with shoplifting $40 worth of stuff from a convenience store because the actual perpetrator gave police his name, date of birth, and Social Security number. When he was cleared, the Cowboys refused to rescind their transaction, and Whitehead wound up with the Jets.

The Cowboys, at the same time, are fully supporting their star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, as he is investigated for domestic violence.

To recap, the NFL right now is dealing with a massive healthcare crisis, denying science, failing to fund public institutions to its obligated levels, blaming nonviolent dissent for its struggles, facing big problems with painkillers, and harshly dealing with one crime that doesn’t even turn out to be a crime while one of its leaders tries to quash the investigation of a marquee player’s potential misdeeds, which is part of a general failure to deal effectively with violence against women.

The NFL should stick to sports.

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