The aftermath of last weekend’s Super Bowl has been dominated by quarterback Tom Brady’s sixth title and the defensive masterclass planned by New England Patriots coach, Bill Belichick, writes
Slightly overlooked was Patriots’ Julian Edelman receiving the most valuable player (MVP) award.
Edelman missed the first four games of the regular season due to a doping ban. He had not played any of the previous NFL season due to a knee injury. It appears that during his rehabilitation, he took a prohibited (but still unidentified) substance and was duly suspended.
Except for the four major league sports in the US, virtually every major sports body globally abides by the norms of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its code (WADC).
If the NFL had been party to the WADC, Edelman would have potentially faced a four-year ban.
Indeed, this month the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) issued four-year bans in the cases of 12 Russian athletes who were part of a WADA-mandated investigation into allegations of systemic performance enhancing doping (PED) practices in Russian sport.
One of the banned athletes is London 2012 Olympic high jump champion Ivan Ukhov. The number of failed doping tests emanating from that Olympics is now over 120, a record, beating the total of 86 set at Beijing in 2008.
With three years left in the retrospective testing period, London’s performance as the ‘dirtiest Games ever’ is likely to be, well, enhanced.
In contrast, Edelman was given a four-game suspension (a quarter of the regular NFL season) and returned to play as well as ever into post-season. Even in baseball, tainted for decades with allegations of steroid abuse, a player who breaches anti-doping rules in the regular season cannot participate in the playoffs.
With the notable exception of Nancy Armour at USA Today, there has been little discussion in the US sports media about whether Edelman’s MVP should be tainted by his PED.
The focus has not been on the means of his recovery from injury, but the means to an end – success in the Super Bowl. Moreover, the view in the US is that Edelman served his time for his doping ‘crime’ and if doping bans in the NFL ought to be longer, then that is a matter for the NFL and not individual players.
While Edelman’s MVP in this year’s Super Bowl sparks debate about the NFL’s anti-doping policy, a previous win by the Patriots in 2015, again involving Edelman, generated controversy over the NFL’s concussion protocols.
In the 2015 Super Bowl against Seattle, Edelman received a helmet knock from an opponent with about 10 minutes left. He got up, ran on but wobbled. He was not substituted and eventually scored the winning touchdown. Later, Edelman said that his stumble related to a hip and not a head injury and that he had passed all protocols.
Mired in legal actions, the NFL vowed to enhance its concussion protocols to include the use of independent doctors availing of video replays in the stand to ‘spot’ and call out players who might be concussed. And yet the problem of concussion in the NFL has continued to escalate and including a record 291 diagnosed concussions in the 2017-18 season.
For this season, NFL owners announced a series of concussion-related rule changes, chief among them sanctions against the use of the helmet by a player in contact.
The season has shown that the rule can be difficult to implement, especially in distinguishing illegal hits from incidental contact with the helmet in a fast-moving game.
The damning medical statistics on the chronic effect of head injuries among retired NFL players, and accompanying legal bills, will ensure that the NFL persists with its helmet rule in its efforts to “take the head out of the game”.
Yes, it is a jump from the NFL to the NHL (National Hurling League) but still the recent edicts for hurling referees to give red cards for head high challenges should, in line with other contact sports globally, also be supported by all in the GAA. And from a legal perspective, I’d support the calls this week by leading GAA medic, Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran, on facing down any backlash to such cards.
Returning to the NFL, there has also been a commercial imperative underlying their attitude to concussion and rule changes over the past number of years. In combination with the NFL’s woefully inconsistent handing of allegations of domestic abuse by players and the Colin Kaepernick protest, TV viewing figures were reportedly in decline.
In 2018 NFL viewing figures bounced back, up 5% from the 2017 season. Ironically, it is possible that rule change relating to the tackle and use of the helmet have contributed to a more offensively-minded season in the NFL. Trust the NFL to make money out of health and safety.
Overall, the NFL remains a commercial and sporting juggernaut. Underneath the elite level however, the picture is less glowing and injury fears are influencing participation rates.
A superb piece this month in The Atlantic by Alana Semuels noted that, according to the National Federation of State High School Association, in the 2017–18 US school year, 6.6% fewer high-school athletes participated in 11-player tackle football than in the 2008–09.
The premise of Semuels’ article goes beyond participation rates and she notes in her piece (‘The White Flight From Football’) that children in mostly white upper-income communities in the US are leaving America football but that African-American children in lower-income communities are still “flocking to football”.
Inevitably this is having an effect at higher levels of the sport and African-American athletes now make up nearly half of all Division 1 college-football players in the US, up from 39% in 2000.
Semuels’ argument is that this racial divergence “paints a troubling picture of how economic opportunity — or a lack thereof — governs which boys are incentivised to put their body and brain at risk to play.”
Even President Trump has had his say on concussion in football. In a recent interview a surprisingly contemplative (yes, really) President expressed doubt about permitting his youngest son to play football in school.
Ironically, the last US President to intervene meaningfully on safety in American football was also concerned with his son’s welfare.
At least 45 football players died from 1900 to 1905 in US college football and when President Theodore Roosevelt’s son was injured while playing for Harvard, he called a meeting of leading football colleges – the precursor to the NCAA – to urge then to modify the rules and promote safety.
A number of rules were then introduced – up until then American football was very similar to rugby union of the era. Forward passing was permitted. More organised scrimmaging lines were drawn. And new attack-minded playing positions evolved, including the wide receiver, which is, of course, the position of this year’s Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman.
Edelman’s ability to perform under pressure in playoff football in combination with Tom Brady has seen him compared to the great ‘49ers receiver Jerry Rice who worked in tandem with the legendary quarterback Joe Montana.
Montana (62) spoke recently about his post-football injuries – chronic arthritis in his hands so bad he can’t shoot a basketball; arthritis in his knees and elbows necessitating multiple surgeries; three neck fusion surgeries and sciatic nerve damage; nerve damage to an eye as a result of cumulative head blows. Have a look back at the hit he took from the Giants’ nose tackle Jim Burt in January 1987 and you’ll understand.
And yet Montana considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Unlike some of counterparts in the NFL, at least he can remember the injuries, his career and the names of his children.
- Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne.