This January, a forgotten National Football League player got his final moment in the spotlight. Andre Waters, a tenacious former defensive back, had taken his life in November at age 44.
At the time, it was marked as a tragedy. By January, during the NFL's playoff season, a forensic pathologist who investigated Waters' brain claimed that football trauma contributed to his demise. His brain tissue, noted the pathologist, resembled that of an 85-year-old man.
The NFL has devoted significant energy to its own studies on concussions, the aftereffects, and how long a player should be kept out of action after suffering one. That is to be commended. But the interest in unofficial, non- affiliated studies has increased, and the data returned often differs greatly from the NFL's own, causing it to have to defend its efforts to protect the athletes who sacrifice their bodies for the good of the league.
And the league's defense has been porous; its science consistently backed up existing policies.
Even if the NFL's science is correct, the media's opinion, as it sometimes does, is well on its way to ignoring the league's stance. To spend time Googling "NFL retirement," reading coverage of Waters' death and fellow former NFL player Ted Johnson's admission of depression, and parsing ESPN The Magazine's exploratory piece on concussions is to acknowledge that the league has credibility issues that are building.
While the sad situations of Waters and Johnson may be outliers, the NFL's current script does nothing to dissuade speculation.
Reacting to the pathologist's news about Waters' suicide and brain age, NFL VP of PR Greg Aiello issued a statement, saying, "Whatever its cause..." and the rest of his words lost their meaning. NFL fans are not naïve about the game's brutality; nor should be the league.