Some Thoughts about Joe, Peyton, Cam and Trauma

Few events capture the nation’s attention quite as much as the annual Super Bowl. This year, over 111 million people watched at least part of the game, another 4 million streamed it. Las Vegas played host to 300,000 tourists eager to watch the game, make a wager and party the night away. In every corner of the nation there were Super Bowl parties, thousands upon thousands of them, after all, no one want to watch the big game alone.

In the days leading up to game, the media hype reached a high-pitched frenzy. Cam Newton and Peyton Manning, the opposing quarterbacks were expected to define the game. It was potentially a perfect storyline; the young gun faces the old gunslinger. Newton was eager to prove his exceptional talent and chalk up his first win. For Manning the game was billed as his last gun fight. In the end, both performances were rather disappointing for the fans and the bettors. The game was an old-school defensive affair, not much scoring and lots of turnovers and offensive miscues.

It may not have been the best storyline, but it was good for the bookies. The books in Nevada handled a record $132 million and won $13 million. March Madness is up next; it is always popular with the betting public. But, as good as March Madness is, it does not compare to the Super Bowl. Nothing does, according to the American Gaming Association 47 million people placed a wager on the game, even the president placed a bet. In its pre-game estimate, the AGA predicted $4.1 billion would be wagered on the game.

Obviously, wagering is important for football; it increases the audience for the game, the advertising revenue and the press coverage. Football and gambling are in a very complex symbiotic relationship, they feed off each and they need each other. Without gambling, professional football would not be the mega business that it is today. By the same token, the bookies both legal and illegal need football. But there is a black cloud composed of injuries and brain trauma on the horizon for football and by implication for sports wagering.

Three days before Super Bowl 50, USA Today published an interview with Joe Montana. Who is better qualified to talk about the game than a quarterback who played in four and won all of them? This year Montana was scheduled to “toss the coin” – it seems that is the extent of his current physical capabilities. On any list of “the greatest quarterbacks of all times” Joe is always in the top three, usually first. But at 59 years old, that is no longer so important to him.

On Sunday, Joe Montana will handle the coin toss at Super Bowl 50. It’s one of the things he can do without feeling pain, which is the daily cost of his Hall of Fame football career….To hear it from Montana, it sounds like he has spent as much time in an orthopedist’s office than he did on the football field. Josh Peter, USA TODAY, 2-5-16

The interview turned out to be a litany of Joe’s woes and not Montana’s magnificence. Joe Montana cannot run or play any sport, he can barely walk. He has arthritis, a severely damaged knee, continuous neck pain and a wandering eye. Montana has had dozens of surgeries since his retirement from football at 39. But Joe’s wandering eye cannot be solved by a surgeon with a knife.

A doctor said the nerve damage resulted from head trauma. “Can’t figure out where that came from,’’ Montana deadpanned, assuming that the host of physical problems resulted from the pounding he took during his football career. When he retired, Montana said, he thought he’d done so early enough to live an active physical life with his wife and their three children. He has discovered otherwise. Josh Peter, USA TODAY, 2-5-16

Montana is not unique with injuries to his brain. There is a growing list of former players who suffer from brain trauma. Cam Newton is just beginning his career, but Peyton Manning is ending his; the degree of the injuries they will take into retirement is anyone’s guess. The issue has only surfaced in the last few years, but it is quickly becoming significant. Based on recent research, it is estimated that 80 percent of all professional football players have some brain damage. The NFL is scrambling to deal with the problem. It is an unfolding process of research and reaction. The league will certainly do what it can to protect players with better equipment and additional rules. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says there is a “culture change” in the NFL when it comes to concussions. In promising a safer game, he said that if he had a son, he would have no problem allowing him to play. I think there are many parents in this country who are starting to disagree.

Unfortunately, it is not a problem limited to professional players. Players at all levels are subject to the same injuries. And that begs two further questions: Can football continue as a contact sport in Pop Warner, high school and college? And if there is no amateur full contact football, can full contact professional survive?

The 2016 Super Bowl was a landmark, the fiftieth edition. But I think it highly improbable that in another fifty years there will be a game resembling the one played in 2016. What will that future game be like? Who can say, but for the football and the gaming industry, it is a very important question. Football above all other sports is a major driver of gambling revenue. It is important for all casinos, even if they do not have legal wagering. The entire football season is a promotional treasure for the industry. Big screen televisions, hot dog and beer specials and a host of prizes are industry staples. And without football, fantasy sports, legal or not, would hardly be viable. I don’t think football is going to go away any time soon, but I do believe there will be a grass roots effort to fundamentally change its violent nature. Flag football, anyone?


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