There has been a flurry of books in recent years about concussions in sports, an issue MomsTeam and I began covering in depth back in 2001, way before the crisis grabbed the attention of the media, politicians and the sports establishment. So, when I received a review copy of Throwaway Players: The Concussion Crisis from Pee Wee Football to the NFL by Gay Culverhouse, I was a bit skeptical that it could add anything new to the discussion.
I couldn't have been more wrong! I loved this book!
It is a must-read for parents for one simple reason: as former President of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL, with a doctorate in special education and mental retardation, and as a woman and mother, Gay has a unique perspective on the concussion crisis in football.
Culverhouse offers an oftentimes painfully honest, up-close-and-personal glimpse into a world and a culture most of us have never seen: a place in which, for far too long, the lifelong damage that is inflicted on the brains and bodies of football players has been swept under the rug in the name of the big business of sports, in the name of entertainment not unlike, as she says in the book, the fights of gladiators at the Coliseum in ancient Rome.
The book contains poignant stories of NFL players she has known who have grown old before their time, suffering from early dementia and clueless to their surroundings after a career taking blows to the head. Gay talks about the sexism she encountered as a female executive in the male-dominated world of professional sports. She writes of athletes abusing their bodies with performance enhancing drugs, of testifying to Congress, of forming a non-profit organization to assist retired players in accessing NFL benefits.
Throwaway Players not only "shines the light on the underbelly of America's sport," but issues a clarion call to everyone involved in football, from the NFL to youth football, to make sports less violent and much safer.
Gay went to work for her father, Hugh, the original owner of the team, after she broke her back in an accident. She ended up staying ten years, the last three as president, until her father died and the team was sold.
Not surprisingly, she dedicates her book to the members of the Buccaneers teams from 1976 to 1994; her "extended family and the (her) reason to change the National Football League."
Don't kill football, just make it safer
Gay takes pains throughout the book to make clear that she "does not want to kill the game of football." Her goal, one that I share and have been advocating for as well for the past twenty years, is for there to come a day in the not-too-distant future, in which our sons, and their children, and their children's children, play a smart game of football; a world in which they aren't tempted to use performance enhancing drugs, one in which, after they hang up their helmets, they don't need, as is sadly the case with far too many, a drool bib because they suffer from early onset Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, dementia and or mind-dulling addictions; for football parents to make sure their sons develop secondary skills so they have a career after they leave the game.
In a chapter of her brilliant book, A Woman's Book of Life, author Joan Borysenko, Ph.D talks about women reaching a stage in their lives when they become "wisdom-daughters," with the ability to create new integral cultures, "continu[ing their] psychological and spiritual development as ... truth-teller[s] while calling both people and institutions to their highest potential.
This is exactly what Gay is doing: by shining the light on the concussion epidemic at all levels of football, from NFL to high school and youth football, Gay is calling these institutions to their highest potential. Proof that she is succeeding is in the pudding: as a result, in part, of her testimony before Congress and lobbying efforts, the NFL now requires that an independent neurologist be present on the sidelines of every NFL game.
In her Congressional testimony, Culverhouse says she "spoke of the injustices done to the players who were put back on the field with injuries. Players forced themselves to play with concussions. They knew their back-up wanted on the field. They had to hold onto their jobs. I described the players who were injected with pain killers in the locker rooms so they could continue after half time."
Gay had the rare opportunity to see it all up close. Like most mothers and grandmothers of young football players, Gay is concerned not just with their safety, but with the safety of every mother's child, young or old. She freely admits in her book that, as an executive of an NFL team, she saw many things she questioned, yet dared not discuss openly, especially since she was a woman in a male-dominated culture and her degree had nothing to do with football.
I wanted to know how she handled her own son's football playing. "He never played," she told me. "We would sit directly behind the team during the game. My kids saw the blood, heard the bones breaking, and it took care of itself. My son is anti-violent."
What Gay was saying in so many words was what we all now know all too well: that if a player somehow beats the odds by making it to the NFL as a linebacker, his career lasts, on average, only 2.7 years, and, because they need to play four seasons to get health insurance after they retire, most walk - or in most cases, limp - away from the game without the health insurance
Developing Secondary Skills
One of the most powerful stories in the book was about nine-year-old Nathan Fisher. When Nathan was still in grade school, his mom was already dreaming about how he would one day play for the Gators at the University of Florida and go on to star in the NFL so that, "when Nathan makes it big, I will get a new house and retire."
When we spoke last week, Gay lamented that parents like Nathan's see a possible pro sports career, as much of a long-shot as it is, as more important than getting a quality education and their only chance at the "American dream." Gay's dream is that someday all kids who want to play will do so without fear of suffering lifelong injuries.
Culverhouse also talks about doing more to make sure athletes have the training and education to have careers outside of football after they retire. "The majority of NFL players do not have secondary skills they can turn to when their football days are done," she writes in Throwaway Players.
"These players, these men, had been thrown away after their years of gripping our hearts with their plays. What remained were the broken bodies and lost souls of the men who have permanently left the locker room. This is what remains after the cheering subsides. This is what the National Football League does not want you to see."
Shining the spotlight
Gay Culverhouse wants us to all to see. She wants us to question whether our society is any different from the ancient Romans, who thrived on violence. She wants us as parents of football players to question why and how we push our injured sons. Most of all she wants to keep shining a light on the crisis.
How I asked should kids take control? "I want them to put an "I" in the word TEAM. Only when kids start feeling their own pain, and start thinking about themselves and learn to self identify will the crisis end.
I wanted to know how or if the recent guidelines and fines that the NFL put into effect would be helpful in cutting down concussions and direct hits that are intended to cause harm. "The quarterbacks have a bull's eye on their backs," she said, and "whoever causes harm won't ever pay the fine. The team pays and it is all part of the cost to do business."
Culverhouse has been trying mightily to spread her message. She speaks to youth leagues, only to be told ‘"we had a medical doctor speak before and he scared the parents. You will scare parents away from letting their children play the game."
Gay tells me she does not want to turn youth and high school football into "flag football, with stricter rules and guidelines," but she does want parents to be educated to the point where they begin to demand rule changes, as has happened in the NFL.
To that end, Culverhouse will continue assisting retired NFL players in accessing benefits through the Gay Culverhouse Players Outreach Program, Inc. She is definitely the real deal. She is also helping us at MomsTeam to continue our eleven year mission of educating parents on the best ways to keep their kids safe and happy, and to that end she is sharing with MomsTeam viewers a concussion video that she has produced which I know you will find informative and will want to share with parents and coaches, and kids, too!