The Pro Football Concussion Report

A Fan's Look at Head Injuries and the Concussion Crisis in Football

Football Tastes Good like a Cigarette Should

1967 Anti-Smoking TV Commercial
Ask Your Heart Association Anti-Smoking TV commercial, 1967


Like father, like son. Painting the new siding, washing the old Ford Mustang, hurling rocks at the neighbor’s house, and finally, watching pops fire up a Pall Mall as we sit in the park contemplating how the heck we were able to avoid going to Vietnam. Since the 60’s, we’ve seen dramatic TV commercials and brilliant magazine ads and giant billboards warn us about the dangers of smoking. And we’ve changed. Percentage wise, half the number of Americans smoke cigarettes as we did in the 60’s. Our society as a whole is a little fatter, older and more educated than we used to be. And these days, the RG3s are 4 times more popular than The Say Hey Kids.

Even still, today cigarettes generate $10 billion dollars in revenue in the U.S., a little more than the amount of NFL revenue. But overseas, tobacco sales are estimated at $740 billion dollars. Perhaps that’s why the NFL is flying teams to London to play. Exit plan anybody?

As business owners, the NFL team owners should study the experience of the American tobacco companies. The enormous popularity and profits of the 1950’s and 60’s, the smear campaigns of the 70’s, the litigation of the 90’s (particularly their losing defense strategy), government intervention, the export industry, the whole thing.  For now the game is more popular than ever, sponsors are competing for contracts and TV is eating up the game. But things change. They always change. And football can’t take a whole lot more days like yesterday and remain as popular as Tom Brady and Ray Lewis have made it. Yesterday’s first significant court action for the NFL’s defense of the 4,200 former player concussion lawsuits definitely did not turn out to be the slam dunk the NFL has postured it as. Billed by experts as a battle of the attorneys, especially two experienced supreme court attorneys, the attention seemed to drift to the walking wounded, the widows and the ex-players sobbing and slurring about what’s happened to them since NFL retirement. Mary Ann Easterling couldn’t even get out the name of her husband, suicide victim and Georgia Tech legend Ray Easterling. And there was Eagles fullback Kevin Turner. Suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, it was tough to watch as the Alabama star struggled to tell the crowd of media that “it was good to be back” and “a lot of the stuff that went on in the courtroom . . . was a little bit over my head.”

With tobacco and even with NFL concussions there’s an easy out for many of us by just blaming the victim. “They knew the consequences,” and “they made a lot of money” (NFL players, not cigarette smokers), and the NFL’s quasi-official position, “team doctors can’t diagnose the problem if the players continue to hide their injuries.” But tobacco’s lung cancer and heart attack victims aren’t on football cards and they weren’t on TV* (except for this Perry Mason anti-smoking commercial) and they just weren’t big, crazy, American sports heroes. Alex Karras, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau were adored by so many people. For better or worse, cigarette victims are only missed by their family and friends. But with the NFL, the media’s going to find the victims and the families. And televise it.  And write about it. When sweet, articulate Mary Ann Easterling talks about Ray Easterling it’s impossible to not genuinely feel bad for the loss of her husband. And then there’s Lisa McHale. McHale’s husband Tom was a popular Tampa Bay Buccaneer, whose seemingly charmed post-NFL life spiraled downward incredibly quickly after retiring from football. Beginning with his addiction to the 1990’s football player candy, OxyContin, McHale didn’t survive his depression and drug addiction for very long. He died at 45. And when Cornell graduate (Tom McHale was a Cornell graduate also) and straight out of central casting mom Lisa McHale talks, it’s just gripping. “The hardest day of my life was having tell them that Tom . . . daddy was gone and he wasn’t coming back.”

There are more players and more stories that we haven’t heard yet. But in time, television will find the widows, they’ll find the kids that have lost their dads and they’ll find more 50 year old former players that are struggling to get their sentences out. ESPN and networks with NFL relationships might be reluctant to show it at first, but eventually it’ll get out there. On the internet, on local TV,  on 60 minutes, and then eventually back in Congress. And that can’t be good for ticket sales, product sponsorships, cable subscriptions and cities voting to raise taxes to build stadiums. The NFL and their brilliant, expensive lawyers can win in court, they usually do. But, perhaps this is one battle they don’t want their fans to get used to watching on TV.
On the other hand, there’s always the French.

*For the crowd born after 1970, Bill Talman played the prosecuting attorney on the popular 1960’s crime and court show, Perry Mason.  Perry Mason was a criminal defense attorney, perhaps the best in history.  All of his clients walked. On the otherhand, the prosecutor, Hamilton Burger never prosecuted a guilty person (and his wrongfully arrested folks were usually charged with murder).  Burch had every single case fall apart by the end of the show, typically with the surprise neighbor, widow or brother-in-law breaking down and admitting their guilt while under the wily cross examination of undefeated Perry Mason.

Related Story: Paul Tagliabue, Elliot Pellman and the Tobacco Industry Experts

Return to Home