A Player With Shoulder Pain, and a League Happy to Turn Its Back

There’s so much that is revealing here about the heart of our culture’s most popular and brutal sport. The owners of the N.F.L.’s 32 teams are fine socialists among themselves, splitting the gilt disgorged by television and digital contracts, ticket and jersey sales and, soon, gambling, lovely gambling. They work cooperatively to shake down cities to build stadiums.

But when it comes to their players, they become wonderfully 19th-century capitalists. A majority of football players work on nonguaranteed contracts, which is to say that when your local team says it has signed a player to a sweet deal, it pays to read the fine print. Very often that same player can be released if his performance falls off, or if a few too many sprains and blasts to the head slow him down. (Contracts in Major League Baseball and the N.B.A. usually come fully guaranteed, which explains why Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson can afford to most likely sit out the full season that is needed to rehabilitate a ruptured Achilles’ tendon (Durant) and a torn knee ligament (Thompson).

The N.F.L. Players Association, though, is a weak vessel taking on water, and for years its contract with the league did not allow players to seek a second opinion. The sport was a company town, and the team doctor’s word was law. More recently, the union secured for players the right to seek second and third opinions. But that contract still did not let players act on those opinions.

Robert W. Turner II comes to this discussion from multiple directions. He is a former professional football player, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine Health Science and the author of “Not For Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete.”

“The players have gotten a modicum of control, but it’s not enough,” Turner told me. “The players are starting to challenge the team doctors, and that’s great. But if the player and the team cannot agree, the player has to risk his salary to take medical action.

“Culturally, the owners have always looked upon players as commodities.”

The medical ethics are no less disheartening. Team doctors are paid by the team, and historically too many medical professionals have ridden rhetorical shotgun for the owners, backing up the deadly refusal to acknowledge the effects of concussive and sub-concussive hits on players’ brains.

“I’m glad that a professional athlete is sane enough and taking control of their autonomy that all of us are entitled to,” said Stephen Casper of Clarkson University, a historian of science and sport.

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