Bo Jackson, one of the most talented athletes to ever walk the earth and one of the most fun players to watch in two different sports, says the only reason he played football was a general ignorance of what it does to people.
Speaking to USA Today as he prepares to accept an award from a baseball scouts association, Jackson said the information about brain injuries in football has progressed to the point where it would have turned him off to the sport.
“If I knew back then what I know now,” Jackson tells USA TODAY Sports, “I would have never played football. Never. I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. And the people that did know that, they wouldn’t tell anybody.
“The game has gotten so violent, so rough. We’re so much more educated on this CTE stuff, there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today.
“Even though I love the sport, I’d smack them in the mouth if they said they wanted to play football.
“I’d tell them, ‘Play baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, just anything but football.’”
To be clear, Jackson is only talking about head trauma here. A hip injury forced him out of the NFL and shortened his MLB lifespan, but he says he “wouldn’t change a thing” about his career, and has no regrets.
But Jackson joins a growing number of former NFL players who say the increased knowledge of football’s correlation to lasting, traumatic brain injury and degeneration would have colored their own decisions to play. It’s obviously easier for them to say that when it’s a pure hypothetical, but it’d be naive to think there aren’t young athletes making the same calculations in the head right now.
The argument you’ll see around—mostly in the ESPN.com comments, actually—goes something like These players knew what they were getting into. Everyone always knew smashing your head is bad for your brain. But that’s simply not true. This wasn’t something anyone talked about until the last decade or so. Discussion of brain trauma and CTE and concussion science is everywhere now, but the only mainstream acknowledgment of concussions there ever used to be was an announcer saying of a player, “he got his bell rung,” or some such. The NFL produced compilations videos of its hardest hits. ESPN’s “Jacked Up” segment, a snuff reel in retrospect, only stopped airing in 2008. The media certainly wasn’t writing about long-term effects of concussions, especially in the pre-internet era, and there was nowhere for players to learn about the potential life-ruining or life-shortening consequences of their profession.
Not unless they decided to read the odd article in scientific journals, which I don’t think they were. There was actually a dearth of research about head injuries in football specifically, because punch-drunkenness was seen mostly as a boxing problem. After all, football players wore helmets. The dangerous misconception that any outer covering can prevent a brain from sloshing around in liquid still persists today, in otherwise fine research.
The obvious counterpoint to “the players knew!” is to ask why the NFL went to such great lengths to hide that knowledge. It wasn’t until four years after Bo Jackson played his last snap that the NFL commissioned research into traumatic brain injury. And in its inaugural study, the committee simply discarded data from hundreds of players in an attempt to reach the conclusion that concussions were not a pressing problem.
Research continues, and data is constantly being compiled, sequential breakthroughs being made. We’re going to know more about brain trauma tomorrow than we do today, than we did a year ago, or five years ago, or certainly, in Jackson’s case, than we did 35 years ago. Young players and their parents have more information than they ever did before making decisions about their futures. In the harsh light of day, football seems a lot less attractive. Bo knows.