Former NFL player speaks about the politics of football

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Former Denver Broncos tight end/wide receiver and journalist Nate Jackson came to campus last week to talk to students about his memoir detailing life as an average athlete in an institution he considers iniquitous. Slow Getting Up details the dark underside of the NFL with candor, humor and poise.

The campus-wide address was cosponsored by the politics department, the Remsen Bird Fund, athletics and the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs.

Jackson focused his discussion broadly on players’ rights to physical, mental and legal safety. He called out the NFL for prioritizing the media and public image over not only the rights but the humanity of its players. He referenced “Heads Up Tackling” as what he believes is an impracticable initiative started by the NFL in response to concussion lawsuits. He also looked negatively at the NFL’s rumored movement to remove the kickoff.

“The initiative is a PR move intended to tell mothers football is safe if their sons use this move,” Jackson said. “It’s indicative of the league [being] worried about its image.”

Jackson believes many of the NFL’s policies around drug use are influenced more by the media than science or the health of its players. He argues the league should lift its ban on marijuana. These athletes are always in pain and frequently self-medicate with alcohol, which is legal despite its significantly larger risk to one’s health than marijuana.

“The league is scrambling to figure out how to deal with legalization in the U.S.,” Jackson said. “They’re realizing that some athletes are able to balance kicking ass and smoking weed and finding relief in it.”

According to Jackson, the league recklessly distributes pain pills and anti-inflammatories “like candy.” Without medication, players would struggle to get back on the field day after day. But many of these men end up addicted to the medications. He contrasts these legal medications to marijuana, which is still illegal even though it is proven to be an effective natural pain reliever with a very low addiction rate.

Jackson also addressed the recent sexual assault and domestic violence scandals in the NFL, arguing they are global issues rather than NFL issues. He highlights that the percentage of NFL players who have committed acts of domestic violence is smaller than that of the general population.

The “NO MORE” commercial that aired during the Super Bowl struck Jackson as yet another obvious move to protect public image.

“You’ve seen the guys on TV manufacturing tears,” Jackson said. “I wonder what they say to them before they go on camera.”

He believes the commercial was the NFL’s response to sports journalists placing blame on the NFL, rather than on the abusers themselves who exist worldwide.

“When sports journalism starts to become [the] moral compass of the world, we have a problem,” Jackson said. “We should not look to the NFL to lead the way.”

Assistant Professor of Politics Jennifer Piscopo invited Jackson to campus in light of her Cultural Studies Program (CSP) entitled Politics, Culture and Sports.

“What I appreciate about Nate’s memoir and his other writings is his thoughtfulness about the NFL as an institution,” Piscopo said. “He addresses his sacrifices and his struggles, including playing through the pain, being treated like a commodity by coaches and owners, and struggling to balance his love of the game with the physical and emotional tolls.”

Jackson’s dual role as professional athlete and writer provides a unique contribution to sports journalism in that he can carefully and cleverly articulate the pressing, lesser known internal issues within the NFL, as well as offer practical solutions.

“He was very approachable following the talk, and extremely well-spoken,” Jay Barrow (senior) said. “It was nice to get an honest perspective on the most popular sport in America.”

Jackson believes the only way to change the physical danger of football is to take power away from coaches. Cutting the clock between plays in half could be the way to affect that change. Twenty seconds rather than 40 between plays would keep heart rates up, and loosen football’s extremely choreographed plays. The sport would start to look more like soccer and basketball, whose players Jackson sees as far more empowered.