Instantly noticeable among the dark suits at the House Judiciary Committee hearing two weeks ago, Gay Culverhouse stood out in her purple dress, but even more for what she said. She hammered the National Football League and its doctors relentlessly, charging that they treat individual football players as “a disposable commodity.”

I confess, I don’t follow football. I don’t even like it. But watching a woman defying a roomful of men, challenging the established wisdom and fighting for a cause she believes in, is a blood sport I can enjoy.

T he grandmother of six, who has several homes and raises thoroughbred horses, has clearly benefitted from her connection to the N.F.L. Culverhouse is the daughter of the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was president of the team in the early ’90s. But now that she’s learned how much and how many of her former players are suffering from the long-term effects of their football injuries, she is pressuring the N.F.L to take better care of its players. In the room, right next to Culverhouse, were the head of the N.F.L. and numerous team doctors, only some of whom stuck to the party line.

Football, Culverhouse declared, “is a cutthroat business.” The goals scored on the playing field enable the real goal, she added, which “is for the franchise to make money.”

The congressional hearing was convened in response to a series of articles in The New York Times that focused attention on the unusually high incidence of Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive disorders among retired football players, attributable to what experts call chronic traumatic encelopathy (CTE). Despite the mounting evidence in recent studies, the N.F.L. has consistently denied any link between cognitive impairment and playing football (which often means suffering repeated concussions, and even without concussions involves frequent jolts to the system).

Brain slices tested for CTE. In lower middle, see the whole brain section from Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley, showing damage in the amygdala and adjacent temporal cortex (Boston University)

Culverhouse aimed her fire at the role of the team doctor and “the medical community in facilitating these concussions.” She looked right past the N.F.L. doctors and informed the committee that the team doctors who attend to players during the game have a financial interest in returning the injured player to the playing field as soon as possible — in “the following game, if not the same game.” To that end, the doctor shoots the injured joint with cortisone to numb the pain, often on the field while the team forms a wall to keep the crowd from seeing the injured player vomit, she said.

Culverhouse has a doctorate from Columbia’s Teachers College in special education. She raises Paso Fino horses, known for their special gait. In the past year, she has been tracking down her former players and doing everything in her power to help them. She is advising them about how to get help for their disabilities and even filling out insurance forms for those who are unable to do it for themselves.

“Shocked” by the deteriorating health of her former players and their inability to receive disability compensation, Culverhouse is finishing a book, Violence: The Underbelly of the NFL, about these experiences. The retired players “walk through our lives looking like old men crippled by arthritis and, in some cases, dementia. My men have headaches that never stop. They cannot remember where they are going or what they want to say without writing it down. Some are on government welfare. Some are addicted to pain medications. Some are dead.” In the case of a head injury, the player “is told to ‘shake it off,’” she said.

“This is inexcusable.” Her testimony riveted the committee.

“The doctor is not their medical advocate. He’s not even conflicted. He knows who pays his salary,” she testified. If the doctors “are foolish enough to care about the players they treat, they are fired.” She described the “chaos in the locker room as players are mended and injected to get back on the field” during halftime, when “a good proportion of the players are getting intravenous therapy,” using arm cuffs “to speed the IV process … against medical best practices.”

Culverhouse added that the players don’t object— it’s not in their financial interest, any more than it is in management’s. Culverhouse explained that their contracts are “backend-loaded with performance bonuses. They need those extra yards and those interceptions in order to make their salaries.” They know that if they report a concussion, another player is sitting on the bench waiting to take their place. And if they consult an independent doctor, they become pariahs, no longer considered “team players,” she said.

At this critical stage of her life, Culverhouse is looking forward as well as back. She has six grandchildren, and one of her grandsons is a football player. “I have seen his future in the bodies and eyes of my former players. I know what is happening in the locker room. Please change football,” she implored the committee and the N.F.L., “before my grandson is damaged.”

Knowledge is power. I, too, have a grandson who plays football. For the sake of all our sons, let’s use this new knowledge to change not just the way the game is played, but the culture that acquiesces in using, abusing and finally discarding human beings when they are no longer profitable.

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  • Brandi Winans January 21, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I am so proud of Gay for getting involved in this critical matter and I was honored to be a part of the recent New York Times article October 28th, 2009,written by Alan Schwarz.
    I was in Washington for the 2007 Congressional Hearings and gave written tesimony on what the spouses go through when the shoulder pads and helmets come off behind closed doors. I was the wife of a former NFL player for 24 years and have just written my story in a book called “The Flip Side of Glory”.

    Until the hearings, I had no idea how many other veteran players were not recieving disbality compensation for thier injuryies sustained while playing in the NFL. I fought 16 years to help get my husband’s disability pension and know first hand about being a caretaker,sole-support and fighting for the future of my family and for the future of other players and their families.

    Finally through the help of people like Gay and many others who have come forward, Congress is finally listening.
    Together we are one. Brandi Winans

  • GAY GRIMES DAVIS December 1, 2009 at 4:23 am



  • Lombardi Chris November 11, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Looking at today’s Wall Street Journal, I’m wondering what Dr. Culverhouse would think of the core question being asked: Should we eliminate the use of helmets? As audacious as that sounds, it would undoubtedly prevent injury!

  • Willse Elizabeth November 10, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Brava, Diane!

    I do follow football, and love watching games. I’ve been watching the emerging news about football players and brain damage, feeling guilty and concerned that a sport I enjoy watching exacts such a price from its players.

    Can football evolve into a safer form and still be fun for its fans to watch? I really hope so. It will have to change, as more strong voices and sound science emerge to challenge the status quo.
    I’d absolutely watch flag or touch football, cheering my team(s) enthusiastically.