Legendary NFL coach John Madden died on the morning of Tuesday, December 28. While many took the occasion of his passing to celebrate the man’s coaching, broadcasting, and video game legacy, others used it as an opportunity to call Madden out for his part in turning “brain injuries into a video game.” The takes were incendiary enough to take over sports social media and websites for days.
The concussion discussion following John Madden’s death seems to originate from a pair of sources. The first is a tweet from independent Journalist Marcy Wheeler, posted on the evening of Madden’s passing. The tweet reads, “Everyone eulogizing Madden: How many concussions could we have prevented had he not turned brain injuries into a video game?” Wheeler, who specializes in civil liberties and national security matters, lists her football and head trauma experience as playing as the star monsterback on a powderpuff team and six years of rugby, during which she played through at least one concussion. She also says a fellow rugby player died on the field.
Then on Wednesday, December 29, a history professor at Dallas College named Dr. Andrew McGregor offered his opinions on John Madden via his Twitter account, currently set to private. His initial tweet read, “I have lots of opinions on John Madden. The creation of the Madden video game was not a great development for the U.S. It further glamorized violence and dehumanized Black athletes, helping to establish plantation cosplay that has grown worse in the era of fantasy football.”
The thread, archived over at Barstool Sports, eventually resolves to the same sentiment expressed by Wheeler, albeit with a puzzling racism angle applied. “The key here,” McGregory writes in the thread, “is consumption of the sport as distorted reality. Video games dehumanize players, they create fantasies of super teams and notions of control and management (replicated in fantasy sport) where we control and manipulate rosters and players. It’s deeply problematic.”
Dr. McGregor’s tweets have been widely panned and criticized by fans of both the sport and the video game series. Many objected to his calling the Madden franchise “a digital plantation” that uses players names and likenesses for profit while encouraging fans to disregard the humanity behind them, and by extension their health. In response to such extreme tweets, many also point to a tweet by the doctor from 2017, in which he talks about playing Madden with his brother, as evidence of hypocrisy.
The responses to Marcy Wheeler’s tweet are, as one would imagine, pretty harsh. There are plenty of embarrassingly misogynist replies, some name-calling, and several people suggesting that EA’s Madden NFL series actually prevented brain injury by giving those interested in the sport a safer, non-contact way to play. In response to the question, “do you think the video games give people concussions,” Wheeler replies, “No. I think the video games led fans to think the real sport was a video game.”
To be fair, the National Football League hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to the dangers of traumatic head injuries. Amidst a flurry of concussion concern in 1994, the NFL formed the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, appointing a doctor with little experience in brain science as committee head. In December of that year, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliablue called concussions a “pack journalism issue,” suggesting the media were making too much noise about a relatively minor issue. During the same year, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman took a knee to the head in 1993 season NFC Championship game, a game he to this day cannot remember playing, and Chicago Bears fullback Merrill Hoge retired after a concussion left him briefly unable to recognize his wife and son.
There’s an excellent timeline of the NFL’s ongoing concussion crisis over at PBS.org. It deftly breaks down a long history of the league trying to minimize the dangers of head trauma while the medical community slowly learns more about said dangers. Repeated head trauma, the medical experts say, can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which can cause memory loss, aggressive behavior, motor neuron disease, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Doctors examing Andre Waters and Terry Long, two former NFL players who committed suicide, found signs of CTE in both.
The question of whether repeated head trauma is dangerous to your health has been answered. Yes. A lot. And the NFL has gotten slightly better about it, actively warning of the dangers of concussions and enacting rules to try and curb their frequency instead of casually waving them off.
Back to Marcy Wheeler and Dr. McGregor’s post-mortem swipes at John Madden. Though the NFL’s history with dealing with head trauma has been bad, Madden has long spoken out about the league’s lax position on players receiving concussions. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, in response to comments about Madden being an instigator, tweeted a video of the man commenting on the danger of concussions back in 1993.
“I think of a guy had a concussion or has a concussion then he shouldn’t play anymore,” Madden says in the clip. “They always talk about boxing being archaic, but if a boxer gets knocked out he can’t fight for another month. And sometimes in football we say, ‘Oh that guy has a slight concussion, he’ll be right back in.’ I don’t know if I ever agreed with that.”
As for how EA’s Madden franchise handles head trauma and injuries as a whole, that has slowly changed over the years. In early entries, players getting injured during a game would result in an ambulance taking the field, comically knocking other players out of the way to get to the wounded one. The ambulance was removed after Madden 2001, as the NFL felt it glorified injuries. The hit stick, which allowed players to perform stylish hard-hitting tackles, was removed shortly after it was introduced in Madden 2005 because the NFL felt it promoted violence. There are no career-ending injuries in the game anymore. And concussions have historically been referred to as “head injuries.”
These in-game head injuries meant a player might be out for a couple of quarters in older Madden games. That changed in Madden 12, in which players with a head injury would be out for the remainder of the game, with commentators Gus Johnson and Chris Collinsworth talking about the seriousness of head trauma when such injuries occur. Head injuries are still in the game to this day, but they are not referred to as concussions. That’s a mandate from the NFL, however, and not Madden.
The NFL seems keen to keep the series from getting too violent. But by keeping the word concussion out of the in-game discussion, I can see how someone might think it’s sending the wrong message to football fans.
Yes, football is violent. People get hurt. Players suffer life-changing trauma. The hits are hard. The potential for injury is what kept me, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall high school sophomore, from joining the Dunwoody Wildcats. I still play Madden every year, and never once has it made me feel like getting my head bashed in was okay.