Concussion Lessons of Ex-San Francisco 49er Kyle Williams

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by Irvin Muchnick

I’m surprised that no one has yet given the Kyle Williams story due treatment in relation to the concussion saga. When Alex Smith last year lost his starting quarterback job to Colin Kaepernick after being foolish enough to follow traumatic brain injury recovery protocol, the commentariat clucked. But the sad tale of Williams, a journeyman kick returner and wide receiver who was released by the same San Francisco 49ers this week, is much sociologically richer.

I’d like to say that Williams is one of many Forrest Gumps of a decades-long story, but that image carries the unfortunate stigma of mental retardation. Instead, let’s call him one of the Zeligs.

In the infamous 2012 Bountygate audio — captured by Sean Pamphilon, director of the documentary The United States of Football — Kyle Williams is the guy being targeted by wingnut New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as he exhorts his charges to constantly “touch and affect the head” of the opponent in an upcoming playoff game in San Francisco.

The 49ers would win despite this sage coaching, but the next week, in the conference championship game, Kyle Williams twice fumbled punts — costing his team a berth in the Super Bowl and drawing fans’ death threats on Twitter. And after the game, members of the victorious New York Giants made the gaffe of bragging to reporters that they were prepared to swarm Williams since they’d been tipped that he’d be shaky because of a history of concussions. Imagine that, hitting someone hard rather than soft … as a football tactic!

Now here’s the sociology I want to reintroduce and reinforce. Williams is the son of Ken Williams, general manager of baseball’s Chicago White Sox. Ken Williams had played football at Stanford (he was on the field during “The Play” in 1982, when the Stanford band prematurely took the field and impeded Cardinal attempts to tackle Cal Bears en route to a multi-lateral final-play touchdown). But he has made his professional mark in baseball, and in an executive capacity, to boot.

Yet the younger Williams chose football and brain damage.

Yesterday, an anonymous commenter, under Patrick Hruby’s excellent piece at Sports on Earth about the threshold decision by parents on whether to send their kids into youth football, said essentially to “follow the money people.” The commenter, like Hruby, compared playing football to the lottery: “Economists refer to lotteries as a ‘poverty tax.’ That is, a tax wrapped as an opportunity (ridiculously remote payoff) foisted upon the simple minded. Even better, football saddles its players with financial and health burdens that last of lifetime.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has only daughters, but a quick survey of top league executives and owners and players’ union officials shows that elite football moneybags don’t send their own kids onto the field. They choose basketball or lacrosse. Or the graduate program at the Wharton School.

But it seems different for many African Americans. Football has a unique spiritual hold on even middle-class blacks. Back in 2003, when I was writing a piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine about the issue of paying college football players, one of the protagonists and most effective activists was Stanford linebacker Jon Alston, whose mother was a lawyer in Louisiana. Alston went on to a five-year NFL career with St. Louis, Oakland, and Tampa Bay, and now presumably is well set up in the business world. That is, unless he has become or will become one of the concussion-syndrome casualties we don’t yet know about.

Kyle Williams is another example of the lure of this brain-busting game for non-underclass African Americans — while other sports, notably baseball, founder in their marketing and appeal to this segment of the population. It is one more piece of evidence that economic models alone cannot explain football insanity. Pervasively and in mysterious ways, late-empire culture also lurks.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick