The NFL’s Flabby Arms Race

It's time we stopped celebrating "Big Snacks" and other big men produced by football's hunger for obese linemen

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Jared Wickerham / Getty Images

Damon Harrison of the New York Jets

Within the past year, so much mainstream football coverage has seemed to include caveats about the lifelong ravages of the sport. Directors shy away from glorifying big hits, and broadcasters hide their disdain for the “defenseless receiver” rule. Meanwhile, the press applies extra postgame scrutiny whenever a player takes a hit to the head and disappears. Everyone — excepting the most vile hacks — knows too much to do otherwise.

(MORE: Why Changing a Team’s Logo Can Mean More Wins)

So why is it that we still get stuff like this? From Rich Cimini’s ESPN profile of second-year Jets nose tackle Damon “Big Snacks” Harrison:

Harrison was only 250 pounds when he arrived at William Penn, where he made sure to capitalize on the school’s meal plan. Based on [college coach Steve] Miller’s observation, Harrison didn’t get enough to eat at home, where his mother worked two jobs to support the family. At college, he was a fixture in the dining hall, sometimes sitting for an hour per meal.

He ate his way to 360 pounds, yet managed to maintain his small-man athleticism. It was on display during one memorable day in the gymnasium.

And then Cimini goes on to tell the story of how this fat man could still move like the lithe basketball player he once was, despite his body mass index going from 26.3 in high school — he was six-foot-two, 205 pounds — to 43.8 in a six-year span. It’s presented as a breathtaking bit of athleticism, not the result of a freak diet and a coach hell-bent on forging himself an elite defensive line, gavage-style. (Harrison was stocking shelves at his hometown Wal-Mart when Miller brought him to school. He had previously been released from his scholarship by Northwestern Mississippi Community College.)

The problem isn’t just with Cimini. (Although, cripes, that tossed-off second-hand line about malnutrition at home, in justification of a 110-pound weight gain, oughta make anyone nauseated.) It’s also with a league that encourages its players to make deeply unhealthy choices so that it can keep up its (flabby) arms race. According to an AP survey, the entire NFL had one player weighing 300 pounds or more in 1970. By 2011, the league had 358 of them.

The individual tales are harrowing. Former Cowboy Nate Newton, who once carried over 400 pounds on his six-foot-two frame, had to undergo an unusual type of bariatric surgery because he was too large for the standard procedure. Harry Galbreath, a former Dolphin, died in 2010 at the age of 45 from heart disease. A former teammate said that Galbreath had to eat lots when he was young to ensure that he could get to 275 pounds; he weighed 396 when he died.

And obesity-sparked health concerns don’t always wait for retirement. Twenty-six-year-old Kyle Love, like Harrison an undrafted defensive tackle, was diagnosed after the 2012 season with adult onset diabetes. The New England Patriots’ doctors had seen his high blood sugar and other warning signs, and worried. (Love was six-foot-one, 315 pounds, for a BMI of 41.8.) He cut juices and candy out of his diet and showed up to offseason workouts 18 pounds lighter than normal. So what did the Patriots do? They cut Love, classifying his release as the result of “a non-football injury.”

The injury in question? His health-minded lifestyle modification. In the press, the whole thing took on a darkly comic tone: “People try to make it like I lost 30 pounds. I didn’t lose 30 pounds,” Love said, steadfastly denying that he had completed what would be an expedient course of treatment for his illness.

The NFL is one big tradeoff. Athletes give their health to this barbaric league, and in return, when the bargain works as planned, they’re paid well, with other perks. They have some sense of the risks involved (although perhaps not enough). They make rational decisions (albeit possibly bad ones).

Thanks to the lawsuits and to the suicides and to FRONTLINE and even to telecasts’ discretion, the public knows all about the head-trauma-related health concerns built into this tradeoff. As we should: We fund it.

But reading Cimini’s story, reading “Mammoth-sized linemen becoming more prevalent in SEC” — it’s hard to imagine anyone’s getting much sense of what horrible things players do to themselves, all in the name of athleticism.