Truth and Consequence: The NFL and head injuries

Packer down

There is an elephant in the room and no one can continue to ignore it.  Every couple of years something happens that shakes up some controversy when it comes to the NFL and head injuries.  In the past year and a half, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling committed suicide after suffering from depression and dementia.  They both claimed that it was the head injuries that they sustained in their time with the NFL that caused their condition.  And more recently, the issue was already in the forefront of our minds when we learned of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.  We shook our heads with dismay, some of us more shocked than others.  Then comes Junior Seau, and suddenly, the NFL isn’t just feeling the heat, it’s on fire.

Junior Seau was a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers for 13 seasons.  While he finished his career elsewhere, he was born and raised in San Diego and lived there in his Oceanside home until the day he died.  On May 2, 2012, Seau was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest.  No suicide note, no phone calls or voice mails to explain.  Though, like Duerson and Easterling, Seau shot himself in the chest, presumably to preserve his brain for research, and for proof that he too suffered from CTE.

Even before Dave Duerson’s suicide, I wrote a piece for the blog discussing (some would claim, callously) the predicament that the NFL was in when it came to head injuries.  No one is denying that they exist.  No one is denying that CTE is real.  No one is denying that there is a huge problem which will cost the NFL a great deal, whether that comes in the form of reputation or money.  But the problem solver in me says that we should focus on the solution.  So that post focused on how the NFL could make things right again.  It also (again, callously, I’ll admit) discussed whether or not the NFL owed anything to its players.  So I won’t revisit that or go back into that now, but feel free to take a look at my post from January 30, 2011

At this point, I’d like to discuss something different.  The solution is going to be hard to arrive at no matter what.  But we can’t look at a solution until we look at the problem.  I don’t like to play the blame game, but maybe it’s time we asked some really uncomfortable questions about why this is happening.  If you took a poll on who is to “blame” for this epidemic, the results would reveal:

1. The NFL

2. The rules

3. The equipment

4. The players

5. The nature of the game

The NFL: Conspiracy Theory 
The finger is pointed squarely at the NFL these days.  Surely, they must have known about brain injuries early on and made the decision to either conceal that information or ignore it.  Lawsuits are flying around like pieces of paper in a confetti factory.  This reminds me of the days where the tobacco and asbestos companies were lying to consumers, flat out lying to people, about the effects of the products.  This seems to happen all the time and people seem very eager to claim that the NFL was hiding something.  Were they negligent?  The bounty program out of New Orleans doesn’t seem to help the cause that, while it doesn’t go to knowledge, it shades the entire league with an air of maliciousness.  But what could they have known?  Could the NFL have known that getting hit really hard multiple times causes some sort of brain trauma?  Yes, but most people did know that by a certain time, certainly by the time that the active players began their careers.  It is why we have helmets, after all.  Could they have known about CTE? Sure.  Could they have suspected or had evidence that these head injuries would result in suicidal tendencies?  Maybe.  Do I think that the NFL is going to owe a crapload (pardon the language) of money to retired players regardless of the answers to those questions?  Absolutely.

The Rules:  Some things break before they bend.

Arguably, the NFL and the Rules are one in the same.  But was it not necessarily the NFL’s own knowledge that was the problem, but how they implemented it in rules.  We have seen, over the past five years or so, the rules of the game change dramatically when it comes to protecting players against injury—mostly head injuries.  The rules also require a high scrutiny when it comes to allowing an injured player to return to the game, requiring full clearance by an independent medical examiner, and not a team doctor.  The rules against hits to the head result in suspensions and fines.  Some teams and defensive players seem to be targeted by the NFL as particularly “dirty” and have paid the price.  So what more can we do, to ensure that this game, a contact sport, still gets to retain its character without permanently injuring its players?  Well, we can start with clearing the air when it comes to bounty programs.  It’s so surprising that anyone was shocked that this is happening.  I have to admit, I am screaming at the TV half the time for my own defensive players to kill that running back, hit that wide receiver as hard as you can as soon as the ball hits his hands, sack the QB and hope he doesn’t get up.  Clearly, I’m not hoping for permanent injury, and I’m sure as hell not advocating that players play dirty, or in contravention to the rules, but then something like this bounty program comes up and it makes you wonder how the culture has affected the rules of the game.  I’ve changed my tune and hope that we figure out who all these defensive programs are that are running similar bounty cultures in their locker rooms (because you know there are more out there), and I hope that they are punished as hard as the Saints were.  There is absolutely no excuse for advocating, encouraging and providing incentive to players to cause head injuries to another player.  Not before and certainly not now, with all the evidence we have.  Since for the most part, the NFL or the teams are responsible for the rules, that’s a double whammy.

The Equipment: Protect.Perform.

Riddell is the official helmet of the NFL.   One of my favorite players of all time, Art Monk, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that involves 62 other plaintiffs suing them (as well as the NFL) for their part in not protecting the head.  Clearly Riddell puts out a premium product that claims to help protect against head injury.  Unless there is a warranty issue, or unless Riddell took part in the NFL’s shadiness, the helmets should not be the focal point.  Maybe they can be improved on (and they probably will), but just as a seat belt or an air bag can’t protect you fully from a car crash, helmets can only do so much.

The Players: A Lesson of Accountability 

This argument is three-fold.  1) They signed up for this (see section below) 2) Players cause other players injury.  Start being accountable for your actions on the field, play by the rules, and the injuries will decrease.  Bounty programs only go to highlight the fact that players are exacerbating a terrible situation with their own behavior.  Yes, I know, I know, it’s your JOB to hit someone.  But it isn’t your job to put them in a coma.  It’s your job to go for the ball (not the head).  It’s your job to play by the rules (no late hits, nothing above the shoulders).  It’s your job to remember that you are all in the same boat out there and it is sinking fast.  Be accountable to your fellow player. And finally 3) Players want to be heroes.  There is a great article by Peter King in this week’s Sports Illustrated about how football players often play through the pain.  Mostly, it’s because we (coaches, fans, teammates) expect it.  But also because they feel like they should.  It’s what they are being paid to do.  A quarterback (who will go unnamed for his own protection on this blog) sat out after taking a beating on the field during the playoffs.  He then got mercilessly ridiculed by the press and sports media about his “toughness”.  While I think there is a fine line between being tough enough to play through injury and being smart enough to know when to sit out, this sort of reaction by the press and fans does not help the situation at issue here.  Players need to understand the consequences of what might happen if they go back into the game injured.  They need to understand that there is no shame in not getting yourself killed out there. And there is no such thing as martyrdom for a player who gets CTE because of his own poor decisions.  

The Game: Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Football is a contact sport.  If you want to watch a game where players get penalized for hitting each other, watch baseball.  Recently, Roddy White spoke out against the veterans who are suing the NFL over injury.  He accused them of “killing our game” and said that they shouldn’t have signed up for an inherently dangerous sport and cashed that big paycheck if they were scared of injury.  I think White was out of line in his delivery, but makes a point worth noting.  Isn’t this what you signed up for?  And I understand that the knowledge of head injuries and the precautions being taken now are totally different than what was being done 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago.  But for active, younger players to not have some idea of what they signed up for is really not taking accountability for their own choices.  This is where I think most of the controversy lies.  To stop players from hitting each other, to stop contact, would be to kill the game of football.  I guess we are all hoping that there is some way to save the game without killing the players too.

Check out these articles for further discussion: 


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