Friday, July 20, 2012

NFL Players Can't Have It Both Ways Regarding Concussions

Concussions. The word alone can cause a stir, especially when attached to the NFL. It has not just become an important issue in the NFL, but a polarizing one as well. Some of the most marquee players, otherwise still fit to play, have been forced out of the league because of head injuries.

There was a published report of 1,094 former players, ages 27 to 86, that revealed that more than 61% of those surveyed had concussions during their playing days, and most of them said they were not sidelined after their injuries.

That report was published in 2001. That's 11 years ago, and it was based on data collected over 15 years ago in 1995-96 by the NFL Players Association. Has the NFL truly done anything to clean this up? Not according to former NFL center Dermontti Dawson.

Recently the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Dawson, a former member of the Pittsburgh Steelers who is to be inducted into the 2012 Hall of Fame, is of the latest of former NFL players to file suit against the NFL for head injuries sustained while playing professional football.

According to a suit filed July 3rd in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Dawson and three other former Steelers, are among 47 former players being represented by attorneys John D. Giddens and Phillip Thomas in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the suit it is alleged that the league "was aware of the evidence and the risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries and concussions for decades, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information from the Plaintiffs and all others who participated in organized football at all levels."

It also claimed that the repeated injuries can lead to "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy", or CTE.

As would be expected, the NFLPA sides with the players in this. DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFLPA, has been dealing with such issues this offseason. In an interview last June with Michel Martin of NPR News' "Tell Me More", Smith answered questions regarding the New Orleans Saints Bounty scandal, lawsuits and player safety.

Staying specifically on the topic of concussions and player safety, there were two things that Smith said that was of particular interest. Though being in the somewhat precarious position of defending player vs. player, he addressed openly his view of the safety of the game.

Martin asked him, "Just on the question of whether you feel that the game is being made safer...do you think you and the league are on the same page that you're moving in the right direction?"

Smith replied, "Yes, I do. We made an affirmative decision that the players weren't going to have two-a-day practices anymore, not because we wanted to have our players off, but because all of the medical data shows that if you want to make a significant change in the management of potential concussions, what you do is you decrease the exposure to head-to-head or head-to-ground contact."

That's all well and good. Protecting your investment, as it were, is only smart. It's well known that boxers get "punch drunk" from not so much the hits in the actual prize fights, but from the hundreds and maybe thousands of sparring rounds during years of training. Reducing the number of such hits is only one part of it, though.

Amongst other things, as this blog has touched on before, the rabbit hole goes much deeper. It's an aggregate of game hits, practice hits, turf as opposed to grass, helmets, the team doctor/trainer and, maybe most importantly, the player himself.

Speaking on those last two points, Smith said that "there shouldn't be a football exception with respect to how a doctor treats a player. He should treat a player as a patient. We should remove anything like a football exception where bad conduct is justified, glorified, or accepted. We should do a better job of researching and providing our resources towards trying to make the game safer."

Tell that to Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns. What Smith said next, though, is what causes this article to be written.

"I'm not willing to say that it is a sport that cannot be made safe. What I am, and fervently believe - over the last four years have we done things in football to make the game safer for our players? Yes. But that has only come by the dedicated effort of the players themselves to change the culture and the paradigm of football."

Ah, there's the rub.

On Wednesday, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was on the Dan Patrick Show and made some very candid comments about whether or not he's had concussions.

“Yes, I have, for sure,” Polamalu said.

Polamalu evidently, though, sees a distinction between having one's "bell rung" by a hit to the head and blatantly lying about a significant injury.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had any major lies,” Polamalu said. “Somebody may say, ‘Is your knee messed up?’ It may be kind of messed up but you just kind of push yourself to be out there with your brothers. I wouldn’t say there are any major lies where I totally lied may way out of concussions. In fact, during concussions, if it’s serious enough you can’t even be conscious enough to lie.”

“I’ve had, I believe, eight or nine recorded concussions. We’ll have another conversation after I’m done playing football,” Polamalu continued. “When you get your bell rung they consider that a concussion - I wouldn’t. If that is considered a concussion, I’d say any football player at least records 50 to 100 concussions a year.”

He then said, "There’s so much built up about team camaraderie and sacrifice, and football is such a tough man’s game. I think that’s why it’s so popular, why so many blue-collar communities and people feel really attracted to it, because it’s sort of a blue-collar struggle that football players go through in terms of the physicality of the game and the commitment you need. It’s that commitment you need to play football. You feel sore, you’re beat up, you’re injured, you’re legitimately injured, most people may take three months off to work in an office, we choose to play the next week.”

As always, I appreciate his candor. Polamalu is a true warrior and only speaks from that standpoint. He's a throwback. He's the type you want in battle with you. He is a bruiser and has uncanny instincts in the secondary. He's going to hit you no matter what the consequences are. He simply plays the game the way it should be played: physically.

That having been said, his comments go against what DeMaurice Smith said regarding a "dedicated effort of the players themselves to change the culture and the paradigm of football." What Polamalu said isn't a player changing a culture or paradigm.

The same can even be said of Dawson. Not that he blatantly made any such definitive comment, but Dawson just crushed people. Regularly. He may have been the best pulling center ever and he was a tenacious blocker at the second and third levels. He mauled defenders and was a major reason Jerome Bettis was able to rack up all the yards he did.

So, with all that's been said, I don't know how much room many players have to cry foul against the NFL. If they didn't know what they were getting into before stepping onto the field, they damn sure knew with that first hit.

Players have talked openly in the past about not feeling completely better until the time the next week's game comes around, and not completely healed from the previous season until it's time for next season's training camp.

The NFL has been described, specifically the offensive/defensive line play, as being in a car wreck 60 times a day. Now, multiply that by 16 or more games a year and then by 10 or more years. I'm no math major, but it's more than my toes and fingers so I know it's a lot. And these players want to claim ignorance and, in essence, sue McDonalds because they placed a hot cup of coffee between their legs while they drove and didn't think they'd get burned?

Make no mistake, the NFL is certainly guilty of marketing these "car wrecks" in the various videos that they sell to make millions of dollars. They certainly exploit the players to a degree as well. Are the players not aware of this, though?

If the players go into this knowing they're using their bodies in this manner to make money, do they really have the right to then turn around and blame the NFL? The next time you see a pimp and his ho, ask them.