PBS aired one of the most gripping episodes of “Frontline” that most NFL viewers have ever seen (and most likely, the first episode of “Frontline” most NFL viewers have ever seen). The special “State of Denial” took the viewer down the slippery slope Paul Tagliabue and Peter Goodell took to avoid any accountability for the lasting effects of repeated concussions on a players post-playing career.
It took a comparison made by a legislator to the tobacco companies in the 1970′s to finally convince Goodell to face the wall of evidence and act. But he wasn’t alone in his denial, and still is not. Folks such as blogger Daniel J Flynn, who spoke yesterday in Washington DC, authored a book called “The War on Football: Saving America’s Game”. The topic: how lawyers and scientists are trying to diminish football with their concussion jihad.
Look, nobody wants to see the game of football changed, and there are an awful lot of people who have deep financial investments and rewards because what the NFL has grown into today. For those people, any attempt to change the game they depend on is going to get the “circle the wagon” treatment.
But, as Packer fans, we only need to look as far as one of our own legends, Willie Wood, once a man among boys on the playing field. But, he has spent a far longer number of years than his career wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia. Just because he has lived to 76 years of age (unlike, say, Junior Seau), doesn’t mean that we can’t see the lasting effects.
I understand the counter-arguments: it’s a man’s game. These guys know what they are signing up for when they sign the contract. They are willing to take the risks that come along with the fame and the money. They know we will cheer and adore them if they play through injuries and become heroes.
Heck, we all remember the game in which Brett Favre suffered a concussion, came back into the game and threw a touchdown pass, and still doesn’t remember it to this day. What a hero.
As a parent who has personally dealt with repeated concussions affecting my oldest daughter, I can tell you that the idea of a second concussion within even a few months is terrifying. When you see a 16-year old girl struggling to remember things, and see the telltale anger and frustration because she can’t, you begin to understand what the wives of these former players went through twenty-fold.
At some point, the parent has to make the tough choice to pull the plug on a kid’s athletic career, which I was forced to do. Not all parents will do that, though, and certainly, NFL owners and front office guys aren’t going to act the parent for grown men.
Think of Casey Hayward. The kid has had a hamstring injury for two months now, and we haven’t seen him take the field in all that time. In fact, he’s been so limited in practice he won’t even suit up more than one practice in a row. Why? Because we KNOW that hamstring injuries that are rushed back to the field almost ALWAYS get re-aggravated and end up worse than the first injury. We know that hamstring injuries need to be fully-healed before a player should re-enter the game.
Concussions are no different.
This doesn’t need to become a polarized “either you love football, or you want to pansify the game” issue. It doesn’t need to become an us-versus-them fight among fans.
Football isn’t going anywhere. The sooner we accept that truth, the easier it is to have an honest conversation about what we can do to make the game safer for players at all levels of competition. The more we enter the “the whole game will be destroyed and ruined forever” mindset, the harder this discussion becomes, and the more the inevitable will be played out in the courts, instead of being as proactive as Goodell and the NFL has been in the past few years.
We love big hits. There will still be big hits. But players will be trained from an early age to keep their head up and aim for the midsection. Likewise, players being tackled are going to have to learn they can’t lower their head into the tackle, either.
I recently went to an elementary school football game, and noticed they called a penalty every time a player tackled without his (or her) head up. Being I couldn’t see a scoreboard and had no idea what the score even was, it made a ton of sense to me. Perhaps if I had been able to see that the team was losing by three points and it was third down in the fourth quarter, I would have been a little more upset.
Funny how that works.
You’re probably going to see innovations in helmet technology. Remember the “Great Gazoo” helmet that Chuck Cecil used to wear? Remember how Sterling Sharpe used to lace the back of his helmet to his shoulder pads? It kept them safer than they would have been without. Now imagine that Cecil had worn that helmet before his multiple concussions, or Sharpe had been using his laced helmet before he had already injured his neck once.
In the end, you’re going to see the NFL coming forward and being completely honest with every rookie about the dangers they will face, long-term, as an NFL player. And they will ask every rookie to sign some form of waiver that states that they understand that risk. And they will bring in Willie Wood and other former players to let them know exactly what they might look like in 30 years.
But in the end, the vast majority of those players will still sign the waiver and take the risk. Football is a game of passion and playing in the NFL is a lifelong dream. Football isn’t going anywhere.
We might have to reminisce of those glorious days in the 70′s and 80′s, when foolishly dangerous hits to the head were commonplace and we expected woozy players to get right back out on the field after some smelling salts. Those days are already gone and aren’t returning. Ever.
The sport has evolved from a bunch of guys bumbling across the field in leather helmets and little else in terms of protection. How many people called players “wimps” for wearing those big, heavy plastic helmets and shoulder pads when they first came out?
The game evolves, not just for high-flying offenses and exotic defenses, but for safety.