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Archive for the ‘Player Safety’ Category

I recently rewatched an episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” from 2009 featuring an interview with former Chicago Bears quarterback and ’85 Super Bowl Champion Jim McMahon. In the interview, McMahon explained that effects of concussions sustained in his playing career were now affecting his everyday life, including walking into a room in his house and not remembering why. Playing through pain is a source of pride for football players, but McMahon now says that the players were not informed of the potential consequences of repeated head injuries. Other high-profile players have admirably come forward and admitted similar things, including Tony Dorsett and Terry Bradshaw. It’s scary to contemplate what it would be like to be lost in your own brain, caught in a violent maelstrom of confusion and uncertainty. Maybe the mind becomes a disjointed collage of past memories that don’t fit together as they should. Maybe it would be like waking up from a dream that you desperately want to remember but can’t. Maybe it’s much worse.

This morning, the sports world woke up to news that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been suspended for the entire season by the NFL for his part in the New Orleans’ bounty program. Hours later, the news was rendered irrelevant after news broke of Junior Seau’s tragic suicide. Still, the eerie juxtaposition of these stories must be acknowledged. Vilma’s former coach, Gregg Williams, was shamefully immortalized after audio leaked of him casually uttering the icy phrase, “Kill the head and the body will die…kill Frank Gore’s head…we want his head sideways.” Given attitudes like this, its no surprise that concussions are rampant in the NFL. At this point, opinions regarding Seau’s mental state are pure speculation. However, anyone who would be shocked if autopsy results show brain damage would be either naive, stupid, or Gregg Williams. As we continue to learn more about Seau’s untimely death in the coming days, it will be fashionable for NFL fans and television cognoscenti alike to condemn the NFL’s lack of attention to the subject. However, in the last few years, the league has undoubtedly heard the clarion call to protect its players from themselves. Most will still claim that it is not enough.

If Seau’s death is ruled as a suicide caused by depression or CTE, it will represent the first suicide of a player that starred during my life. This generational gap meant that the implications of the deaths of Dave Duerson, Tom McHale, Andre Waters, and more recently, Ray Easterling, mostly eluded me. I understood what it meant to older fans who witnessed those players in their primes, but the thought that it could happen to players who I grew up watching, for some reason, seemed unlikely. The signs of impending disaster were there, reflected in the frightening accounts of former players like Ted Johnson, but for the most part, the worst kind of tragedy had been confined to earlier generations. However, given that today’s players are bigger, faster and stronger than they were decades ago, the problem may get worse. As players I grew up watching and admiring retire and attempt to lead normal lives, their brains could be ticking time bombs.

The larger issue to address here is future accountability. Although former players like McMahon and the nearly 200 others who are participating in the lawsuit against the NFL have the right to demand accountability for the lack of action in the past, the more important concern is who will be responsible for prevention in the future. It certainly will not be the fans. Fans of the league champion the cause of concussion prevention in the offseason, but when September arrives, we all fall into the same trap, leaping up from the couch for every bone-crushing, brain-shaking hit. Of this, I’m as guilty as everyone else, so I certainly can’t suggest any sort of fan boycott. It’s so easy for fans to forget about destructive hits minutes after they happen, but for the players involved, the effects can linger for days, if not much longer. As I said, the NFL and its owners have taken some initiative to improve matters, including changing rules and imposing fines and suspensions. But, altering the foundation of the game too much could prove disastrous for one of the most powerful and influential brands in the world.

Both the NFL and its fans have too much to lose if the game is fundamentally changed. This leaves a simple line of logic to contemplate: who stands to gain financially by improving player safety? Riddell. The helmet manufacturer has provided head armor to the league since 1989 and currently has a contract in place that runs through 2014. In the last five years, it has shown a commitment to creating helmets better able to absorb the crushing pressure of a hit, and recently was awarded 5-STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk value) ratings for two of its newest designs by an independent Virginia Tech study. If Riddell continues to make progress, the game of football could retain its physical nature while providing players with the protection that they desperately need. If not, the NFL and its billion-dollar brand must take ownership of the problem by developing new technologies internally. The league has the financial resources to commission elite engineers and product designers yet continues to outsource the responsibility to Riddell. Although Riddell is a respected brand, at some point the decision must be made to go in a new direction.

Although most of the players I grew up watching are still functioning normally, it seems inevitable that many of them will suffer the same fate as their predecessors. However, if the NFL can make an unwavering commitment to helmet safety and technology, hopefully the next generation of football fans can enjoy watching their favorite players live a full life after football.

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