The NFL experienced yet another setback in its campaign to address player safety when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman wrote a guest column for Peter King's MMQB.com website and admitted he played his very first NFL game in 2011 against the Cincinnati Bengals while suffering from the effects of a concussion.
"I couldn't see," Sherman wrote. "The concussion blurred my vision and I played the next two quarters half-blind, but there was no way I was coming off the field with so much at stake. It paid off: Just as my head was clearing, Andy Dalton lobbed one up to rookie A.J. Green and I came down with my first career interception."
Perhaps most damning of all, Sherman shared his resolution to ignore the symptoms of a concussion should another occur in the future, stating he intends to "get back up and pretend like nothing happened."
That's the wrong message, at the wrong time, from the wrong player.
Richard Sherman, an emerging superstar and Stanford graduate, eloquently described a long-espoused, simplistic sentiment from those resisting change to the NFL's culture: Football is violent. Deal with it. But the all-or-nothing logic it champions cements a status quo that has been medically shown to lead to extensive long-term damage.
It's a culture that encourages bravado over safety and questions the manliness of those willing to speak out about injury or health concerns. As a child participating in a grade school-level football training camp in the midst of an insufferably humid August sun, I began to experience symptoms of an asthma attack and pleaded with my coach to allow me to take off my helmet - which we were not allowed to do - in order to catch my breath. He acquiesced and asked me, along with several of my teammates who were not practicing due to various ailments, to line up at the goal line while the rest of the team stood at the 20-yard line, facing us.
"Those you see before you," he said, addressing the team, "are the quitters. The ones who wouldn't stick it out for their team."
It was a slight that perfectly expresses attitudes prevalent around the United States and why deaths due to heat stroke appear every summer on football fields. No one wants to be the player that admits he's hurt or not feeling well at the of risk losing manhood status and the respect of his peers.
NFL players face the additional challenge of their livelihood. Detroit Lions tight end Tony Scheffler missed his last two NFL games recuperating from a concussion and was rewarded by being cut from the team after his replacement, Joseph Fauria, performed well in his stead.
Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley sustained a concussion against the Cincinnati Bengals that was so severe his son asked him to retire from football. Finley did not miss a game despite his injury, though less than one month later he suffered yet another head injury that has left his future playing career in doubt.
This is the status quo Richard Sherman, an athletically gifted and extremely well-educated NFL star, has decided to endorse under the guise of an either/or proposition that argues, "Football is violent and I have accepted the risk."
Charlie Muse was an executive for MLB's Pittsburgh Pirates in 1952 when he first developed batting helmets he required Pirates players to wear instead of the then-accepted cloth caps. Muse described the difficulty of mandating that all his players wear helmets, telling the Associated Press in a 1989 interview that the players "laughed" at the idea while arguing "the only players who would wear them were sissies." Other major league baseball organizations began to implement the same requirement two years later when a player, who was wearing a helmet, was hit so violently in the head that he was knocked unconscious for 15 minutes. Batting helmets would eventually become an accepted requirement for all professional baseball players.
When a baseball player steps to the plate he accepts the risk that a small, hard object thrown with high velocity could strike him and cause significant injury. But simply because he assumes such a risk does not mean steps cannot be taken in an attempt to mitigate the risk of injury, such as wearing a helmet.
Football is a violent game and always will be, but that does not mean steps should not be taken to lower the risk of injury. The NFL has implemented policies that discourage tackling high to avoid head injuries, and while those policies have not yet eradicated the danger of head trauma, it by no means suggests that reverting to the clearly broken status quo is the best course of action.
Perhaps the best way to correct a dysfunctional football culture is from the ground up, teaching youth the importance of safety and the knowledge it's okay to speak up when a health concern presents itself. But with NFL stars like Richard Sherman boasting of glory while playing half-blind, it's apparent America's youth will have to change football's culture without an NFL role model to look up to.