THE BLOG

It's Time to Find a Way to Protect NFL Players From Themselves

Dec 10, 2013 | Updated Feb 09, 2014

With all the justifiable criticism heaped on the NFL for its irresponsible mismanagement of the concussion issue, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the players themselves are now part of the problem. In fact, one can make a case that the players are co-conspirators in keeping major changes from being implemented to make the game safer.

We all know the owners are not seriously interested in player safety. The inclusion of Thursday night games leaving only three days for recovery, coupled with the inevitable move to an 18 game schedule is all you need to know.

And then there's the subtle use of "medical misdirection." In March of this year, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the following to The Associated Press: "In talking to the medical experts over several years, I think there's a predisposition to most injuries, particularly to the brain, or to brain disease. So we do want to know what those biomarkers are."

Oh, so most football related brain injuries/diseases are caused by genetic predispositions as opposed to the thousands of collisions occurring over the course of a player's career. Sure.
Since the players can't trust the league, why would they not support technological advancements that would provide crucial data to further the understanding of brain trauma?

After Junior Seau's autopsy confirming that he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the conversation about gathering real time impact data became a bit louder. Yet, here we are a few years later and the only changes are the ones that obviously had to be made -- fining/suspending players for head shots, more sophisticated concussion evaluations, limiting contact drills in practice, etc.

So what else should be done? Well, this is where the story gets interesting.

In 2010, the NFL had a pilot program all ready to go that would monitor impact by placing sensors in players' helmets. Called the Head Impact Telemetry system (HIT), it had been studied for a decade in colleges successfully and, according to Kevin Guskiewicz, professor of sports science at UNC and member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine committee, it was set for launch. Then, for no apparent reason, it was aborted. No explanation was ever given.

In 2012 the league talked about a similar kind of project. This time it was a joint venture with the Army. Again, after announcing the project there was radio silence.

It's reasonable to assume the league bailed on the studies for two reasons. First, it was terrified of what the impact data might look like. Given the size, speed and strength of NFL players, the numbers might reveal professional football to be even more dangerous than previously thought. And second, the league was concerned that doing this project before settling the former players' lawsuit might jeopardize its case. The argument being that this study should have been done earlier. Given these factors, rather than go forward, the league shut everything down.

But then another story began making the rounds. This one suggested that it was the players, not the league, who put their foot on the brakes. According to ESPN, the union harpooned the projects because not all of the players would be involved, thus it would be unfair to those left out. That sounds nice, but it doesn't pass the smell test.

Assuming it was the players, this was far more likely about how the data would be used and whether contract size and playing time would be jeopardized. An average NFL career is only four years, so staying on the field is really important. As Deep Throat said in All The President's Men, "Follow the money."

Unlike baseball and basketball, football contracts are not guaranteed. So it's safe to speculate that the players, believing that the owners would use the impact data against them, shut the studies down. As former Steelers receiver, Hines Ward, said in 2012, "For a doctor to read a computer and tell me how hard I've been hit and to pull me out of a game... that won't sit well with a lot of players."

There's not a shred of doubt that most NFL players share this sentiment. And that's the bind the players are in -- monitoring the health of their brains or insuring their contracts. Given their age and mentality, it's nearly impossible for players to choose health. They believe what happened to the older guys won't happen to them. When money is involved, wisdom and logic vanish.

The NFL player's mentality can be summed up in a comment made by Cowboy legend Tony Dorsett who was recently diagnosed with CTE after a PET scan revealed the presence of tau protein, the marker for the disease, in his brain. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN Dorsett said, "I would do it all over again."

The use of PET scans to diagnose CTE in former players begs the question as to if/when the technology might be employed to monitor current players. This has not been discussed on any level yet, and don't expect it anytime soon. Neither the league, nor the players, can risk what might be revealed. Imagine if scans showed tau protein in a substantial number of players. The face of football would be forever changed.

So we're left with impact studies as the one area of research which is both critical and viable. Presumably, the league had finally decided to move forward according to an article that appeared in early September, just before this season began. Kevin Guskiewicz, the aforementioned member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine committee said the following: "Our goal is that by midseason we will have some teams geared up. We're getting close, and I think that we have some teams identified."

Sounds good, right? The long overdue NFL impact study would finally launch. It is now week 12, well past midseason, and not a word has been spoken about the project. Given its history of no follow-through, this doesn't sound good. Who tanked it this time, the league, the players or both?

Regardless of who short-circuited the 2013 study, it's the players who have the most to lose. It means the loss of a year of valuable medical data, something you can't put a price tag on. Moreover, the players could lose some legal standing going forward should they ever want to file another negligence lawsuit. You can't successfully sue if you were complicit in the decision making process.

Impact is what football is all about. It is the only sport where scoring is not the most exciting part of the game. The big hit is football's signature highlight. But, unfortunately, it destroys the brain.

It's time for someone from the players union or a group of respected retired players to stand up and have the courage to say -- ENOUGH! We need a system to protect our brains, and we need it now!