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Monday, January 4, 2010

NFL reverses its call on concussions. Sorta.

This is something you never see: A reversal by the NFL—on anything.

Okay, not a reversal as much as shining a light on something they’ve avoided until now. Not to bring the room down or anything, but beyond the glamour and hype of the upcoming NFL playoffs and soon thereafter, the Super Bowl, it’s a collision sport that can end careers and shorten lives.

No lectures here, just saying, as a fan of all sports, it’s easy to forget, as probably many do, the toll the game takes on players. All sports of course, not just football. But for real, football above all else is the most physical sport in this country.

Each hit the equivalent of a car crash, times 30-60 hits or so in a game depending on the position played, times a full season, times a career, equals a lot of players who can’t make it up the stairs or remember the names of basic things.

But hey, as long as people keep cheering on Sunday and Coke pays $3 million a spot during the Super Bowl.

Again, no judgement here. It’s just that from time to time, take a second and look outside the game to see the real effects of sports beyond how much entertainment you get from it. Sure, most players are well-paid, but what’s the real price.

That’s why I was stunned to see the NFL put out that PSA over the weekend. In conjunction with the CDC, they’re asking parents and youth players to look out for the warning signs of concussions.

Everything in advertising and marketing is about image and brands selling you on something. As such, I cover a lot of topics, sports being one of them. I’ve been watching this story for a few years now as this was one of the NFL’s dirty little secrets. The darker side they’ve kept hidden while selling you on the idea of an All-American family sport.

Concussions don’t mesh well with that message.

Sure, this PSA focuses more on youth sports than it does the pros, but taking a hit is part of the game at all ages, and so maybe they figure this is a big step forward for them by reaching out to younger players.

Others though may view it as just a small step because players always knew what was really going on. For years, they were discouraged from seeing their own private doctors, or worse, to get back playing before they were ready. The logic being that team physicians would never knowingly put players in jeopardy, right?

Conventional wisdom also said shake it off and get back in there.

Not four years ago in 2005, the league created the “Mild” Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee. Among other things, it said (after a concussion):

Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.”

Problem was, top players started retiring because of... one too many concussions. Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Wayne Chrebet and Kyle Turley to name but a few.

Then the real data started coming out. Players needed a lot more time to recover than they had been getting. More importantly, the effects of concussions were cumulative. In other words:

If one was bad, two were exponentially bad. Nine as Chrebet had? Is it any wonder too many former players have memory loss, depression or signs of Alzheimer’s?

As recently as two years ago, the league thought they were still doing what they should be. They felt they had all the people in place from a medical point of view who were on top of the situation. This even though players (and those in the medical community outside the league), were saying otherwise.

In 2006, there was one article in ESPN The Mag that made me realize there’s a real problem that the NFL is clearly downplaying, if not ignoring altogether. The same officials on the NFL’s payroll were also part of a system which evaluated and made recommendations regarding who was ready to play.

Granted, doctors have more letters after their names than I do, but do the math: When a team physician for the New York Jets is also on the league’s concussion committee clearing Chrebet to play, it’s not hard to see how there might be a possible conflict of interest. Officials also disputed new information coming out regarding concussions. (Read into their “retirements” what you will.)

The support for proper diagnosis is now building too much momentum for the league to ignore any longer. Stories in major media or the bible of the sports world, ESPN tend to do that. (Former player and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge had his own career-ending concussion issues. Ironically, things like Jacked Up were once a regular feature on ESPN on Monday Nights, showing the hardest hits from Sunday’s games.)

Add in the football gods who spoke out on Fox, as well as former players like Oakland Raider Dave Pear working on behalf of retired players. Maybe even more importantly, Congress has gotten into the fray to now “pressure” the league to do more. While you could say being compelled by congress is not really a voluntary move, who cares?

As long as positive change happens, no? Besides, don’t most changes in sports, especially regarding player safety, come about after significant pressure from an outside force? I’m guessing that PSA never runs if Congress isn’t shining a light on things.

(The follow-up hearing was today in Detroit, and you only have to read the comments by Dr. Ira Casson—one of the retirees—to see the extent of the denial. Turley’s comments in turn highlight the other problem: Teams that clear players who aren’t ready.)

So when you read how Chrebet’s best days are those when he isn’t dealing with incredible headaches or memory loss, or how Turley might have worse things to face sooner rather than later, it makes you stop and think.

Enjoy the playoffs this coming weekend and the Super Bowl in February.

They’ve earned it.

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