For NFL, head injuries should be a top-of-mind issue

The NFL has been busy this spring, staking its claim to a moral high ground. We are all spinning from all the spin coming out of the commissioner’s office, all of which ends up with the same message: Trust us. We know best.

The league gave New Orleans a thumping for a bounty system instituted by former coordinator Gregg Williams. But was the severity of the penalties based on that, or on the Saints’ failure to obey league orders to clean it up?

At the time the penalties against the Saints were announced, the league indicated its investigation into other teams for which Williams had worked was over. That included the Washington Redskins. But Commissioner Roger Goodell apparently changed his mind after an outcry over the appearance that the league had made the Saints its scapegoat and intended to push the rest of its teams’ bounty programs under the rug. Because no one believes the Saints were the only team to have such a system, or that Williams was the only coach to run one.

Trying to stamp out these bounty programs is an admirable goal, and I didn’t think the penalties against New Orleans were too harsh. But bounty programs are the easier target; the league has to deal with the broader, long-range implications of the game.

That is the accumulation of brain damage done over years of playing in the league, not by bounty-style “kill shots,” but by the weekly wear and tear of the NFL. Those injuries are at the heart of the class-action lawsuit filed this week by a group of 127 former players, with former Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien as the lead plaintiff. It’s not the first such suit, and it likely won’t be the last.

The league has taken steps in recent years to protect quarterbacks and to eliminate helmet-to-helmet hits with harsher fines and suspensions. But a number of players hit the ground (or turf) on every play. Every hit rattles the brain within the skull. We know a hard hit can have an immediate effect: concussion. Does a series of lesser hits or falls have a cumulative effect? Many former players believe so; the attorneys who filed the latest suit are representing a total of 600 former NFL players.

Last week, ESPN featured a story on former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon that was hard to watch, but important to see. McMahon is losing his short-term memory, to the point that he goes to the mailbox and can’t remember why he’s there. His girlfriend described her fears every time he leaves the house. Jim McMahon is 52.

In the wake of the harsher helmet-to-helmet rules and bounty-gate, there has been a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from fans about watering down the product, which boils down to this: “Everyone watches the NFL for the violent hits.” Hogwash. I am sure some do, but not everyone. If the league ever does become too nonviolent, fans have options such as the UFC, which doesn’t involve helmets or pads, just padded gloves. Lots of opportunities for carnage there.

The bigger risk to the league’s fan base is the increasing distaste many feel about head injuries — not just from the bounty programs, but also from the cumulative effect of an NFL career on the human brain. Many players make enough money to see them through their lives, but not all of them do. And certainly not all of them make enough to be able to pay for the exorbitant cost of care these conditions may require.

Which is why you’d expect the players and their union to be big supporters of any efforts to make the game safer. Instead, what you get is a lot of crazy threats about “snitches.” Some of these guys sound like they’re in a bad episode of “Hill Street Blues.” Snitches?

Players suing the league for injuries suffered playing a game involving tackling and blocking may seem silly; after all, these guys knew what they were getting into, right? That is true, to a point. Advances were being made in all kinds of areas. Look at knee injuries. There are former NFL players who can barely walk; advancements in surgical techniques should at least make the quality of life better for players suffering those same injuries today.

Similar advancements have not been made for treating head injuries, because in many cases there is no treatment. Much is still not understood about brain trauma. Helmets have been improved; the league is starting to fine teams for not taking potential concussions seriously enough.

But those moves come too late for guys such as McMahon and his former teammate Dave Duerson, who was careful to shoot himself in the chest last February so that his brain could be donated to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.

Sure, you can be cynical and say it’s about the money. But when former Super Bowl champions are worried not about the dispersal of their money or their rings, but about their organs, perhaps it’s time for the league, players and fans to take the long-term effects of an NFL career as seriously as we’re taking the one-time hits.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
hamilton

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