Beset by the ongoing concussion issue, the NFL has partnered with the U.S. Army and Marines to try to change attitudes of both athletes and troops toward brain injuries. While the NFL has worked with the USO and sent its athletes to military bases around the world since the 1960s, both sides say this is the first formal undertaking aimed at effecting change on this issue.
Medical personnel from the league and military will share information and the two sides are in the early stages of plotting an awareness campaign that will target current players, active military personnel and future generations of athletes and servicemen.
“It has to start with the kids,” said former running back Brian Westbrook. “Then they’ll get older and they’ll realize, ‘Hey, this isn’t just part of the sport. It’s way more serious than that and it has to be treated the right way.’”
Last month NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff. Since then, a group of NFL players, coaches and medical personnel have held two meetings at the Pentagon with military leaders, including the one last Friday.
The first session included Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, among others, and last Friday’s meeting brought Rucker, Westbrook, Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas, retired Giants’ center Shaun O’Hara and several others to the same table with members of the Army and Marines.
As they went around the room, a shared culture and similar attitudes quickly emerged.
“We need the two populations to talk to each other about not rubbing dirt on it and going back on the field,” said Paul Hicks, the NFL’s executive vice president, “about adding a component to the culture that says, ‘It’s okay to go get checked out even if the injury isn’t as visible as a cut.’”
While research on head trauma continues, studies have found that six in 10 former NFL players have suffered concussions and nearly one-third report having at least three. According to military figures, there have been nearly 230,000 reports of traumatic brain injury among the more than 2 million Americans who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These issues with traumatic brain injuries have an effect on our readiness,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza. “They have an effect on our families, they have an effect on guys as they transition out of the military.”
Lanza said the biggest challenge for both the NFL and the military has been persuading the men and women on the ground to appreciate the severity of the injury and to react accordingly.