NFL, military partner to discuss brain injuries

June 13, 2012

In a conference room on the third floor of the Pentagon, introductions were made and the conversation quickly turned to concussions. Everyone seated at the long table had impressive credentials from either the battlefield or the football field.

“Just the knowledge of what a concussion is has totally changed,” said Mike Rucker, a retired defensive end who had military personnel seated on either side of him. “We thought a concussion was when somebody was knocked out and was unresponsive. Now we have the understanding, no, it’s those little stars that you see.”

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.

“You hear them saying, ‘I’m not taking myself off the battlefield.’ Why? ‘Because the guy on my left and my right trust that I’ll be there,’” Lanza said. “You heard the same thing from the players. ‘I’m not coming out of the game because I need to help my team.’”

Staff Sgt. Shawn Hibbard, who participated in both roundtable meetings, said when he first enlisted more than 12 years ago, no one talked about brain injuries. In two tours, he was the victim of four IED explosions in Afghanistan and suffered traumatic brain injury. Too often, he said, soldiers adopt the attitude, “If I can walk, I can fight.”

“When you go through something like that, you’re just like, ‘Okay, I have all my limbs, I’ll continue on,’” Hibbard said.

Similarly, football players say they entered the league with little knowledge of concussions. Westbrook said when he was a rookie, he was warned about money, women and partying. This year’s crop of rookies will also be told about brain injuries.

At the league’s rookie symposium later this month in Canton, Ohio, players will be on hand to discuss traumatic brain injuries with the rookies. Eventually, the NFL hopes troops will meet in person with young football players to discuss brain injuries, and military brass similarly wants its servicemen and women to hear from football players.

“If I try to address this with a soldier, they may understand what I’m saying,” Lanza said. “But if I put an NFL guy in there who says, ‘Hey, I understand what you’re going through, I had this issue, too,’ boy, that resonates with our soldiers."

The two sides also began planning an awareness campaign: posters that would hang in NFL locker rooms and Army barracks, and social media strategies that might reach young and old alike.

Neither side is certain where the partnership may lead, but as the relationship progresses it’s possible the NFL and military will share technology, medical information and marketing strategies. For now, their attention is focused on making sure concussions are treated properly at all levels.

“The question is, how do we talk to each other in the most effective way?” said the NFL’s Hicks. “And the honest answer is, we don't know. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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