NFL needs to get seriousness of concussions through its head


Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick leaves the field with a concussion while playing against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter Sunday. (Tim Shaffer/Reuters)
Mike Wise
Columnist November 13, 2012

Boy, the NFL is sure safer these days. Three more starting quarterbacks suffered concussions Sunday. One, Alex Smith, was so well cared for by the 49ers he was allowed to stay in the game six plays after he was crumpled and woozy after a quarterback sneak.

“He felt that it would go away,” said Coach Jim Harbaugh, who actually was told by Smith he had blurred vision after the hit. “He came over to the sideline and sat down and felt it would go away, and it didn’t. He told me he had blurred vision, and that’s when we made the move.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

When Jay Cutler went down after a helmet-to-helmet blow and stayed in the game against the Texans, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth paid him homage, calling Cutler, “a real Bears quarterback.” He added that a review of the play would give Cutler a chance to “clear the cobwebs” before action resumed.

Isn’t it beautiful how the education and new-found sensitivity just sinks in and makes such a difference?

You can institute all the safety measures you want, pay all the independent neurologists to clear concussed quarterbacks to play again. You can pay off former players who in their lawsuit claim the NFL didn’t protect them with what the league knew about head injuries — some of whom slur their words and can’t remember their wives’ names. You can even make all the changes you want at the youth levels, ban every Bull in the Ring drill from Oklahoma Pop Warner fields to eternity.

But we get nowhere if the culture on NFL fields can’t change, if the language of “shake it off” and “dinged” is allowed to continue.

I met Robert Cantu last week at a concussion roundtable in Dupont Circle moderated by ESPN’s Tom Farrey. Among other titles, Cantu is the co-director of Boston University’s Center For the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the same disease found in the brains of numerous NFL players, a condition born from concussions. Cantu is also adviser to the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee and the co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to addressing the concussion crisis through research, treatment, education and prevention.

Through extensive research and case study, this is what the main authority on the issue has determined: Kids under 14 years old shouldn’t tackle each other with pads and helmet.

“Youngsters are not miniature adults,” Cantu said. “Youngsters’ brains are more susceptible to the cytotoxic shock of concussions and as a group they tend to recover more slowly. Youngsters have big heads on weak necks, and that ‘bobble-head doll’ effect puts them at greater risk than it puts an adult.”

This is what Cantu essentially heard back from the heads of our nation’s youth football leagues at the roundtable: “Are you crazy? Pop Warner parents will find their own independent leagues. We’ll all go out of business.”

No one was actually that honest. But after you whittled through the discourse, after many more platitudes about safety concerns were voiced, what you got was not a moral or ethical question about whether kids that young should bump helmets. Instead, an economic question emerged: Could we afford to sell only flag football to almost 3 million kids?

And the guardians of the game at the Ankle-Biter and Pee-Wee levels effectively said no.

The fact is, some would be out of jobs, their partnerships with sporting-good manufacturers terminated. So, heck, give the parents what they want. Because it’s about them living vicariously through their kids anyway, isn’t it?

There is no question DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have made the safety issue a priority. But it’s one thing for lawyers to tell the masses what’s right and wrong; it’s another for, say, Drew Brees to be brutally candid, as he was when filmmaker Sean Pamphilon interviewed him last year.

Pamphilon is the Michael Moore of this passion play, the muckraker getting under everyone’s skin — including Smith’s last Friday. A hardcore NFL fan since he was 7, he has filmed 1,000 hours of footage of what will eventually become a series of films that serve as a cultural examination of America’s relationship with football.

Though Pamphilon and Brees are at odds over the release of the footage — especially after Pamphilon released audio of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s targeting players’ body parts during the Bountygate saga last season — Pamphilon allowed me to view his interviews with Brees and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita:

“The research that I’ve seen right now is that kids shouldn’t be exposed to that constant hitting, like you would with a football helmet on, until after the age of 13,” Brees says in the video. “Just because of your brain development and other developmental issues. I hate to use the word trauma, but there is a little bit each time — that constant thumping, thumping, thumping . And obviously as you increase in levels of play — guys are bigger, faster, stronger — those collisions become greater and greater. Therefore the trauma becomes greater and greater. It’s just like a boxer.”

“Our boys are 3 and 1 at this point,” he continues. “So, I know for sure, according to what I know right now, we’re 10 years away from my oldest being in a position where he can play football if he wanted to and we felt like that was appropriate.”

Said Fujita: “People ask me all the time, ‘If I had a son, would I let my son play football?’ This is my path. But I wouldn’t want that for one of my kids. No way in hell.”

Confession: Something deep in the reptilian part of my brain still is enraptured by big hits — the speed, force, sudden impact, the rawness of the moment.

But when the guy laid out doesn’t get up, other neurons instantaneously kick in. The medieval turns to marshmallow, and a sick feeling in the gut turns to guilt.

How could I have just marveled at the maiming of another human?

Ever since I went to Heinz Field in 2009 and saw Steelers safety Ryan Clark almost disembowel then-Ravens running back Willis McGahee — and no one at Heinz Field was sure McGahee was ever going to get up again — the conflict has grown, for me and America: How do we reconcile celebrating a game so good for your soul but so bad and unforgiving on your body and brain?

Easy answer: The culture of violence in football is simply too profitable and too in-demand to completely overhaul. The only way real change happens is if Jim Harbaugh doesn’t leave Alex Smith in that game for six more plays; if Cris Collinsworth skewers the Bears’ medical team for not checking on a groggy Jay Cutler; if Ray Lewis tells kids, via a PSA, why hard hits are okay and headhunting isn’t; and, yes, if Drew Brees, a son of football-mad Texas, has the guts to tell America his kid isn’t playing tackle football before age 14.

Otherwise, it’s just platitudes by people who don’t play or coach.

For previous Mike Wise columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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