NFL tries to improve player safety without admitting to any liability for past

With lawsuits for negiligence piling up and a history of violent injuries, the NFL is making changes for its newer players. The Post’s Zoeann Murphy follows rookie Kyle Long as he starts his pro career. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Kyle Long is going into the family business. “Some people are third-generation carpenters, and that’s what they do,” his father says. “Well, we hit people.” So it’s a good thing Kyle is shaped like a bullet, a streamlined 6 feet 6, 313 pounds, broad at the base, narrowing to a cleanly shaved head. His skull is so shiny and hard that it reassures his parents, Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long and his wife, Diane. “It’s like a double helmet,” his mother says.

On a late June afternoon, Kyle sat in an Aurora, Ohio, auditorium alongside other National Football League draftees, young men of differing heights, masses and shapes filling up seats like rows of giant newly sprung wildflowers. They were gathered for the league’s annual rookie symposium, a mandatory orientation consisting mainly of lectures on how not to become the NFL’s latest casualties. It’s a topic Kyle already has been tutored on by his father, an iconic defensive end for the Raiders organization from 1981 to ’93, who at the age of 53 has had 13 surgeries.

“Keep your head on a swivel,” he warns his son.

Kyle, 24, a promising offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, was one of 254 rookies who listened attentively as symposium speakers advised them on everything from baby mamas to saying “no” to friends seeking loans. But much of the talk was devoted to the legal and ethical crisis that haunts the modern NFL: player health and safety. With training camps opening this week, the league Kyle enters is in mid-transformation as it attempts to reform a variety of practices, from medical treatment to a play-through-pain culture to equipment. It’s a game in some ways dramatically changed from his father’s primitive era. “They had salad bowls for helmets,” Kyle says.

It’s an industry struggling with a central question: How to protect the rookies who are the future without admitting to any liability for the past? A total of 4,300 former players — fully one-quarter of the NFL’s alumni — are suing the league, claiming it concealed the links between repetitive head trauma and chronic neurological diseases while profiting on violence. The concussion litigation has put billions of dollars potentially at stake.

Perhaps just as important, it has planted a question in the minds of the audience, including millions of parents, whether to steer their sons to another sport. Even the president of the United States said in a January interview with the New Republic that he would think “long and hard” before letting a son play football. So did Howie Long.

This halting attempt to break from the past and move into a healthier future is personified in the Long family, which now will have not one but two sons in the league; their eldest, Chris, 28, is a defensive end with the St. Louis Rams. The Long boys dream of Super Bowl rings and perhaps a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, like their dad. Howie and Diane wouldn’t mind that, but what they want from the modern NFL is more modest and fundamental: that it take better care of their sons than it did of the father, who can barely turn his head.

“The thing that is non-negotiable with the kids is I monitor and stay on where they are from neck up,” Howie says, “and if it became an issue I would strongly recommend packing it in.”

The likelihood is that Kyle will experience injury in his career. The NFL Players Association recently commissioned a study of injury data, which counted 3,126 injuries last season. Nearly half required at least a week of recovery, and more than 350 resulted in surgery. That means Kyle is entering a profession with an injury rate well over 100 percent — and an unforgiving habit of discarding its wounded.

In the auditorium, Ray Farmer, a former player who is now an assistant general manager of the Cleveland Browns, stepped to the front of the room to deliver a sobering message to Kyle and his fellow rookies.

“All of you are in the process of being replaced,” he said. “Right now, the clock is ticking. For some of you quicker than others.”

‘Don’t be football players’

Be boat builders, the father told his three boys, or play the piano. Secretly he thought, don’t be football players.

At first none of the Long sons showed much interest. Christopher (born in 1985), Kyle (1988) and Howard Jr. (1990) were too small during Howie’s prime to understand what he did for a living, and Diane rarely took them to the stadium; they were happier fishing in a pond.

Then the oldest, Chris, came home from high school and announced he wanted to play. That night Howie and Diane lay in bed murmuring their concerns to each other. Maybe he wouldn’t like it, Howie said. “He’ll get his nose bloodied, and he’ll come home and not want to play anymore.” But Chris didn’t get his nose bloodied; instead he got a scholarship to play defensive end at Virginia. Next Kyle and Howie Jr. were wearing high school uniforms, Howie Jr. as a quarterback and Kyle as an offensive lineman.

For Howie, football had been a desperate necessity, but he wasn’t sure he wanted the next generation of Longs to make it their livelihood. He was a poor kid from the Charlestown section of Boston, son of a milk loader, raised by an assortment of tough, blue-collar uncles. He had done shifts longshoring to make extra cash and was headed to vocational school until football had given him a Villanova education and a better living than his laboring uncles. The NFL not only had supported him until he retired in 1993, it had opened other doors as an actor, corporate pitchman and Fox Sports studio analyst. All of which afforded his family comfort and meant his sons didn’t need the game for socioeconomic improvement, didn’t need to sacrifice chunks out of their necks, back, shoulders and legs to rise in the world.

In the NFL Howie played in, his body wasn’t his own; it was a highly perishable commodity. In training camp he went through grueling, twice-a-day practices Mondays through Thursdays, and if you passed out it meant you weren’t tough. “Water was for wussies,” he says. He practiced five days a week in full gear, and every drill and every snap was all-out.

When he got hurt, doctors simply drained the ailing joint with a needle. They never showed him his medical records or gave him an option. “It was shocking what the training room was like and the things the team tried to explain away as something minor when it was potentially not,” Diane says.

If the Long sons were going to play the game, Diane and Howie decided, their father needed to help coach them, teach them the things to look for and be aware of. Howie volunteered to coach three days a week at his sons’ high school, St. Anne’s Belfield in Charlottesville. The boys still can quote the lectures: Football is a nasty game. There are bodies flying around — giant bodies, at all times, at high velocities. Be aware of where you are on the field.

“The guys who are just watching the ball, they get absolutely lit up,” Kyle recites. “You see those guys on the ‘Jacked Up’ segment of ESPN? You don’t want to be on that. . . . Know where people are coming from. You avoid the cheap shots. Stay away from piles. It’s the guys who want to go bump into people at the piles who end up getting rolled up on.’”

He made his boys wear knee braces and gloves; he taped their ankles, wrists, fingers and thumbs. He made sure their chinstraps were buckled and taught them to get their helmets checked before every game.

Howie taught Chris so well that he was the second player chosen in the 2008 NFL draft. But Howie began to subtly steer Kyle away from the game, believing one son in the NFL was enough. “It’s not for everybody,” Howie told Kyle. “If you don’t want to do it, it says nothing about you as a person.” When Kyle developed a 96-mph fastball as a high schooler, Howie talked up the major leagues. Better to be a baseball player, he said, and make more money for less pain. Kyle was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 23rd round of the 2008 draft but instead accepted a baseball scholarship from Florida State.

“Subconsciously, I probably pushed him to baseball because I wanted somebody to do something where you didn’t just get hit every day,” Howie says. “I fought it.”

But Kyle lasted only one semester at Florida State. He returned to football, enrolling at Saddleback Junior College, then transferring to the University of Oregon. As a starter there last season, it quickly became apparent that he, too, had first-round talent.

If Howie warned Kyle about the physical toll of the game, Diane warned of the perils of choosing a profession out of obligation. “Have you thought about what life will be day to day, the sacrifices you will make?” she asked. “Does it make you truly happy? Is this what you want to do? Or do you feel pressured or compelled?”

None of the above, Kyle replied.

“This is who I am,” he said.

Raising awareness

Less than two months before his first preseason game, Kyle sat in the rookie symposium, his head already on a swivel as speaker after speaker prepped him for life in the NFL. At the front of the room, a moderator and former player named Ross Tucker announced a chilling statistic: Of the 254 recent draftees, barely half would play three years or more. The rookies would hear some semblance of that warning repeatedly over three days.

Overseeing the symposium was Troy Vincent, a former cornerback who suffered at least seven concussions during his career from 1992 to 2006. Named the NFL’s vice president of player engagement in 2010, part of Vincent’s job portfolio is to alter the play-through-pain culture that pervades the league. When Vincent was a rookie, there was no such thing as a symposium; all he got by way of orientation to the NFL was a 12-page pamphlet.

“You didn’t talk about health and safety at that time,” he said. “There was no conversation around concussion awareness. The term ‘wellness’ wasn’t in most people’s vocabulary. You just played the game.”

Kyle will receive a 60-page handbook, both in hard copy and in electronic form for his mobile devices. Once the regular season starts, he also will get text messages as reminders of best practices. “We’re looking ourselves in the mirror,” Vincent said. “We don’t shy away from mistakes, things that we didn’t do well. We are constantly evaluating ourselves.”

Day 2 of the rookie symposium was devoted entirely to health and safety. The head team physician for the Cleveland Browns, Mark Schickendantz, fired up a PowerPoint presentation and began talking. A series of slides flashed bold-letter slogans such as, “If we don’t know you’re hurt, we can’t help you!”

Schickendantz devoted a few minutes to Toradol, a powerful anti-inflammatory abused by league doctors and players as an injected prophylactic in recent years and has become the subject of a concussion-related litigation. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said.

Schickendantz moved on to his next topic: concussions. “It’s never an insignificant injury. . . . Don’t hide it,” he said. “It’s not in your best interest to hide it.” New protocols include certified athletic trainers in stadium booths watching for symptoms and video replay on the sidelines to study the mechanics of injury. In 2013, there will be the addition of an independent neurological specialist stationed on each sideline, a move some team medical staffs are welcoming more than others. “It’s not mandatory that you guys go sit with this guy and talk to him if there’s a question about a concussion,” Schickendantz said. He added, “We’re still kind of figuring out how to use these people.”

He finished with a few remarks that captured the NFL’s double-edged, liability-conscious attitude toward concussions. “Right now, we’re learning a little bit more about long-term brain damage.” He added, “No direct cause and effect has been established yet.”

Kyle took it all in, scribbling notes and raising his hand to ask questions. “I want to take care of my body better than my dad did,” Kyle says, “so I can have better quality of life when I get out of the league.”

Advancing the ball

Howie Long played the game with an almost animal intensity. When Diane watched him through the binoculars, she never worried for her husband.

“I worried about the guy across the line from him,” she says.

But with that came the physical price. Twenty years removed from his playing days, he has been told he needs at least three more surgeries, including a shoulder replacement. He can no longer play golf. Even a hike or a bike ride depends on the day and how he’s feeling.

“You know, he’s really, really, really beat up,” says Diane, an attorney who has been married to Howie for 31 years.

Diane still takes her binoculars to games. Between watching one son on the field in St. Louis and another in Oregon last year, the Longs have been transformed from sophisticated NFL observers into anxious parents. Diane studies her sons through the lenses, looking for body language that might suggest an injury, checking the expressions on their faces. Howie watches for the unexpected danger that leads to injury, the busted play that alters the high-velocity traffic like cars going the wrong way down streets.

At the end of every play, they are on the edge of their seats, watching the pile. “Get up,” they think. “Get up, get up, get up, get up.”

If there is one thing that reassures the Longs, it’s the sunlight factor: A combination of congressional interest and pressure from lawyers in the concussion litigation means the NFL is operating under a level of scrutiny it never previously experienced. “The elephant in the room is talked about now,” Diane says.

In 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faced a scathing House Judiciary Committee hearing in which Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) described the league as intransigent on concussions and safety issues and compared it to tobacco companies that insisted there were no ill-health effects from smoking. The accusation galvanized the NFL into major reforms.

In a speech to the Harvard School of Public Health last fall, Goodell described a “relentless focus” on player safety and enumerated measures by the league “to take the head out of the game.” The NFL Kyle will play in has new practice rules, issued in 2011, aimed at reducing the impacts and wear and tear on players. The Bears will be allowed to put Kyle through only one fully padded practice per week. The two-a-days that tortured his father have been abolished. Also, Kyle will play an on-field game with vastly different rules than his father played under. Two years ago the kickoff line was moved five yards forward to reduce high-speed collisions, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in concussions on kickoffs, according to the league’s figures. This fall, a new rule will forbid running backs and tacklers from lowering their heads and using the crowns of their helmets.

Many former players have expressed concerns that the new measures might water down a physical game, and it remains to be seen whether the NFL’s culture and practices can really be altered.

The NFL Kyle enters has placated Congress by spearheading a lobby effort that resulted in 48 states and the District passing laws ensuring youth football players are cleared by a licensed health care expert before returning to play. It also has launched the Heads Up program, a partnership with youth organizations to teach safer tackling, which Howie and Diane Long have signed on to.

It has made a splashy commitment to brain research, with a $30 million gift to the National Institutes of Health and another $100 million pledged in concert with the NFL Players Association. Also, the sidelines Kyle stands on will have access to new technologies aggressively enlisted for player protection, including iPads for medical staffs. Instead of salad bowls for helmets, the league is testing helmets and shoulder pads with “accelerometers,” sensors that can measure the impact of a hit.

In short, the league Kyle Long is entering will have better medicine, better rules, better technology. “Better awareness,” Howie says. “The league has done some great things in terms of — as best you can within a game of inherent dangers — making the game as safe as possible.”

But Kyle Long’s version of the NFL is not completely free of the past.

Not fully committed

Even as league executives promise to safeguard the health of the next generation, they are disputing the problems of previous ones. Sanchez does not believe the NFL has addressed its issues voluntarily or wholeheartedly. “I wouldn’t say the NFL has turned over a new leaf and is completely embracing responsibility for this,” the congresswoman said.

In January the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health wrote a fact sheet for former NFL players notifying them that they were at increased risk of brain and nervous system disorders. A NIOSH memo obtained by The Washington Post shows that someone from the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee tried to persuade the government agency to remove a reference to chronic traumatic encephalothapthy, a degenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s that researchers at Boston University have found present in 34 of 35 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated for study. In the memo, the NFL representative objected to the use of the term CTE because it would “give it an epidemiological validity that doesn’t yet exist.” NIOSH declined to alter the fact sheet.

Goodell has walked a fine line in his public remarks, offering sweeping promises while refusing to commit himself on concussion science. In his speech to the Harvard School of Public Health, in the same breath with which he pledged to “take the head out of the game” he declined to link football head traumas to neurological diseases despite the burgeoning body of research. “We need to be driven by facts and data,” he said, “not perceptions and suppositions.”

But there is reason to question the NFL’s commitment to data, given that it produces more detailed injury reports for the use of opposing teams, media and gamblers than it does for the government. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires all U.S. employers to complete individual forms for each workplace injury. The NFL’s own records show there were 4,473 injuries in 2011. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics table for the same period shows just 960 “nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses” for all of the major sports leagues combined in the same period.

Three years ago NFLPA attorney Joe Briggs requested that each club send him their OSHA forms. “There were some clubs that did not reply to our request, and others replied with records that were almost completely illegible,” he said. Six teams, he said, didn’t respond at all.

Injury reports are how government agencies assess industries, in order to make reforms that impact public health. John Burton Jr., former director of the National Workers Compensation Board, briefly consulted with the NFL in the late 1980s on health issues and examined its injury records. Statistically, the most dangerous American industry from year to year is meatpacking. But the numbers Burton saw exceeded it. “What we saw was the injury rate for football players looked like the most dangerous profession in the country,” he said.

David Hemenway, a professor of the Harvard School of Public Health, observes that public attention is a critical factor in forcing industries to make workplace reforms — the 16 million strong weekly NFL audience will be much more conscious of Kyle Long’s health than it was of Howie’s. “Twenty years ago this was happening, and it just wasn’t in the news,” Hemenway said. “Now people are talking about it, and because of that there is real pressure to do something.”

Pressure from Capitol Hill, however, has lessened with a change in leadership; the House Judiciary Committee is no longer led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who drove the 2009 hearings. “I think clearly if there was involvement by Congress, that would hasten any additional changes,” Sanchez said. “I think having access to a platform to discuss the issue and making other people aware of it does move things along more quickly than if we leave the NFL to their own devices.”

That the NFL is conscious of congressional oversight can be seen in its increased lobbying expenditures, which have tripled since Goodell became commissioner in 2006 to $1.14 million in 2012. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NFL’s Gridiron Political Action Committee spent $854,462 last year on issues ranging from its antitrust exemption to broadcasting laws, but health and safety was a significant focus. A Post survey of public records shows team owners and their families have additionally contributed nearly $2 million to congressional campaigns in the past five years.

Two beneficiaries of NFL money are the two congressmen who succeeded Conyers as House Judiciary chair — and who’ve kept the NFL off the committee’s docket. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) have each pocketed $15,000 from the NFL. Smith rejected two requests by Sanchez that new hearings be convened, and Goodlatte, the current chair, is on record saying Congress shouldn’t play “armchair quarterback” in NFL matters.

This frustrates concussion plaintiffs, some of whom have died while waiting for the litigation to play out in court. Moreover, six former NFL players have committed suicide in the past two years, including former Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, whose brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

“If your son or daughter got sick from eating hamburger and had to go to the hospital, they would shut down the industry to find out what happened,” said California attorney Mel Owens, a former NFL player who represents hundreds of plaintiffs. “The 787s catch on fire? They ground them. Player dies, player commits suicide — business as usual. Here they’ve got this industry causing deaths and near-deaths and quality of life issues, but it’s business as usual. Where is the outrage?”

Nothing provokes more outrage in Howie Long than the campaign by league owners to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18, when they know it will lead to more harm. The owners favor an 18-game season because it would mean greater revenue, but statistics clearly show the majority of injuries occur in the regular season. For an NFL father, it’s one of his greatest concerns about sending another son into the profession.

“I get angry when I hear someone in a suit talk about, ‘What’s two more games? It’s not that much,’ ” Howie says. “You know what? Throw some stuff on and let’s go outside, and I’m gonna light your ass up. And we’re gonna do it again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and then again next week. And you’re gonna start blanking and curl up into a ball.”

The game doesn’t stop

On the final day of the NFL’s rookie symposium, the league shuttled its newest young employees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where the game’s fierce history intersected with its wide-eyed future.

In an auditorium, Kyle found a seat and strained to look upward. Above him was a series of blown-up black and white images featuring some of the game’s legends. Looming over Kyle, nearly 15 feet tall and larger than life, was a specter of his father, No. 75, sprinting around the edge.

Wearing a Bears T-shirt, Kyle toured the game’s history, strolling from exhibit to exhibit and examining relics: old jerseys, Super Bowl rings, Jim Thorpe’s jacket, Tom Landry’s fedora. Affable, thoughtful and outgoing, Kyle cracked jokes with his teammates and chatted with other museum visitors.

“I want to see the busts,” he said to a tour guide. “Where are those?”

“We’ll be there shortly,” he was told.

“Good,” Kyle said. “There’s a guy up there that I’d like to check out.”

A few minutes later the rookies entered a room filled with bronze heads of the game’s greatest players. Kyle looked his father’s bust up and down: rock solid chin, chiseled scowl and a bronzed flattop. He stood quietly for a moment, moved. Impressed.

“These guys put their bodies on the line for the game,” he said. “I know first-hand that my
Dad did that. I’d like to one day be able to possibly walk through here and see my face, maybe see my older brother’s face.”

For better or worse, the NFL is the Longs’ family business. On Sept. 5 when the regular season opens, every single member of the clan will be engaged in the league in some way. Shortly after Kyle was drafted, the Longs’ youngest son entered the league, although to their relief, in a slightly different role. Howie Jr. received an internship in the front office of the Oakland Raiders. He has ambitions of someday becoming a general manager.

“It was just innate,” Howie says. “Whether I like it or not, it’s part of their DNA.”

The night before a game, Howie will call Kyle and Chris and give them the same instructions he has been doling out since they were boys. “See what you hit,” he’ll say. “Don’t lower your head. Keep your head on a swivel.”

On Nov. 24, the Long brothers likely will see each other across the line of scrimmage. The Bears are scheduled to meet the Rams, and given the positions Kyle and Chris play, it’s likely the brothers will collide head-on. It’s not a prospect their parents are looking forward to.

Diane will have her binoculars and train them on the children she wouldn’t let cross the street without clutching their hands. She will watch the bodies slamming, the arms and legs flying. And she’ll focus on that pile, thinking, Get up.

“You tell yourself to breathe,” she says. “You tell yourself you can’t control what’s happening. Yet you don’t take your eyes off of it.”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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