Friday, February 1, 2013

NFL + Concussions...Stuck in the Neutral Zone

We’re hearing a lot of talk about concussions in football through TV pieces on shows such as Outside the Lines on ESPN, E:60 on ESPN, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO; and magazine and newspapers pieces in ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and others.

There is the pending lawsuit brought against the NFL by more than 4,000 former players and more than 1,500 of their families.
We’ve all heard about the suicides most notably of Andre Waters, Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau.

Al Toon 
during his NFL playing days.
With it being Super Bowl week many folks have been weighing in on concussions.

A lot of talk…that’s all it is. And, as my dad used to say talk is cheap.
We won’t be moving from this talking stage to something credible…making major changes in the game of football anytime soon.

There is no outrage.
No outrage for Jim McMahon, a 53-year-old man and former NFL quarterback who had four documented concussions, has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. He gets ready to walk out of the house to get the mail and can be found 20 minutes later at the kitchen table struggling to remember where he was going. And, he is not the only one.

No outrage for Leroy Hoard, 1989 Rose Bowl MVP for Michigan and 10-year NFL running back, who is facing post-concussion syndrome…with headaches, dizziness, depression, and sensitivity to light. Every day he writes notes to himself and writes three names on his notebook…Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau…to remember their trials and that they committed suicide. And, most importantly to be thankful to the three folks who helped him…former NFL players Robert Smith and Keith Byers, and his wife, because he knows he “could’ve been one of those three guys.”
No outrage for Ray Easterling, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau and what they have faced…changes in their personalities…depression…and a sense that there was no way to re-gain what they had lost, so they took their own lives.

No outrage for Alex Smith, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who followed the new rules for players who have concussions, and lost his job. That’s right, Alex, who was having the best season of his career…a top qb rating of 104.1%; completed 153-of-218 passes for 1, 737 yards; led the league in completion percentage of 70%; did what he was supposed to do and lost his job.
Note to the NFL: this rule change won’t help going forward. In fact, Greg McElroy, third-string quarterback for the New York Jets, did not inform his team of his concussion until days later after what happened to Alex. I wonder how many other players forgot to tell their teams what was going on with them this season.

Until we are moved to outrage the NFL will only continue to make minor rule changes that may or may not make a difference.
It all comes down to the fact that America loves pro football just the way it is. We love the hitting…the violence…the gladiator aspect of it. We really don’t want it to change.

President Obama came out this week and said that if he had a son he doesn’t think he let him play football. And, based on this statement, others think that in two to three decades there will be fewer people playing football.
This sentiment is not new. Football has always been a violent, dangerous sport. Back in the 1970s (when there were fewer rules to protect the players) two of my older cousins played football in Racine, Wisconsin at Horlick High School…Dave Katz and Jeff Kaufman. Both were good players…Dave had the option to play at the University of Wisconsin, but chose not to…and I believe Jeff could have played at the next level if he wanted. Both faced many injuries that still linger today. Based on the sight of their injuries my mom would not let my brother play football. I’m sure she is not the only parent who has felt this way…

And, yet three decades later there are still plenty of guys who want to play…and the NFL is the most-watched sport in America.
We have always known football is not a safe sport. If we haven’t witnessed the injuries, we’ve seen their results former players who hobble around or worse.

Who could forget Jack Tatum’s hit on Darryl Stingley in 1978…the one that left Darryl paralyzed?
Or what about the hit in 2010 that left Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand paralyzed?

This past high school football season in San Jose, CA, there were three incidents where players had to be carried from the field on a gurney all strapped in. I witnessed one of these in a semi-final playoff game. And, yes, I would have to say that in all my years of covering high school football I have never heard of three incidents like this within five weeks of each other. It is quite disturbing.
However, major injuries like this, as well as concussions, could be reduced by simply teaching players the correct tackling technique.

And, this week we don’t have to look far to find someone who does it the right way…San Francisco 49er Dashon Goldson.
Dashon Goldson making a tackle.
Yes, he is a hard hitter, and he was fined in December for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (this is his only fine for this during his career), but he has 346 tackles since 2009. And, he has only had one concussion throughout his career, while he was playing at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas and missed only two games in the NFL due to a knee injury. He’s is doing something right.

He was taught his heads-up approach by Bobby Hosea, a former UCLA cornerback, and Pop Warner coach. Hosea, who is known as the tackling guru, is a consultant for USA Football, the governing body for the sport at the youth and amateur level. He has also started a “Heads-Up Tackling” program for USA Football, along with director Peter Berg and former NFL lineman LaVar Arrington, to give youth coaches a standardized way to teach proper tackling…trying to change the game from the beginning, where kids learn how to play.
While the NFL is focusing on kickoffs, new helmets, protecting quarterbacks (and what about other players like the ones tackling) it is not looking at the cause of the concussions…the hits.

“I don’t think a helmet is going to keep you from getting a concussion,” said Goldson. “You can do it by playing clean football−hitting people hard, but doing it clean.”
Football isn’t going away anytime soon. The fans and the players love the game too much.

When asked this week about his views on the game, Ravens free safety Ed Reed said he knew the dangers of the sport when he got into it, “Some days, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Where did my memory go?’ But I signed up for it.”
“Football has been like this for ages,” he continued. “It’s going to be a violent sport. You are going to have repercussions from that. But every player that plays this game and will play this game signed up for it. We signed up for it. We know what could happen. That’s the life we choose to live.”

He did go on to say he would not encourage his son to play, however if his son wanted to play, he would educate him on the sport.
And, he is not the only current or former player who feels this way.

Al Toon in a classic pose.
Al Toon was a former Wisconsin Badger standout and New York Jet wide receiver for eight seasons…a three-time Pro Bowler, who walked away from the game in 1992 after suffering at least nine concussions. He suffered post-concussion syndrome…sensitivity to light, irritability, nausea, and lapses in concentration and memory, among other things. In the middle of the day, Al could be found lying in the dark with sunglasses covering his eyes. It took three years for these side effects to go away.
Although all of them have not subsided…he still has some lingering issues…strobbing (bursts of light and dark), difficulty concentrating and retrieving information.
Al was afraid of what the next hit…the next concussion would bring, so he retired from what might have been a Hall of Fame career…he caught passes in 101 consecutive games, had 517 total receptions, and averaged 12.8 yards per catch.
Remember, this was back in 1992…yes, we know more about concussions today, but we’ve known that players have been feeling the impact for years…this is not new.

A player walked away from the game like this and the NFL, the fans, and others did not take notice.
Where was the outrage for Al Toon?
His son, Nick, is following in his footsteps. He also plays wide receiver and was drafted by the New Orleans Saint and spent the year on injured reserve with a foot issue.

It is important to note that Al has not joined the legions of other players suffering from after-effects of their concussions in their lawsuit against the NFL.
Al understands the nature of football, “Even if my career hadn’t ended that way, football is a violent sport,” he said.

And, he wasn’t about to stop his son from playing a game he was passionate about.
While Nick has seen the results of numerous concussions up close, it hasn’t stopped him from playing.
“With what happened with my dad, you don’t wish that on any player,” said Nick. “It’s part of the game. It’s going to happen. I think it’s something that you realize, accept, and go out and play.”
Players still want to play…even though they know the possibilities.

Major change doesn’t come quickly in the NFL. They knew about concussions and the after-affects for years and did nothing about it. Only in the last few years have they admitted this exists.
Addressing this issue with the thoughtfulness and seriousness that is deserved will only come with outrage…or more likely with a court ruling or settlement in favor of the players. Money will make the sleeping giant, NFL, wake up and take notice.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for the current and next generation of players…like Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, RGIII, Greg McElroy, Nick Toon, and others.