The League

Dave Goldberg
Sports Reporter

Dave Goldberg

Covered the NFL for the AP for 25 years and now is a senior NFL writer for Fanhouse.com

Football Hurts

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On Nov. 24, 1996, Steve Young started at quarterback for San Francisco against the Redskins after missing a week with a concussion. On the first series, he faced third down and eight and, as was his wont, took off and ran. As he neared the first-down marker, he dove to get to the chains, colliding helmet-to-helmet with Redskins safety Jesse Campbell.

After the game, a 19-16 49er win, I asked him: "Steve, what were you doing on that play?''

"You know me,'' he replied. "That's the way I play.''

"THAT'S THE WAY I PLAY."

It's one reason Young got to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's what almost every NFL player would tell a senator or congressman if asked about concussions. And it's what makes it so hard for the NFL, and its players union to minimize the risk to players. Because to make it to the top level of football, young men need not only size and speed and skill, they need to put fear out of their minds -- ask any scout or coach and he'll tell you of players who had the skill but not the will, those who didn't make it because they wouldn't play hard or wouldn't play hurt.

In other words, the only way to end concussions in the NFL is to shut down the league.

It's not as if the league isn't trying.

Thirty years ago -- even 20 years ago -- a player would get hit in the head, lie on the field for a couple of minutes and then get up and walk off.

"He got his bell rung,'' the TV analyst would say.

"You got your bell rung,'' a trainer would tell him and a coach would add: "As soon as the cobwebs clear, get back in there.''

"I don't know how many times someone told me that when I was playing,'' the late Gene Upshaw used to tell me when I would discuss concussions with him in his role as the executive director of the players union.

Yes, Upshaw was aware of the problem and so is his successor, DeMaurice Smith. So was Paul Tagliabue and so is Roger Goodell and so are owners and general managers and coaches. Over the past decade, they have increased penalties and fines for blows to the head to the point that many players worry football is turning into two-hand touch and they have conducted studies that seem to have verified that football players are more subject than the general population to dementia at an early age.

But they may have done as much as they can.

Before the 2007 season, Goodell implemented a policy mandating that if a player is unconscious on the field, he can't return to the game, as was the case Monday night with the Eagles' Brian Westbrook against the Redskins. It also mandated that if a player has a concussion, he can't play again until a doctor finds he is asymptomatic. And it required baseline brain testing for all players, with the normal results used as the standard in the event of an injury.

Can any more be done?

Perhaps.

But it will never take into account the nature of football players.

That's the way they play.

By Dave Goldberg  |  October 28, 2009; 6:21 AM ET  | Category:  Concussions , Medical , NFL , Roger Goodell Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Quoth Monty Python's Black Knight, laying at the side of the road without arms or legs; "That's just the way I play."
One of the reasons why children can get away with the games they play is that their falls involve relatively little energy. A 30 pound child running into another child isn't good but it involves far less energy than two 280 pound adults slamming into each other. The steady increas of player size means player injuries will continue to worsen especially since they will continue to play aggressively, using techniques which are more dangerous at 300 pounds than 200.

Posted by: observer57 | October 28, 2009 8:02 AM

Ask Mr. Goldberg if he ever played the game then he can pontificate about these types of injuries. Yes it is part of the game and we all knew what we are getting into but some type of assistance for some of these older players should be the responsiblity of the owners just like a pension.

Posted by: mlmcpa2260 | October 28, 2009 9:28 AM

Unfortunately, besides what you say in this article, there is another truth belonging with the late Gene Upshaw and his counterpart, Goodell's predecessor. I'm reminded of the previous attempts by Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus and a host of other retired players to shine the light on the lack opf interest in paying for former players medical costs from football related injuries. Both the union and the NFL did its level best to bury the problems or prevent the true statistics from reaching the light of day. Instead of reaching out to assist former players in trouble from physical and/or mental probelems, they ratchetted up the bar players had to meet to get any sort of money to help defray their medical expenses. I'm convinced that under Upshaw, great player that he was, the union was in collusion with the NFL to minimize any medical issues. When Ditka told Congress about these matters, the resistance was intense. Now with the changing of the guard, it appears that the NFL will attempt to begin making amends (at least as long as the Congress is looking over their shoulder). What bothers me are the remarks of the NFL spokesman, Mr. Brown, regarding the statistics in the recent studies done by the union and the NFL. He claimed that it showed no inherent problem...that the figures were equivalent to the general population, instead of the stated 4-5 times greater. That's why I think it's important to recall that neither side was interested in the bad news, until Ditka, Butkus, et al, spoke out and the studies were done and now the NFL still wants to minimized the problem. One final note is my lack of understanding why the current crop of players feel no obligation to contribute to any sort of fund for former players, like the other major professional sports do. Are they so blind as to not believe that their day is coming? Have they forgotten their history and the players who paved the way for considerably less money? Or are they some egocentric, as with players of old, thet they just feel invincible?

Posted by: flyfisher_20750 | October 28, 2009 12:58 PM

Can any more be done?

Yes.

How about the NFLPA and the NFL get together tomorrow and agree to mandate that every player must wear the most modern concussion-proof helmet while on the field. Also, the NFL and the NFLPA should fund research and development projects to create even better helmets than the ones that exist today. Why is this even a question. Why on Earth is the NFLPA not advocating for this now?

Posted by: TheNathan | October 28, 2009 1:00 PM

Have players play in shorts and t-shirts, light pads and no helmets. The injuries would be fierce in the first few weeks of play, but if the felons were rooted out, fined, thrown off teams, some degree of raw competitiveness would be restored to a game. Players would still have to be tough as nails, immensely talented and finely conditioned.

People would lose interest and not fund the NFL and it would go kaput. Or not? I've NEVER attended a game for the hits. I've rooted for a team. I love defensive stops and sacks and gang tackles as much as the next guy -- so long as my team is doing it. Those missile-type spears, shoulder smashes, helmet-to-helmet collisions make me sick to my stomach. I've been knocked senseless a bunch of times in my life. It's not cool.

Posted by: Meepo | October 29, 2009 9:50 AM

There are many technologies and plenty of know-how available for substantially improving the design and protection afforded by sport helmets. So to all those who say that the 100,000 concussions in the USA, and the dozen or so deaths, every year are unavoidable: hogwash to your willful ignorance!! What you are saying is that you are willing to accept this collatoral damage because you love the sport more than player safety.

In fact, the sad situation we have today with helmet safety is an ECONOMIC issue, not a scientific, technical, or medical one. What we have is mass denial, on the part of players, coaches, and sports doctors, many of whom are simply ignorant about the science of brain injury, which again, has been evident for many decades.
I respectfully submit that all of you who love the sport more than the safety of the players must understand that you are complicit in the reduced mental capacity of millions of Americans over the last decades!!!

Posted by: AgentG | October 29, 2009 2:30 PM

How about putting weight limits on players? Serious limits, seriously. Overall, maybe 200 pounds. Weigh in before every game.

Otherwise the injuries, short and long term, will continue. I've loved watching the NFL for lots of years, but after reading the recent,long New Yorker article, the pleasure is gone. I loved rooting for Kevin Boss on the Giants, but last week he took a shot to the head and had to go out. So he claims he didn't have a concussion. Good. But the New Yorker article described what he might be experiencing in twenty or so years.

It's not fun any more.

Posted by: dicka1 | October 29, 2009 3:04 PM

What a crock, real health reform in the NFL begins with zero tolerence of steroids and a training staff that works for the players, not the coah and Owner. Players health first, not this crock of "taking one for the team", a player's glory is only fleating, but middle age and old before your time last forever.

Posted by: tniederberger | October 29, 2009 9:08 PM

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