Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito are stealing the headlines. For the last two weeks the incident involving two “teammates” of the Miami Dolphins has caused every major and minor sports outlet, every blogger, every facebook friend with an opinion, to weigh in on the subject of bullying in the locker room.
Meanwhile, a very serious matter, more serious then bullying or locker room rules, has slipped through the cracks.
While various members of the P.C. Police weigh in on whether or not the Washington Redskins should change their name, even though, seemingly, the Native American community could care less, those same people have skirted the topic that should be front and center for any fan of football.
The sad truth is, if something isn’t done to rectify this epidemic, head trauma in the NFL will be the death of organized football as we know it.
The NFL recently paid out a rather large settlement, in the upwards of $765 million to 4500 former players, who had been part of a class action lawsuit against the NFL. Sadly, I don’t expect it will be the last lawsuit, nor do I think it will be the last time former players bring their devastating stories to light.
When Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, so his head could be investigated after he was gone, I raised an eyebrow.
When Junior Seau killed himself?
A pattern was forming.
These were two affable members of a fraternity, where not every person gets along with the press. Each time I saw either one of them do an interview, they were happy, lighthearted and warm, and those aren’t things every football player can fake.
Then why would they want to kill themselves?
Tony Dorsett, a running back enshrined into the Hall of Fame, a member of “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, a mild mannered, outgoing, successful, professional man in the days after his playing career ended, is not dumb. And he said as much in an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
"I've thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, 'Why do I need to continue going through this?'" he said. "I'm too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it's crossed my mind."
He went on to weep in the interview on ESPN.
"It's painful, man, for my daughters to say they're scared of me."
"My quality of living has changed drastically and it deteriorates every day," he said.
While on a plane to a UCLA Hospital for a study on his head health, Dorsett repeatedly couldn’t remember why he was on the plane.
When he landed he went to UCLA to get his head health checked and the results confirmed everyone’s fears: A brain scan showed he had the symptoms of CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
CTE is a condition that is brought about by recurrent head trauma. Kind of like if you were to run your head into a brick wall over and over and over 20-30 times a day for 20 years. Or get in twenty to thirty head on collisions in your car daily. Or play football with only a piece of plastic with a logo on the side. CTE is a degenerative condition and the symptoms are depression, loss of impulse control and dementia.
4500 players were part of the class action suit, many of them players that played from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s.
Jim McMahon, former Super Bowl Champion quarterback for the Chicago Bears was part of that lawsuit. He has said in interviews that he has to sit in the dark, leave his sunglasses on at all times and constantly forgets why he has walked into rooms.
Former Ivy League player, Owen Thomas, didn’t survive to see his NFL dreams realized. Nor did he live to see the class action suit begin. Owen, a kid smart enough to get into the Wharton School of Business at Penn University, hung himself. His parents never saw it coming.
So this is not only an NFL problem, this is a problem at lower levels of football as well.
You would think that this would cause players to stop playing football. They would see that the massive paycheck wasn’t worth it?
Not so much.
If players won't change their decisions to protect themselves from a premature death, the question of personal liberty comes to mind.
We can’t force people to quit smoking cigarettes, even though in nearly every case, a smoker who goes on to smoke for a certain amount of time will with near certainty die from heart disease or lung cancer.
We can’t restrict people from drinking to excess or shooting heroin. We can’t force people to stop any of their compulsive behaviors. But, while there is the NFL Network, there isn’t the Junkie Network.
There isn’t the Watch This Person Slowly Commit Suicide While The NFL and it’s Owners Collect Billions of Dollars network, either.
Oh wait, there is.
The NFL is a financial behemoth, raking in billions in television rights, advertisements, merchandising and God knows what else. And while back-up quarterbacks and undersized running backs continue to collect paychecks in the 7 figure range, and players at the higher end of the spectrum collect 8 figure checks, people will strive for their lifelong dream to one day play in the NFL and achieve financial freedoms for themselves and their families.
And I can’t blame them.
But increasingly, I can’t help but think that’s yesterdays mindset. Today, more and more parents continue to enroll their sons and daughters into sports that will prevent their children from risking their health and wellbeing. While studies have come out that even students who are in soccer and baseball have endured concussions, there is no doubt in my mind that parents will continue to prevent their children from playing organized football in fear of starting them down a path that could increase the likelihood of a premature death.
Most parents don’t hand their child a pack of cigarettes when they start high school. Will they hand them a helmet and a pair of shoulder pads?
While the NFL recently canceled their contract with Riddell, the exclusive helmet manufacturer for the NFL since 1989, there are steps being made in the right direction by other companies so parents can feel a little less worried.
Head Case, a local start-up, has begun manufacturing a Concussion Management System. This Concussion Management System measures head impacts, records impact data and provides diagnostic tools to detect potential concussions. Not to mention, parents, coaches, and the athletes themselves can monitor the data from their smart phones.
While it cannot prevent concussions, and doesn't claim too, using the Head Case system, athletes can better prepare and understand the nature of the health of their heads and ultimately make better decisions for their future. People using Head Case have their eyes wide open.
This is important, because each individual has a different reaction to head trauma. This is also important because companies like Head Case are not taking a passive approach to head health. They realize that the only way to save the sport and protect the future of our athletes is by approaching this epidemic proactively.
Also, the Sports Legacy Institute, a 501 c 3, has proposed a “hit count” proposal. The “hit count” would be like a “pitch count” for little league baseball pitchers. Once youth football players have reached that count, the player is done for the day. They will be asked to sit on the sidelines and watch, and concentrate on how to get better. They will not be allowed to hit.
Seems like it makes sense.
While we fight to defend the likes of Jonathan Martin from the bullies of the NFL and while people write and opine tirelessly about protecting the feelings and honor of Native Americans, there hasn’t been nearly as much outrage over the fact that the people who were once our heroes are killing themselves. And they certainly haven't been asking the question: Could it have been prevented?
If the NFL is serious about protecting its players, then why not make a pledge to take one dollar of each ticket sold and donate those proceeds to head trauma research? Head Case and the Sports Legacy Institute are being proactive, why not the NFL?
If they are serious about insuring the sanctity of the sport and the health of its players, make a splash. If they don’t want the product on the field to suffer, if they don’t want to continue to see headlines that show their former players dying prematurely, now is the time to act.
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