Still Concussed

by Bert Bartlett

In the spring of 1980, Roger Staubach stood at a podium in a suite in the bowels of now defunct Texas Stadium.  Microphones on sticks extended, cameras clicked, and video machines whirred.  The Captain America quarterback of his day was reluctantly and tearfully announcing his retirement from the Cowboys, wife Marianne at his side.  His legendary head coach, Tom Landry, stood stoically in the back behind all the press and onlookers, taking it in.

Staubach was in the twilight of his illustrious career, but clearly wasn’t done (like Tom Brady and Drew Brees today), in part to having spent four years off the field, dutifully serving his post college hitch in the Navy.  He was a “young” 38. He didn’t want to quit, and spent plenty of time in Landry’s office weighing the pros and cons of another season, which the coach naturally preferred. Landry had a way of making him feel wanted, but letting him know the Cowboys would be just fine without him, given the monolithic “system” he had built in Dallas since 1960.  At the presser, Staubach quipped the Cowboys remained in the hands of the man “with the funny hat”.

Number 12 was gnawed by the increasing frequency of his concussions, led by an innate sense that health came first, opportunity costs be damned. He spoke to the team doctor too, bias cognizant, and ultimately relied on the advice of his own physician in hanging ‘em up. At the time concussions were considered just “part of the game”, temporary and passing in nature. So the tilting reason for his retirement was curious, because whatever one thought of Roger Staubach, he certainly wasn’t soft. Offhand, no other such a reknown a player had retired due to concussions, at least publicly.

In the ensuing decades, concussions as an occupational hazard subsequently took a back seat to long and well masked drug use, particularly speed and cocaine, steroids (popularizing the Performance Enhance tag, or PED), and now opioids – to either make it through a week of practice, maximize  performance, or cope with the physical tolls when the lights go off,  the whistles quit blowing, and the game checks quit coming. The medical benefits of marijuana and the legalization of it recreationally in some states have only clouded the current picture. Former Saint offensive lineman Kyle Turley is amongst many retired proponents of pot as the healthiest panacea to cope.

The core physics of football as a contact sport remain unyielding:  Mass  x  Speed  =  Injury &  Pain. Bigger, stronger, and faster players scientifically trained and diet supplemented year round have augmented the velocity of the train wrecks.

 All considered, all these years,  it’s kind of surprising only one pro player has died on the field of play, receiver Chuck Hughes of the Lions, in 1971 with a minute left to play on a rainy day in Detroit. It was of a heart attack, against Chicago.  Vaunted Bear linebacker Dick Butkus stood over a prone and twitching Hughes, not to stare down his prey as he was known to do, but to signal the sidelines for help when it was obvious something was drastically wrong.  Hughes was 28 and left behind a wife and a 2 year old.  Apparently it was not a nationally televised game, and the NFL is retro glad it wasn’t.

Starting in grade school, better taught use of the helmet, as not so much a weapon, and rule changes at all levels of the game can abate the ill effects of that reality, but never remove it.  Football’s (intended) controlled violence has always been a large part of its allure, by those who play and watch it.

In 2002 Nigerian immigrant and forensic pathologist Dr. Benjamin Omalu showed up at the hospital in Pittsburgh one day for his autopsy shift. The body of 50 year old ex – Steeler center and Hall of Famer Mike Webster laid before him.  Iron Mike was said to have died of a heart attack, after living in his truck in excruciating pain and chosen homelessness for several years, but advanced physical degeneration suggested otherwise.  A look at the brain revealed abnormalities, and Omalu researched and found similarities in other recently deceased players, some of whom committed suicide. Omalu’s branding of the brain disease as CTE sent head trauma to the top of the game’s malady list.

Though not a commercial blockbuster, the 2015 movie Concussion, starring Will Smith as Omalu, was well made and shed light on developments. Alec Baldwin stole the show and was excellent as the former Steeler team doctor, whose duty and loyalty was parceled amongst management, coaches, and the players themselves, who begged him to do any and everything to keep them on the field. And out of pain off of it.  For all to answer to, including their conscience, team doctors are well prepared to become effective politicians, as they can write the book on conflicts of interests.

When Hollywood tells a story it can only be part of the truth and Concussion is no exception. Sony Productions had to ward off controversy that it went light on the NFL.  Some contend there has been a another gate all along; what the league knew when it knew it, yatta yatta.  And the movie inexplicably excluded the long prior research accumulated by Dr. Anne McKee of Boston University, a Wisconsin native and avid Packer fan who loves looking at brains in formaldehyde jars and studying them all day.

Several years ago, in a perfect storm of horror stories, fatalities and suicides of retired players lit up newsreels like wildfire.  Wives reported their husbands went for a walk one night but couldn’t remember their way home.  Or what their name was. And were at a loss for their spouse’s hostile attitude and behavior, toward the kids too. Many turned to crime, having no prior criminal record.  Like  the line in the old Buffalo Springfield song; Stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s goin’ down… 

Surly recluses fiddled with shotguns and spinned revolvers while lying in bed.  Name players like Chicago Bear Dave Duerson were among them, and pulled the trigger. He had worked for the NFL office, quite familiar with the ills of retirement issues. A peer ex defensive back, Andre Waters of the Eagles, had asked him for help from the league before taking his own life (Waters was a hard hitter and had a dirty reputation for it). Hall of Famer and Charger Junior Seau chose to leave a large and admiring coterie of family and friends.   And Iron Mike’s friend, ex Steeler lineman Justin Strzelczyk , died in a crash at 36 evading the cops driving the wrong way on the interstate going 90 MPH for something or other.

Along the tragic paths, it’s not as if benefits weren’t used and medical professionals and doctors weren’t consulted, for an array of evaluations on dementia, depression or possible bipolar disorder, prescription drugs, therapies and the like. Interestingly, many of the players who took their own lives left instructions for their brains to be donated to research, or had their families do so.  A dilemma of CTE is that it can only be diagnosed posthumously.

Spokespeople for the league drifted aggravating comments in the media that there was no proven connection between CTE and pro football’s head trauma. Even if technically true, it undermined the NFL’s integrity, a stupid public relations and pre-legal maneuver if it was one.  That attitude intimated possible guilt from denial – where perhaps in fact there wasn’t any.  Indeed, who is to say or prove that  CTE in a pro wasn’t fermented at the grade school or college level? The research simply isn’t that consummate at this time.

Until long overdue reigns were put on programs by the NCAA, college coaches were notorious for infinite practices – and hitting – not only in season but all year round, and on rosters about twice the size of the pros, unnecessarily so.   It doesn’t take a hundred plus players to field 22. Division I college ball has always been dizzy in its excess.

Next month the NFL is set to distribute about $1 BB to about 4,500 of 20,000 class action retired players in a settlement for any concussion culpability. If the league is “guilty”, the settlement is only about one fifteenth of one year’s revenue, and a bargain. Cynically, inevitably, some players signed up for it as found money more than physical issues, feeling some poetic justice for being grossly underpaid compared to today’s crop. Others said nah, declining it because they said the risk was their decision, one they would make again, considering all the game ending up providing for them and their families.

Technology is currently in place for advanced helmet padding that could contain chips relaying velocity, severity, and frequency data for head contact absorbed by a player in a given practice or game.  Continuing to develop softer helmet shells can absorb contact more malleably and helps. So what if it raises the price per unit well into four figures, that’s a cost of doing business the league can – and must – afford, if an expressed priority for player safety isn’t just lip service.  The NCAA can afford it too.

Team doctors could monitor the ongoing hit data, and when the volume or intensity of helmet contact  reaches certain set criteria, it’s time for the player to sit.  Period. In the heat of the moment, no subjective machismo by the player or fuzzy thinking by team officials allowed. If a player absorbs a head hit enough to be a stinger (their traditional term for concussions), a monitor could flash red. Similar to pitchers in Major League Baseball whose participation is determined, limited by number of pitches count and velocity… in the best interests of their arms’ health.

Coaches have always made veiled threats to players in critiques of their play with “the film doesn’t lie”. Well, advanced protective headgear’s contact numbers on monitors wouldn’t lie either.

Pathetically, the league was more excited this offseason about chips in footballs that signal when it crosses the plane of the goal line.  It’s obvious owners cannot be counted on for their good will or particularly additional expenses when it comes to player safety. When it comes to labor agreements, the Players Association has lacked spine or brains on some issues when it comes down to signing on the dotted line for the next several years.

Though an avid fan of it, in 1905 President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the damn game for  barbarism that was allowed to transpire on the field in college football. When it comes to head safety in today’s version, similar vigilance is needed.  Excuses or second best are no longer acceptable on this issue. Yet at the pro level, it is the players and their union that are ultimately responsible for it.


3 thoughts on “Still Concussed

  1. Soul:

    You make a compelling argument that football has lost its way in some respects…. putting entertainment and finances above player safety. It’s been that way since its inception in 1920… long before Staubach called it quits.

    Don’t just blame the owners, coaches, team physicians and even the fans. The well-paid players should be held accountable, too.

    It took years (more than four decades) before goaltenders in the NHL started wearing masks. And in my opinion, the game has not suffered, although admittedly, I wasn’t around in 1917.

    Changes are needed in the NFL to protect the game and the players.

    Football is a contact sport. No two ways about it. Players know, or should know, the risks. Think tobacco warnings. Playing on the gridiron can be hazardous to your health.


  2. Once again Burt, you knocked this one out of the park. (Pardon the mixed metaphor, considering what it is we’re talking about. Maybe I should say “You split the uprights!”?) I love your take on the whole thing, and your writing continues to be superlative and illuminating. Great great stuff! Ya Ya!

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