The risk of head and neck injuries to NFL players have always been great. At its most basic level, football is, as the great author Michael Lewis astutely said in his bestseller “The Blind Side,” a series of traffic accidents. At the snap of the ball, one group of big men collides with another group of big men while smaller men run like hell and wait for another smaller man to throw them a ball. Once that ball finds a destination, in a player’s arms or in the dirt, the play ends.
The players untwist themselves from one another. They (hopefully) stand. They brush themselves off. They line up. They get down in their stance. They do it again.
Over and over and over. 50 times a game. 16 games (or more) a year.
The NFL has tried to lessen the danger to players. They’ve created state-of-the-art helmets meant to prevent concussions. They’ve almost completely disallowed any sort of heavy contact in practice situations. They’ve increased fines to players who intentionally hit helmet-to-helmet. They’ve tightened up roughing-the-passer penalties.
Short of changing the game’s entire landscape into a flag football league, the NFL has made strides in making this sport safer.
But still, players are suffering. Junior Seau committed suicide last week, a sad end believed to have been caused, at least partly, by bodily trauma sustained during his career. And he’s far from the only one who’s died too soon because of an injury caused by football.
Believing they’ve been wronged, many former players have recently brought lawsuits against the NFL for not doing more to protect them from concussions and other head traumas. Former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien brought action, claiming the NFL was aware of the dangers of “repeated traumatic injuries to his head” but hid the information. Many other players have said similar things in their filings.
I don’t doubt at all the validity of this. And I’m sure there have been occasions where doctors downplay how bad an injury is. Those doctors are scumbags and shouldn’t be allowed to practice medicine. But can the players really put the onus on the league for that as well?
Whether or not you’re an NFL player, getting hit in the head is something you learn at a young age is not a good thing. When you fall down and bump your head, it hurts. Maybe you feel dizzy or disoriented for a minute. Generally you’re not going to try and hit your head again.
NFL players don’t have that luxury. Getting hit is part of the game. A part, it should be stressed, players are very keenly aware of. It’s not exactly a secret that when a 350 pound defensive lineman takes down a 200 pound quarterback, that quarterback isn’t going to feel too good. But he makes the choice to stand up, get back in the pocket, snap the ball and play another down.
Any internal injury befalling a player on any given play isn’t something the NFL can measure. They don’t stop the game to do a quick player physical every time there’s a sack. They can’t. A player needs to be aware of their own body and know when something isn’t right and they should rely on the opinions of trusted physicians to help them get healthy.
But let’s be real. If a player really needs an NFL executive or doctor or coach to tell him that it’s not really good for your head to get hit all the time, he’s no better than the person who doesn’t wear a seat belt and wonders why he flies through the windshield during an accident. It’s common sense.
And yet, aware of the risks, they take the field anyway. That’s not the NFL’s fault.
Information is out there. It’s documented in books and now it’s documented online. Any player who claims ignorance on the dangers of football deserves to have their head examined for entirely different reasons.
Heck, a new study even says NFL players live longer than the average person anyway. That effectively removes the argument that playing football is taking years off a player’s life.
I love football. I love everything about it. But I can understand why guys like Kurt Warner have come forward and said they’d rather not have their sons play. It’s a dangerous sport and there are real, legitimate risks associated with playing.
But for any player to blame the NFL for injuries, to say they aren’t being protected when they willingly step on that field, usually for a sizable paycheck, is insane.
My heart aches for guys like Seau, who may have taken their own lives because of head traumas associated with the game. Like everything in life, though, playing football is a choice. And it comes with risks.
No one is truly to blame. Every body reacts differently to trauma. There’s no way to measure it beforehand. What the NFL can do now is try to make the game safer, but they will never be able to respect the integrity of the sport and make it entirely risk-free for players.
So before we start pointing the finger at the big, bad NFL, let’s remember the nature of the game and remind ourselves that no man is on the field because he’s forced to. They choose.
And guess what? They can choose when to walk away too.