Head Cases: Why NFL Players Are Behind The Learning Curve
Let me propose a hypothetical situation to you. Someone comes up to you and says I’ll either give you $1,000,000 now or I’ll give you $1,000 every day for the rest of your life. Seems pretty obvious, right? Now, let’s replace that positive force with a negative one. Take a unit of anything you enjoy. It could be dollars, like I just suggested, or candy bars, cigarettes, whatever. Let’s say someone came up to you and said I will take a million of those things away from you today or I will take a thousand away from you every day so long as you live.
Has the motivation changed? Is it not still a long-term vs. short-term argument?
That dilemma (or lack thereof) is an easy one. Everyone understands what’s going to happen. It’s all right there, very plain to see. It’s simplified. Over-simplified, even.
But the thing that helps you figure out that situation and point out just how easy and obvious the problem is is your brain, and it is the most neglected body part in the National Football League.
A lot has been made of rookie D.J. Swearinger’s low hit on Dustin Keller, a gruesome blow that ended the veteran tight end’s season prematurely as his knee will effectively have to be reconstructed. The typical outrage from players has ensued. Keller’s teammate, Brian Hartline, called Swearinger’s explanation/apology “crap” and I’m sure far harsher words were used when the microphones were not on.
But then fellow tight end Tony Gonzalez today came out and said something interesting. In ripping the rookie safety for his hit, the future Hall-of-Famer said he would rather take a blow to the head then one down low.
To which I thought, “you’re kidding, right?” I have all the respect in the world for Gonzalez, perhaps one of the greatest tight ends ever, but its time to take him and those that share his view on a little learning journey.
Here’s a pop quiz: how many concussions is a “safe” number? How many can you have before your brain suffers long-term damage? What if I told you that number is zero? Well, all the current research out there shows that long-term, permanent brain damage can and in numerous cases has begun with just one concussion.
And, from there, the damage can only mount. There’s no mitigating the trauma. It’s not a cyst or an infection. It cannot be removed. When it comes to your brain, all damage is permanent.
So let’s go back to Swearinger’s hit. Like I said, it forced Keller to repair a torn ACL, MCL, and PCL. The operative word? Repair. Doctors are going to go in there and fix everything or almost everything. There are insane things surgeons can do where they take other parts of your body and put it in there to help fix the problem. They relocate tendons and cartilage and muscle tissue because it is abundant.
There’s only one brain in your body, and you need every inch of it right where it is.
So when you understand all that, you become sort of perplexed as I am about Gonzalez’s comments where he said he’d rather take a blow to his head than to his knee.
What Gonzalez’s statement does, more than anything, is highlight the gross lack of education that NFL players have in regards to mental health and the fragility of the brain.
Now, if you ask Gonzalez, I’m sure he’ll say, “yeah, I know hits to the head are bad. Yeah, I know it causes brain damage,” so on and so forth. But those are abstract concepts. There are much more specific concepts that are NOT being acknowledged by NFL players. Concepts like “amnesia”, “dimensia”, “early-onset Alzheimer’s”, and “depression”.
Would Tony Gonzalez use any of those phrases when downplaying hits to the head? Saying that he’d rather risk one or more of those health conditions than blow out his knee?
I don’t think so.
And look, in their defense, for players like Tony Gonzalez, they’re focusing on another equation that’s very real. If I tear a ligament, I could be done for the year, but if I just get my bell rung, I could be back in a few weeks. Or less! Players have had their careers ended over knee injuries and it’s very rare that one blow to the head will have the same immediate consequences. I get that. Not only do I get that, but I get that from THEIR perspective. A bad leg is much more of a threat to a player’s career than a beat-up noggin.
But let me ask the NFL players this: how many torn ACL’s have resulted in premature death? How many dislocated hips have driven retired players to suicide?
If guys like Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson had every hit they took to the head magically transferred to one or both of their knees, they all probably would have had much shorter and less successful and exciting careers. But isn’t it also likely that the three victims of suicide would also be alive today? The science says yes.
And those are just the former players who had autopsies that confirmed the presence of brain damage. What about all the others, both new and recent? Not just Jovan Belcher, but Jeff Alm. Not just O.J. Murdock, but Shane Dronett. I invite anyone to read about these players’ behavior in the days just before their death and see how many parallels they can draw to the known long-term symptoms of concussions.
The information is out there and those that need it most don’t have it. We can argue about HGH testing or rule changes or referee labor stoppages, but this is the defining issue of this generation of football players.
To say that the vast majority of the NFL is behind the learning curve when it comes to concussion awareness and the ramifications of head trauma is an understatement. On this single, isolated subject, the overplayed stereotype of the meathead jock might be the closest it has ever come to being accurate since the NFL’s inception.
That’s not just a problem, it’s a damn shame.
NOTE FROM THE COLUMNIST: I encourage everyone to see the research for themselves. Not only is there a ton of literature, but last year a terrific documentary called ‘Head Games’ was released. It is a must-watch.
When Bryan isn’t writing he is on Twitter! Make sure to give him a follow @bclienesch!
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