Jeff Nixon: “Head Games”

Posted on November 16, 2009 by Jeff Nixon

With Trent Edwards back at the helm, there will undoubtedly be concerns about his recent concussion and whether or not it will affect his play. Playing quarterback in the NFL is not a job for the fainthearted and there are a lot of fans that have opined he has not been the same since he was injured against Arizona last year and sat out for a few weeks. Many types of football injuries can end a player’s career, but a head injury can end a player’s quality of life long after their football career is over.

I was one of the fortunate players that never got “knocked out”, but I did get my bell rung on numerous occasions. My wife swears  I have short term memory loss.  Anyway…..what was I talking about?  Oh yeah, head injuries are a lot harder to properly diagnose and treat than other types of football injuries.

Brain injuries in football have come under scrutiny in recent years, and several studies have found high rates of cognitive decline among NFL retirees. Nonetheless, the league and its committee on concussions have consistently denied the existence of credible evidence supporting any link.

The NFL Players Association, during Gene Upshaw’s tenure, did nothing to address the problem.  In a 2007 interview Gene said “I think we’re just a reflection of society. I don’t want to take that next leap to say, you know, football caused dementia. I just don’t believe that.”

After statements like that, I was glad to see NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell and the new NFL Players Association Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith testifying in front of the House Judiciary committee about what they plan to do to prevent, reduce and treat concussions for NFL players, both active and retired. The concussion issue is also part of the continued dispute between retired players on one side and the League and the NFL Players Association on the other, over disability benefits to retirees.

The NFL and the NFLPA both agreed that something has to be done and they pointed to steps they have taken to deal with this issue. The NFL’s new guidelines on concussion management include a telephone hot line that will make it easier to report to the league when a player with a head injury is being forced to practice or play against medical advice. Last spring,  Goodell announced that all players would be given baseline tests during their training camp physicals that can be used to diagnose when they have concussions.  He also said “We want to make sure all NFL players, coaches and staff members are fully informed and take advantage of the most up-to-date information and resources as we continue to study the long-term impact of concussions.”

During the Congressional hearing they also talked about the “88 Plan“, a joint league-union program to reimburse retirees for medical expenses deriving from dementia. The benefit was named after Baltimore Colt’s tight end John Mackey who wore the number 88.  I should note that it wasn’t the league or the NFL Players Association that fought for this benefit. Instead, it was retired player advocates like former Baltimore Colts player Bruce Laird, working on behalf of John Mackey, that brought them kicking and screaming to the signing table. At age 65, Mackey’s dementia has forced him to live in a full-time assisted living facility. The NFL Retirement Board initially refused to pay him disability because they said there was no proven link between brain injury and playing football.  After years of pushing the League and the NFLPA, they finally established the 88 Plan which provides $88,000-a-year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care.

Equipment changes are also making their way into the NFL. There are some special helmets now being used that have a type of shell over the crown of the helmet.  Remember when Buffalo Bills free safety Mark Kelso wore that oversized helmet and got the nickname Gazoo?  If you were a fan of the Flintstones you understand why he got that name.  Mark was a smart player and prolonged his career by making that one simple equipment modification.

I have a feeling that very soon we will see the “Gazoo” type helmet as a mandatory piece of equipment in the NFL, especially when experts in epidemiology, neurology and dementia have found that football retirees between ages 60 and 89 probably have moderate to severe dementia at four or five times the national rate.

The NFL’s own study on concussions was brought up at the hearing and exposed for being flawed in several areas.  NFLPA Director, DeMaurice Smith admitted  the players union has been “slow to embrace all of the medical literature” regarding the effects of head trauma. He also said “The days of denigrating, suppressing, and ignoring the medical findings must come to an end”.

So how does this all relate to Trent Edwards and other active and retired players that have “experienced” (nice way to put it) a concussion? Well, they now have evidence that this is an injury that could affect them later on in life. The players from my era never had this kind of information. There was a different mentality 30, 40 and 50 years ago. We were told to count the number of fingers that were held up. If you got it right, you went back in the game. If we knew then what we know now, would we do things differently?

Knowledge can be a frightful thing.  If during a game, a player allows the thought to enter his mind that he could be doing permanent damage to his brain or body, he is doomed as an NFL player.  It will show in their play. For quarterbacks, it will manifest when they make quick and bad decisions. They will go to the check-down receiver more frequently. They won’t stand in the pocket quite as long as they used to. Does this all sound too familiar? More importantly, can anyone blame Edwards or any other QB for feeling and playing this way? These traits are especially noticeable in a QB when his offensive line looks a swinging saloon door and is letting 350 pound wrecking balls take free shots on his blindside. It’s hard for a QB to get that mental image out his head, especially when it’s occurring on a regular basis.

Some players are smart and get out before the concussions become deadly. Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach and Steve Young are good examples. Unfortunately there are more bad examples of guys from my era that didn’t know about the affects of concussions and their devastating consequences until it was too late.

Andre Waters was also known as “Dirty” Waters because he was known as a cheap shot artist who tried to injure other players. He did this by spearing or hitting with the helmet. Waters shot himself to death in November of 2006. Bennett Omalu a forensic pathologist at the University of Pittsburgh studied Water’s brain tissue. He said that Water’s brain tissue resembled that of an 85 year old man. There were also signs of early stage Alzheimer’s. He also said that trauma was a significant factor in the brain damage.

Fortunately, NFL rule changes have been instituted to make certain head hits illegal. Some players have been heavily fined for using their helmets as a weapon. I like the fact that the fine money goes into the Players Assistance Trust Fund to help retired players having financial and medical problems. That’s karmic justice, because the concussion issue was only brought to the public’s attention because retired players, not active ones, saw what was happening to our fellow alumni long after the cheering had stopped.

Mike Webster suffered brain damage from concussions and ended up homeless before dying of heart failure in 2002. Check out this article written about this and other disability issues the last time the NFL and NFLPA testified before Congress. Mike Ditka almost exploded at the hearing.  I could give dozens of examples. There are only around 35 retired players that are currently receiving money under the 88 Plan, but I have a feeling we are going to see a dramatic rise in that number in the years to come.

So why have the NFL and the NFLPA been foot-dragging on this issue for so long?  One word: Liability.  If the NFL or the NFLPA are found liable for this type of injury, it could open a floodgate of lawsuits. It could also potentially drain the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Fund of a hefty chunk o’ change for disability payments. The money in that fund also pays for retired player pensions.

As sad as it sounds, concussions in the NFL will always be a problem. The game is being played by bigger, stronger, faster players. The question is: Are they smarter players now that the research and evidence is in?  Will players quit a job that can potentially pay them millions of dollars in a short period of time, even if they know that they could be doing long term damage to their brains? I think most players will take the risk. This is where a team doctor may have to make the difficult decision and tell a player “you can’t play anymore, if you do, you could cause irreparable damage and even die”.

One of our hometown boxing heroes “Baby” Joe Mesi heard those same words not so long ago. Even so, he still did everything he could to get back into the ring. Professional athletes have to play like they are invincible. If they don’t, they will never succeed.

Some people have talked about getting rid of the helmet altogether, saying it would make players less likely to use their heads. They’ve also talked about having the offensive and defensive linemen use a two point stance instead of the three point stance (which lends itself to head-first collisions).

Those changes will never happen. One of the reasons we love football so much, is because it’s a violent sport. The same is true of boxing. In that sport the professionals don’t even wear headgear and the object of the game is to knock your opponent out!

It may surprise you, but there is one piece of equipment that is mandatory for boxers and not mandatory for NFL Players; the mouth guard.  Unbelievable as it may sound, it is not a required piece of equipment; even though research has shown that it can prevent concussions. Nonetheless, there are some teams in the NFL that are taking matters into their own hands. The New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots are two teams that have been using specialized mouth guards. Check out the links to the articles about this;  Patriots and Saints.

I think it is absolutely shameful that the NFL and in particular, the NFL Players Union, have not made one of these 2 mouth guards mandatory equipment. The NFL Players Union should be looking out for the safety of its members. The NFL spends millions of dollars every year on equipment, but can’t make this small $50 item a requirement. The liability issue alone should make them re-think their position on this one. The smart players will search out the best mouth guards available and pay the extra money for them…. and that’s a heady decision.

They’ll never take the head out of the NFL. I’m just glad the League and the NFLPA have stopped playing head games with the active and retired players over this issue. More needs to be done, particularly in regard to the mouth guard, but at least they are moving in the right direction.

(Jeff Nixon is a columnist for Buffalo Sports Daily. He is a former Buffalo Bill (1979-84) and today is the host of the “Jeff Nixon Sports Report, airing on Monday nights)

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4 Comments on Jeff Nixon: “Head Games”

  1. John Marshall

    Great article and good points made. No excuse for the NFL not to make any and all preventative equipment mandatory. And if the NFL continues to refuse to look out for retired players financially, then it only makes sense to take the steps now to prevent the long-term injuries/trauma caused by the injuries endured in the NFL. As always, a well written article, Jeff.

    John Marshall

  2. Jeff Nixon: Head Games « FourthandGoalUnites.com

    [...] to take that next leap to say, you know, football caused dementia. I just don’t believe that.” READ MORE Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment [...]

  3. Jeff Nixon: “Head Games” : Buffalo Sports Daily Blue Sport

    [...] post:  Jeff Nixon: “Head Games” : Buffalo Sports Daily By admin | category: sports games | tags: espnu, even-wear, fight, find-out, jimmie, mcl, [...]

  4. Rene Fretz

    Hey Jeff,
    Well written and informative article which brings up many thought-provoking issues the NFL/NFLPA folks need to address! Having initiated numerous high impact head bangers myself, I can only thank the Heavenly Father for healing my mind, as I put His Written Word into my daily thought processes. Having formerly suffered from short-term memory loss-on a long term basis, I can speak from experience when I ask myself “What I was looking for when I began my most recent frantic home search” for the pair of glasses on my face…

    Got to keep our sense of Humor for a light hearted perspective on life’s little challenges!

    Thanks,
    Rene’ Fretz

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