Concussions still threaten football's future

Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys landed one of the hits that may have given Eagles quarterback Michael Vick a serious concussion in November 2012. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

BRISTOL, Conn. - Just over three years ago, I wrote one of the pieces I'm most proud of in the seven years I've worked at 

It was an essay entitled "Can football exist without concussions?" I wrote it in the wake of the publication of an autopsy on the death at age 21 of a University of Pennsylvania football player named Owen Thomas. He had committed suicide the previous April, and it was discovered that Thomas suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. 

Known as CTE for short, the condition is caused by repeated head trauma of just the kind you get playing football. Even if you never are diagnosed as having suffered a concussion, you can be affected by CTE by taking many small blows to your brain and skull. 

(I should mention here that while it's a common phrase to hear that an athlete has suffered a "mild concussion," there really is no such thing. You either have one or you don't.)

Back in 2010, society was only just starting to really confirm a link between football, CTE and suicide. Since then, scientific research and the conclusions from it have only made that link stronger. 

Thomas' suicide was the second by a Penn football player that I've covered in my time writing about the Quakers for multiple publications. The first came in 2005, when Kyle Ambrogi killed himself in the middle of the season. At that point - just eight years ago - there was no way to confirm CTE, because the right research didn't exist yet. But the possibility only grew as time passed. 

If I had to rank the most difficult subjects I've ever written about, I'm pretty sure those two suicides would be right near the top. Ambrogi's might even be No. 1, as I can still vividly recall standing outside the church where his funeral took place. 

I don't want to have to cover a football player committing suicide ever again. I don't want any of you to have to deal with one, whether you know the person affected or not. 

But I can't put those memories away, and I don't think I should. It's difficult for me to watch football games at times, whether on TV or in person, but I still do it because we all do it. We have allegiances to teams and we like spending time with friends on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I cringe at heavy hits, but I marvel at running backs bursting through a hole or a well-flighted deep pass. 

I take some solace in knowing that the national conversation about concussions in football is changing. Whereas “getting your bell rung” was once a mark of macho pride, now we take such moments a lot more seriously. 

That mentality is shared by the television networks that broadcast football. We all know that ESPN used to air a segment called “Jacked Up” that featured the weekend's most violent hits. But after a nudge from the NFL - and perhaps the network's own conscience - the feature was scrapped. It wasn't good to glorify spearing and other head-first contact anymore. 

(In this context, Friday's New York Times report that the NFL pressured ESPN to pull out of a partnership with PBS on a documentary series about concussions in football is rather galling. Read more on that here, herehere and here, and there's surely more to come.)

I spent some time mulling that change in perspective this past Wednesday, when I attended ESPN's football media day at the network's sprawling headquarters. I was able to talk one-on-one with studio host Trey Wingo and analyst Tedy Bruschi about their views on how concussions might affect the future of football - and how it's covered.

Here are transcripts of those conversations.

Trey Wingo 

ESPN used to get criticized by some people for the “Jacked Up” segment, because it might have contributed somewhat to the culture of concussion-inducing hits. The network has toned that down, and I wonder if you think ESPN has a role to play in getting out a message about head injuries in football. 

I think that's part of the NFL's message, and if it's part of the NFL's message, it's what we're going to cover. We just had this issue come up with D.J. Swearinger, the rookie safety for the Houston Texans. He went in low on Dustin Keller, a tight end for the Miami Dolphins, and hit him in the knees, and [Keller] is out for the year with a torn ACL, a torn MCL and a torn PCL. 

D.J. said afterwards that if he went in high, he would have gotten a fine, so he went in low. He didn't have to go that low, but obviously it's part of his process. 

And we've said this for a couple of years: it's not going to be the guys in the NFL who change the culture, it's going to be the guys in junior high or Pop Warner or high school, and then college. That's where the sea change has to start. 

Because the guys who are here now - [Pittsburgh star] James Harrison has said, “I know how I made my money, and that's how I'm going to continue to play.” Obviously, it has to be modified a little bit, or else he's never going to see the field. But I think the actual change will come in the next 10 or 15 years, when guys aren't coached that way and understand it a different way. 

And I think we do have a responsibility to make sure they understand that if that's the way the game's going to be called, you need to understand how to play it.

[An aside here from me. I found the phrase "if it's part of the NFL's message, we're going to cover it" noteworthy as soon as Wingo said it, and it's even more noteworthy now.

Wingo didn't say ESPN would cover the issue because it matters and in and of itself. Even if he believes that, and even if ESPN believes that, I didn't get that message from Wingo, Bruschi or anyone else I spoke with at the event, and that was two days was before the Times story was published.

I pushed back on Wingo's personal view in my next question to him.]

You talked about the message that the NFL is trying to send. From your own personal perspective, I'd like to get your take on whether football can exist without concussions.

I don't know if it can. You can't legislate the violence out of the game. You can try and diminish it, you can try and change it, but the kid [Jon] Bostic – a linebacker for the Chicago Bears – he just got fined $21,000 for the hit he put on a Chargers receiver [Mike Willie] in a preseason game. I watched the tape and I didn't think there was anything wrong with it.  

You could certainly make the case that maybe he went a little high, but that was a clean hit. And the Chargers wide receiver didn't have a concussion. He was fine. 

You can't legislate the violence out of the game. You can try to mitigate it, but it's always going to be there. It's part of the game, it's always been part of the game, and if we're honest about it, it's one of the things we like about the game. 

Obviously, you don't want to see people have significant brain injuries, and I think they're doing a decent job to try and curtail that. But it's never going to be legislated out of the game, because we have to change the entire way we look at how the NFL is played.

A couple of years ago, former Eagles coach Andy Reid was criticized - though maybe not much as he could have been - for sending two players back into a game in which they had suffered concussions. 

There have been some changes made to get more medical professionals on the sidelines, but I wonder what the role of coaches is in all this. They have to be willing to take a guy out even if they really don't want to. 

I think that it even goes beyond that. I think it has to be mandated that the coaches can't make that decision. I think it has to be the medical staff and the league, and they're starting with that. 

We saw with [Cleveland Browns quarterback] Colt McCoy a few years ago, when James Harrison hit him and he went back into the game. That was a flaw in the system. He should never have been allowed back into that game. 

I think the coaches can't make the decision. Because much like players always want to play, as Robert Griffin III did on one leg in that playoff game [last season], coaches can't make that decision. It has to be that the NFL dictates that league officials and, maybe, outside appointed medical staff - not someone from the team - have to be the only people who can make that decision. 

It's diametrically opposed sometimes for a coach to make that decision if he wants to win. So sometimes, the best way to do that is to take it out of their hands. 

I could argue - and I'm not saying this is the case, but it's theoretical – that you might not want to have the NFL make that decision either, since they have an interest in having their stars be on the field as much as possible.

And that's the point. This goes back to the 1990s when they realized that the defensive ends were getting so much bigger. Whether we like it or not - players don't want to hear it - the NFL is built around stars, and the stars are quarterbacks. With a lot of guys you never see their faces, but you always see the quarterbacks. That's the way the league is built. 

It started with the idea to protect the marquee players in the league, and I think that now it has trickled down to protect everybody at this point. 

There is a lawsuit being heard in federal court in Philadelphia right now in which former players are suing the league for concealing the effects of football-induced concussions. There's also a movement going to get current players to give more financial support to former players to help pay for their health benefits. 

Both of these issues have been written about regularly, but do you think we still might not be doing enough to highlight them? 

Yeah, and I think it will be covered a lot more. It's going to be a significant piece of the future of the NFL, the outcome of the concussion suit. And it's interesting because a lot of guys probably weren't treated correctly and handled correctly by medical staff. 

Then there were a couple of guys who were in the lawsuit, then got a chance to play and jumped out of the lawsuit because they wanted to play some more. I think Mike Horan, a punter who played for the Broncos and the Rams, is part of that suit - and I can't remember him ever getting hit. 

So it's a double-edged sword. You want to make sure that those guys who were hurt are getting taken care of. But you sometimes wonder if people are just jumping in the pile. 

Tedy Bruschi 

Where do you think football is headed as a participation sport? There is some fear that there is an endgame in which people stop playing the sport because there are so many head injuries.

Well, I don't fear that. The only thing I have to look at is the type of effort the NFL has made in terms of trying to protect the players. Are they developing the proper equipment? I know they have made equipment that has the highest technology. Have they implemented rules on the field? They've tried to do that with, this year, banning the helmet as a weapon in the open field. 

I think they are trying to find ways in which they can have more safe of a game. They've tried their best. Injuries with football, they're just going to happen. You put plastic on your head and shoulder pads on and you run around and into each other, things are going to happen. I think it's just part of the game.

I've talked to a lot of college coaches, from Division I down to Division III, and I've heard sometimes that players at the highest levels of college football aren't well-trained in the art of tackling. They see the highlights on SportsCenter and they want to make the spectacular play instead of the solid play. Do you see that as well, and is it something that can be changed once those players get to the pro level?

I see that, and I think it's very difficult to change at the pro level. I think that's why the NFL has tried to start at the youth levels. Because pretty soon, those players at the youth levels are going to be in high school and college, and then a small percentage of them are going to be in the NFL. 

So start it when they're learning, and are in the developmental phase. Try to get the programs out there to teach heads-up football, which is what they try to do. And that's really not even implementing the rules of the game as they are now, but also looking towards the long-term health of the game and trying to teach kids who will eventually be there in five to 10 years.

There is a lawsuit making its way through the federal court system right now in which many former NFL players are suing the league for concealing medical information about the effects of football-induced concussions in the past. What's your take on the litigation and what might result from it?

That's a tough question. I don't know how it was done back in the day. I know we have a lot more information how. There is a lot more information, there's more equipment, commissioner Roger Goodell is trying to make safety his number one priority. I think that's all you can ask.

But in terms of how the litigation is going to go, I have no clue.

There is also a movement among many former NFL players to get the union more involved in supporting their health care, and having current players help pay for those benefits. How important is that to you?

I think it's very important. Anything that can be done for former players, who helped lay the foundation for this league, I think it's a positive thing. I know that with the CBA, there were some things worked out with the league where they can get assistance. I'm in favor of that.

How much do you talk to current players about that, and how much recognition do they give the matter?

It's strange. Once you're a player in the league, it's really the furthest thing from your mind, in terms of players that played 20 years ago. All they're worried about [in the present] is the game, and making the team, and keeping a job.

I think players start to realize it once they become removed from the game. That's where they really start to become cognitive of it, and when they really start to do things to help former players.