To say the NFL’s institutional response to the risks of repeated head trauma has been poor would be a vast understatement. It’s a subject I wrote about for The Boston Globe back in 2007. (The reporter who has been driving this coverage for years is The New York Times‘s Alan Schwarz. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his investigative work and relentless pursuit of this story has done as much or more to influence the national discourse on the subject as anything. For my money, Schwarz’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) reporting has made him one of the country’s best medical reporters. But I digress.)
One factor in football’s foot-dragging on this has been a shocking approach to the problem by the players union. Here’s what I wrote in my Globe piece (frustratingly now behind the paper’s paywall):
Earlier this year, NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw said it was a player’s responsibility to decide when he could and couldn’t play. “If a coach or anyone else is saying, ‘You don’t have a concussion, you get back in there,’ you don’t have to go, and you shouldn’t go,” Upshaw said. “You know how you feel. That’s what we tried to do throughout the years, is take the coach out of the decision making.” That statement is so patently ridiculous it would be risible if the consequences weren’t so dire. In the moments after someone sustains an injury, he is the person least able to properly diagnose himself: The adrenaline coursing through his body serves as a natural painkiller. Concussions – which, by their very definition, leave a player disoriented – add a whole other wrinkle. And football players, who don’t have guaranteed contracts and live in fear of losing their jobs to the next guy on the depth chart, are infamous for not acknowledging injuries. Even without all of those factors, 20-something athletes who have never known life outside of sports are not famous for making decisions that realistically consider their futures.
Another has been a culture that equates playing through injuries with dedication to the game. That’s why I was stunned — in a good way — when I saw this article about the Green Bay Packers:
Veteran wide receiver Donald Driver saw it in Aaron Rodgers’ eyes: The quarterback wasn’t quite right after taking hard hits on back-to-back plays, but he still wanted to go back in the game.
What happened next can be seen as another sign that NFL players’ attitudes toward concussions is changing: Standing on the sideline during a close game at Detroit that was critical to the Green Bay Packers’ playoff hopes, Driver helped talk his teammate into sitting out the rest of the game.
“I was very concerned about him,” Driver said. “I kind of whispered in his ear, walked behind him during the time he was sitting on the bench and kind of told him, ‘This is just a game. Your life is more important than this game.’ I told him I love him to death, and you’ve got to make the choice, but this game is not that important.”
Driver said Rodgers stood up and stared at him.
“I think I said, ‘Aaron, you need to make a choice,'” Driver said. “And that’s when he realized he just couldn’t go any more.”
Driver was not being hyperbolic when he told the QB he was facing a decision that could affect the rest of his life: Multiple TBIs can lead to something called second impact syndrome, in which the potential short- and long-term repercussions of a concussion are greatly increased. We’re not talking about prolonged headaches, either: We’re talking forty-year-olds with degenerative brain disease more typical of advanced Alzheimer’s. (Look up the stories of Andre Waters, Chris Nowinski, Ted Johnson, Mike Webster, or Terry Long for some horrifying examples.)
Hopefully Driver’s actions are truly a sign of players’ evolving attitudes and not an aberration — and hopefully his speaking out will help educate football fans about the seriousness of concussions as well.