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Concussions, the NFL, and the Impact of a Warrior Mentality

This past week, 80 separate brain-related lawsuits against the NFL, involving approximately 2,100 former players, were consolidated into one legal action in Philadelphia. The heart of the players’ action is that the NFL willfully disregarded player safety by concealing the long-term impact of head injuries.

Of all of the questions arising from this lawsuit, and sure to arise in the future, no one is asking “why would the NFL do that?” The NFL is a billion dollar business. And for all of the T-shirts, endorsements, TV rights, and product tie-ins, none of it means anything unless the product on the field delivers. For American audiences, that means freakishly gifted athletes delivering massive hits while at the same time keeping the stars in the game. So no, no one is asking why the NFL would conceal the long-term effects of head injuries, because the monetary motive is apparent.

The players also have a number of significant points to make beyond just a general (though compelling) reference to profits. Take hockey, for example. Sidney Crosby, one of the sport’s biggest stars, was held out for the better part of a year following a concussion. Once back on the ice, he sustained a few hits and was taken out again. NFL players (see Colt McCoy) are sometimes allowed back on the field within a few plays.

The players would further point to the fact that the NFL only instituted a required regimen of post-head impact evaluation at the behest of Congress in 2009. Only recently did the NFL begin requiring every team to field an independent trainer tasked with the responsibility of assessing player safety.

Each of these arguments, and the dozens more likely to be raised by the players’ legal team, are compelling, logical, and capable of delivering a winning verdict. But the question of individual responsibility must also be asked. At what point, the NFL asks, do the players have to take responsibility for having assumed the risk of playing an inherently dangerous game?

Those who may compare this lawsuit to tobacco litigation to address this question miss the point. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Camel used to advertise that “more doctors smoke Camels” than any other brand. The entire focus of the campaign was to dispel any health concerns surrounding smoking. Add to that the fact that the damage caused by smoking is often hidden and/or obscured by medical terminology, and one can see how the tobacco companies could hide the truth from an unsophisticated and unsuspecting public.

By contrast, the NFL never claimed the game was without risk. How could it? In order to get to the professional level, the men who played the game worked, nurtured, and listened to their bodies. They were surrounded by trainers and medical staffs, all working with the player to ensure optimum performance. Players were also students of the game. They could see the violence first-hand as they celebrated, commiserated over, and participated in its creation. “Are we,” the NFL will ask, “now to be charged with protecting the players from themselves?”

And what of the warrior mentality? Even if the long-term impact of head injuries was not well known decades ago, it is now. Have any active players retired from the game citing this “new” knowledge as a basis for leaving the only vocation most of them have ever known — a vocation which, by the way, has brought many of them more money, more fame, and more opportunity than they ever could have realized “on the outside?”

The poster-child of the NFL’s neglect – a player who incidentally has not joined in the lawsuit and has publicly absolved his team of any responsibility – is Colt McCoy. After a series of impacts, including a James Harrison helmet-to-facemask hit, Colt McCoy came to the sidelines complaining about his hand. He was not examined for a concussion and went back into the game a few plays later. Only after the game was it discovered that he had, indeed, suffered a concussion and should have been held out.

Even if the Browns missed the issue, there is no doubt that Colt McCoy knew it – head injury and all. He knew how hard he had been hit and he knew he was not 100%. He also knew he had to get back into the game. Players want to play. Nothing the NFL did, does, or could do will change that.

And now the unknowable: even had the NFL known and disseminated information to all of its players about the long-term effects of head injuries going all the way back to the 1960’s, how many of them would have hung up their cleats?  I’m betting not one. I would submit that the players are alleging in retrospect that they would have opted to value their long term prospects over their current opportunity to earn the money, the fame, and the perks of playing football. They would have a Philadelphia court believe that they would have taken the advice and the warnings to heart, rather than listen to every young man’s mantra of “that won’t happen to me.”

Maybe they’ll win. Maybe the players will, at the end of the day, get to have it both ways by assuming a risk (even if not fully known from a medical perspective) and charging someone else with the responsibility of saving them from themselves. Maybe the players will secure a verdict based upon the truly heart-wrenching stories of disability, depression and death.

But that doesn’t mean they should.