Head Injuries An Understood Risk in Football

No doubt you've been following the latest scandal at the NFL level in football involving dozens of lawsuits with as many as 1,500 ex-players who are claiming the NFL "failed to address the dangers of head trauma". It's hard for me to pick a side in this one considering I personally suffered a series of concussions during my junior year in college at WSU.

I had previously been "dinged", "seen stars", or had "rattled my cage" numerous times during my 12 years of playing the sport (Now you know why I'm so weird).

I would guess that I probably knocked myself silly no less than a dozen times alone during the spring and fall of 1966. They took me to Spokane and had a brain scan done and told me it might be best to quit the game. I said, hell no, just give me a different helmet. I ended up wearing a "padded helmet" with an additional high compression material glued to the front of it to further absorb the contact. I looked like a reporter and some teammate wrote PRESS on it right before practice one day.

We were all wearing Riddell suspension helmets in those days with single chinstraps, and the head strap in all them caused big holes in everyone's forehead - not to mention noses. The Riddell helmet had essentially been "the" helmet for almost a decade. Face masks were optional and my first year a number of freshmen had to practice a week before earning one.

I decided nobody was going to take the game away from me because I absolutely loved playing and especially loved hitting people. In those days we were taught to hit with our face first so we all not only got concussions but we also did major cervical damage to our necks. Try a pinched nerve in your neck sometime just for fun. I will tell you it's like putting a branding iron on your neck - your whole arm goes numb, you feel like you've broken your neck and it is high level Pain with a capital P. Unfortunately that was football to me, and when over 80 of my teammates quit during my four years in Pullman it was obvious you didn't have to do it, you chose to do it.

But come on, we had all signed injury risk waivers our whole lives from little league on and knew nobody was forcing us to play or to risk getting ourselves hurt. Playing on the edge of the fear of getting hurt is what football is all about. You can't even allow yourself to think it if you're going to be any good at football. The game forces you to be tough. It demands that part of that toughness is to play when you're hurt, to endure pain, and to know the difference between being 'hurt' and being 'injured'.

All of the ex-players who are suing the league knew that risk when they played at any level of the game. Sure there are some individuals in this group of 1500 who deserve and require assistance and there is no doubt lots of specific cases where the long range effects of head trauma could contribute to depression, confusion, and even suicide. It is, unfortunately, inherent with the risk part of playing the game. Those players all knew the risks every time they cashed their checks. If you play long enough you eventually see the stars. What would make them think they wouldn't get a concussion at least sometime in their career? Every sport is haunted by head trauma.

When you go skiing the lift ticket serves as a disclaimer to potential injury. Most deaths in skiing are from head injuries. When you play soccer there is the risk of head injuries and there are a number of concussions on headers all the time. When you play hockey there is the risk of getting your ass kicked and even hit in the head. Professional jockeys know they could get killed during a fall with a kick to the head. Professional racecar drivers know they have the same risk. Baseball batters face the high inside pitch all the time and occasionally take one right on the noggin or the chin. What about boxers for cripes sakes? I suppose none of them were told either that they could be doing brain damage to themselves. In every situation and in every sport the participants know the risks. You can't use the excuse that "nobody told me" or "they didn't tell me enough". You knew what you were doing.

Such injuries are obviously the ugly underbelly of the game, as is the potential for death or paralysis or in Curtis Williams' case, a prolonged paralysis leading to a sudden death. It is, however, an understood part of the game. To wait for years and then decide you are deserving of compensation because you weren't told something you already knew just sounds just a little like a money grab.

What is going to happen if the courts rule with those bringing the suits? Think about that. Wouldn't every single ex-player immediately become eligible for compensation because anyone who played the game got dinged at least a few times? Well, maybe some kickers didn't, but whatever the outcome is it could potentially reach all the way down to the kid levels of the game where the insurance would become too much to play. Could these lawsuits be the end of the game as we know it? Will they eventually rule out tackling all together and force everyone to wear two flags on their hips?

Do you think I have a lawsuit against WSU for making me so dingy? Do I have to leave my brain to science to study the long range effects of concussions? Am I about to become rich at the expense of the Cougars? Wouldn't that go over big with all the Cougars who already hate me?

It appears as greed. These are not individual cases but dozens of different cases, and it would seem to me that their only chance is to have some hard evidence against the league to prove a conspiracy to "cover up" the risks that were well understood by anyone who has ever played the game.

To tell you the truth, I'm actually loving all the footage on TV about the great hits even if the media is trying to show us how evil and dangerous playing football is. We know that, but that's what makes it such an attractive yet violent form of entertainment. It's America's version of Rome and the Gladiators.

That's also what makes football so cool being down on the field. You can hear the hits. You can see the hitting up close. It's exactly the same thing as defensive checks in hockey. You can literally hear the pads pop.

I sincerely hope that those individuals who need help with their cognitive skills and recovery are given it. When players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson take their lives, it's absolutely tragic. That can never be minimized. I just don't see how most of these former players can get around the fact that they "chose" to do something and with that choice they assumed the risk dangers that are an inherent part the sport of football. They knew what they were doing and knew the risks.

I also hate to see all this negative press about the game and it appears to me that these players will still have to face the same fate that many of us who played the game years ago…get ready to go to a chiropractor for the rest of your lives. Take ice and Advil on a regular basis and don't forget about all the knee and hip replacements that wait for you down the road. That's the price of playing the game and that is sad but it is a definite reality when you chose to do so.

The NFL should stand for "Not For Long" or "Not Fully Legal" or "No Freaking Lawyers" but this whole concussion crisis is just another way to taint the sport. Hopefully at the same time there's a silver lining.

I think technology will continue improve helmets. I think we are already teaching proper tackling and blocking techniques. I think there should be more spent on protecting the kids rather than making fashion statements like Nike does. I think these lawsuits are negative for the game. I know it's a great game but if you take out the contact it's just not the same.

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