Holler: NFL may have concussion smoking gun

The NFL and the attorneys for former players appear close to having an amended settlement to the lawsuits brought against the league. But, if claims made in a decade-old documentary by NFL Films is accurate, the truth to who was or wasn't at fault in the treatment of the players of yesteryear is likely already in the league's possession.

From the time VU did its first interview with Brent Boyd, the terms "I got my bell rung" and "It's just a bruise" took on a different meaning. Boyd, a former Viking who was at the heart of the early debate concerning the long-term impact of concussions, gave the debate a face and a story of the non-glamourous life after football.

The ongoing concussion lawsuit that appears to be close to being settled out of court is making progress to be finalized. The bottom line is that players needing help will get significantly more assistance than they have in the past because the spotlight is on and both sides are compelled to try to reach a mutually-agreed upon decision..

But, if the case remains unsettled, the NFL equivalent to the Zapruder film may well already be in possession of the NFL.

Many of the former players who are seeking reparations for the injuries they sustained during their playing days played the sport at a much different time. They weren't just Old School. They played in the school that was replaced by the school now referred to as Old School.

Over the weekend, thanks to the good people at Netflix, I watched a three-disc NFL Films series called "Inside the Vault." The series highlighted the NFL of the 1960s and early 1970s and, while used as a promotional tool, gave unprecedented access to what actually happened on the sidelines of games when injured players were being treated and, at times, sent back into action.

The footage contained on the DVDs was both fascinating and troubling. At the time the "vault" was opened in 2003, NFL Films was getting involved in the new medium of marketing and selling itself. The DVD market of the time created "The Vault."

What the NFL Films set portrayed was a testament to the bravado of the NFL and the players, coaches and sideline personnel involved. Ed Sabol founded NFL Films and, in the "Vault" collection, he was interviewed and quoted as saying that he instructed his camera crews not to unnecessarily throw away any film that wasn't spoiled in developing.

As players fade into the background, those frames are – for better or worse – the undisputed evidence of life in the NFL in the time before rules changes were made to prevent defenders from clotheslining defenseless receivers. Back in 2003, the NFL was bragging up its tough-guy image. The vault provided some clips that, at the time, were essentially promoting the UFC prototype of the tough-guy sports persona.

If, as Sabol claimed during the interview, nothing was thrown away from the miles of film shot by the camera crews, there is empirical data available that shows the interaction of players and coaches and medical personnel that made the work done by the boys at NFL Films more than just team highlight films. It's a documentary record of the era and what actually happened on and off the field. It's the smoking gun.

What those hidden frames of film show could well be subject to interpretation. The NFL, as late as the 1960s and early-1970s, was still a renegade sport that was extremely violent. There wasn't legislated mandates concerning the repercussions for cheap shots and big hits. It was part of the game and part of the culture of the NFL at the time.

If those involved in the concussion debate were to argue their points in court, the prime evidence both sides might use to make their case could well be found in the NFL Films archival footage, since the company was granted unprecedented access to what took place on the field and on the sidelines during that era.

From the sounds of things, the new proposed settlement to the concussion lawsuit will be reached soon and will get the needed available funds to those players in the most need. Whether it will be too little, too late for some former players who have struggled with life after football, the two sides could likely both point to the images captured on film from that era to illustrate their case and make their point to defend their own side of the argument.

The NFL has always been a violent game. For decades, that violence was glorified by both the league and the players. The fallout of that bravado is at the heart of the concussion debate. Was the NFL medically negligent with its players? Were players fully aware of the risks they were taking to play football at the highest level? Both sides can make the contention that their side is in the right. The best evidence both can point to may well be in a film fault in Mount Laurel, N.J. To some, it's a chronicle of the game's past. To others, it could be the best evidence to support or reject their claims.

Hopefully, it won't come to combing the archives to make or refute a case, but, one thing is clear. The footage contained in the NFL Films library is a document of NFL history that has been argued in legal documents for the last several years. If, as Sabol claimed, all footage is in cans in the film library, the evidence – for better or worse – is available and could be critical to determining who would potentially win or lose if the NFL and its former players went to court to settle the concussion dispute.

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