“After seeing the NFL’s decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players’ involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf.”
DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association Executive Director
May 2, 2012

 

Yesterday the NFLPA, under no uncertain terms, has decided to advocate for the players suspended earlier in the week for their roles in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. While Roger Goodell proved that the NFL is going to take a very firm stand on pay to maim and, all other motives aside, come out quite strong in its stance on player safety.

But I’m not certain if the NFLPA is fulfilling its de rigeuer obligation of filing an appeal as much as it is thumbing its nose at the NFL. After all, the two parties aren’t known for kissing and making up. Ever.

Yet doesn’t the Player’s Association represent the other 1692 players in the league, not just Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and newly minted Packer Anthony Hargrove? Where is the NFLPA’s anger that some mercenaries for hire actively tried to injure, maim or otherwise disable the likes of Brett Favre, Kurt Warner or Aaron Rodgers? Aren’t those quarterbacks union members, too?

Seriously, where is De Smith’s bookend statment that should say something along the lines of:


“After reviewing the evidence in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal where individuals were encouraged with monetary rewards to severely injure members of the NFLPA, the NFL Players Association fully supports the decisions of the NFL in its decision to send an unmistakable message that the safety of the players remains first and foremost as we move beyond this issue.”

 

While we’re at it, I’d like a pony too. Of course we’ll never see a statement of that nature. I’m not naive. I’m well aware that player safety is just a minor sideshow to the politics of this whole mess. There’s the CBA agreement, the fine print bullcrap of whether Goodell or an arbitrator should be meting out sanctions. And if then there’s the simple fact that if Goodell declares that the sky is blue, rest assured there will be a statement from Smith within 24 hours declarinig the sky green.

Hopefully at the end of the day, it will be about moving forward with a unified front and advocate for player safety. Period.

Dave Duerson's suicide note

You would think both sides would be paying more attention to it. I would hate to think all of the saber rattling about safety and concussion awareness is not all for naught. After all, while Smith was getting his righteous indignation on, the NFL lost another one of its alumni to suicide this week.

At this time, no one really knows if Junior Seau’s death was related to a history of repeated head injuries. He had his own personal demons, and no one can say for certain that any behavioral changes were the direct result of previous concussions. But no one can ignore the fact that his death had an eerie familiarity to it. It’s been a little over a year since Dave Duerson also took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. After all, it’s hard to examine an intact brain if it has been shredded by a bullet. Unlike Duerson , Seau left no suicide note specifically imploring researchers to study his brain. Fortunely, Seau’s family has consented to donate the linebacker’s brain and add it to the growing body of research regarding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Tau protein stains brown. Right is a normal brain of a normal 65 yr old male, Middle is the brain of former NFL player John Grimsley, right is brain fo 73 yr old former boxer with severe dementia. Photo: Boston University

Previously know, by a different name– Dementia Pugilistica (boxer’s dementia for those not fluent in Latin)– Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was once believed to be a condition that only affected boxers, has gained a signficant amount of attention in the past few years. The driving force for CTE research remains Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. It’s an ugly disease that is similar to Alzheimer’s Disease. Without boring everyone to death with the nuts and bolts of neuropathology, the research group sums up the condition pretty well:

CTE, originally referred to as “dementia pugilistica” because it was believed to only affect boxers, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain. It is characterized by the build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) and neuropil threads (NTs) throughout the brain. The abnormal protein initially impairs the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kills brain cells. Early on, CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. However, CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia. Although similar to Alzheimer’s disease, CTE is an entirely distinct disease.

 

Whereas Alzheimer’s tends to strike the elderly like my grandfather, CTE affects much younger targets, often with the same devastating neurological decline. And it isn’t just retired NFL players and former boxers. Boston University has evidence of CTE starting as early as the teenage years. In addition to NFL players’ brains, the center also has the brain of a deceased 18 year old football player who had sustained multiple concussions. While the damage was not as extensive as that of older individuals, the evidence was there in a single spot in the brain . Damage starts early.

For me it’s no surprise the NFL is starting take steps in the right direction to prevent head injuries. (And for those of you obnoxious individuals that whine that it will turn the the NFL into some Powder Puff Flag Football league: Get over your bloated sense of self-entitlement.) As an employer, it’s absolutely imperative. At the end of the day, the NFL could very well be liable for long-term injuries and disabilities as a result of repetitive head trauma. To date, more than 100 former players –including former Packers quarterback Don Majkowski–have sued the league for failing to properly protect them from head injuries. It’s no surprise that these suits are already pointing to the bounty scandal as an example of how the league “explicitly relied on violence” and failed to educate players of the risks of head injury and long-term impairment.

So it is no surprise to me that the NFL is now coming down like a ton of bricks regarding the Saints’ bounty program. It’s already going to court for past players, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it’s trying to reduce liability moving forward.

That said, it’s a shame the NFLPA can’t get past its territorial pissing match with the NFL and walk the talk regarding player safety and minimizing risk from intentional injuries. Quite frankly, I think the four punished this week got off rather easy and it’s rather sad that the NFLPA wants to split hairs regarding the CBA and pursue the butthurt of four players and not advocate for the 1692 other out there as well as the countless thousands that came before them and those that will ultimately replace them in future generations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying football should be played by men covered head-to-toe in bubble wrap. It is and always will be a dangerous sport. I just find it ironic that the union that is supposed to be there for the well-being of its players is coming down on the wrong side of this issue.

Taking a page from the NFLPA’s values, I want to finish from a quote from its own website:

“We, The National Football League Players Association … Pay homage to our predecessors for their courage, sacrifice, and vision; … Pledge to preserve and enhance the democratic involvement of our members; … Confirm our willingness to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of our membership – To preserve our gains and achieve those goals not yet attained.”

Perhaps that betterment should extend beyond the financial gains. The Players Association is just as accountable fas the NFL or the physical well-being of its members both now and as they head toward retirement. In fifteen years or so, I for one, do not want to hear that Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers or any player for that matter has taken his own life because of injuries sustained or that one side dug its heels in the sand to prove the other side wrong and impeded real progress in player safety. The league has already lost enough alumni to suicide.

The league and the NFLPA have the opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in this matter. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong in this matter. Safety needs to come first. Period. End of discussion.

* Gratuitous reference that, perhaps, only @hammen would ever get.
** Yes, you’re not hallucinating. I did manage to sneak a Duran Duran reference into a post about football.
*** For the record, I still love the song Hungry Like the Wolf. It still rocks. Anyone convinced otherwise is itching for a fight.
**** The views of this column are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of my unnamed employer.
**** I may be a doctor but have never played one on TV.

 

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  • Colleen

    a) I got the title reference. You and Robert aren’t the only Duran Duran geeks.

    b) I have to agree with @chriswarcraft. While it is absolutely unacceptable the NFLPA is defending these guys, the fact of the matter is they are union members and that is one of the things that the NFLPA is tasked with doing. How they balance that is the difficult and delicate part.

    c) They really have to do something about this. Dave Duerson was not old. Junior Seau was two years younger than me. It is absolutely inconceivable the NFL and NFLPA will not work together to stop the damage that repeated head injuries cause. I listened to Dorsey Levens this week on Green and Gold Today and he terrified me with the sadness and angst he has thinking of his future.

  • Anita

    Okay, so let me get this straight. Anthony Hargrove got the second most severe punishment from Roger Goodell in regards to the Saints Bounty Program. Eight games. That must mean that there is evidence that he was more complicit in this program than everyone, except for Jonathan Vilma, who received a full year suspension. Anthony Hargrove is a new member of the Green Bay Packers. The Green Bay Packers are led by the reigning NFL MVP, one Aaron Rodgers, who was one of the most prominent names mentioned as having a large amount of money on his head. Hargrove and Rodgers are now teammates.

    Nahhh. That won’t be awkward at all.

    • Mark

      Hargrove wasn’t part of the saints last season (was a Seahawk)and from what I understand he was told to lie to the investigators in 2010 and that is what the 8 games is for.

  • http://www.pocketdoppler.com BigSnakeMan

    With all of the focus on the bounty situation plus the lawsuits regarding concussions and the NFL’s response to them, it’s understandable that the death of Junior Seau would be linked to that possibility. But, considering reports that 8 members of the 1995 San Diego Chargers have already died, why am I not hearing any speculation at all about the potential involvement of steroid use in this scenario? I’m certainly no doctor (nor have I played one on TV), but it seems likely to me that football players have been suffering head trauma far longer than the more recent development of performance-enhancing drugs, the residual effects of which might just be showing up now.