Right now, the NFL has two elephants in its living room; good for the league that the room is so big. Two related problems that could plague the country's most popular sport in years come: The increasing perception that those in charge of pro football are relatively unconcerned about concussions despite their constant conversation about the subject; and the increasing issues men face when their careers in pro football are over.
Two events brought these concerns into sharper focus in the last year. The concussion issue became a real embarrassment for the league when Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was let back in the game in a December loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite the fact that he was absolutely leveled by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, and was wobbly at best once he was able to stand up. The NFL had to deal with the fact that the diagnostic process was "total system failure," and a few nebulous fixes were proposed.
The problems encountered by ex-players, which has been in the news on an on-and-off basis for a number of years, was pushed to the fore when future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in early May. Whether Seau's death was related to concussion-related trauma, or other difficulties in his life, the idea that such a good man could be so completely undone by the post-football life had a lot of people asking why more isn't being done on an outreach basis for those like Seau -- the ones who are afraid to ask for help for whatever reason.
So, it's been another eventful offseason for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Recently, Goodell talked with SI.com's Peter King, and tried to spin these two subjects in a more positive direction.
"Our focus has been on the total health of our players. We have programs from the time they enter the league, programs while you're in the league, and ... now [director of player engagement] Troy Vincent has been creating programs helping them transition out of the game. It's much more difficult for these individuals than we might think. Talking to the players and talking to professionals, that transition needs some focus in how we provide them the resources. It's not just their physical health; it's expanding of the mental health resources. How do we help identify somebody that may need help, get that help to them and what are the resources that he has? ... There's still that stigma that mental health is a weakness. It's not. Depression, anxiety -- these are very common and can be dealt with in a variety of different fashions. Some with medicine, some with counseling, some with other forms of assistance. When they're not dealt with, they have a tendency to spiral and to become much more complicated.''
Of course, the question still remains -- why has the league taken so long to recognize this when it's been such an issue for so long? When he talked about Seau, Goodell revealed a bit of awareness, which was a slightly encouraging sign.
"The most disturbing thing is the tragedy itself," Goodell told King. "That a young man that was so successful and had so much good to learn and had so much promise made the decision to end his life. All we want to do is make sure that we're doing everything we can to prevent another tragedy, to have the resources available to our players. In talking with the professionals, to the [Veterans Administration], to the National Institute of Health -- professionals in this area that we've spent a great deal of time talking to -- say that there's two sides to a very complex issue that involves multiple factors. Speaking with all the professionals, that support system and that structure and the loss of those two factors is very powerful. I hear it from the professionals and I hear it from the players."
As someone who has seen and heard more than enough "blah blah blah" from the Commish over the last few years, the detail with which he discusses these transitional issues makes it seem like more than lip service, but more must be done.
Regarding the concussion theme, Goodell sounded far less convincing when discussing the league's diagnostic process. This is the same guy who once wanted officials to diagnose concussions on the field, and now, he's in charge of a process by which the "real" refs could be locked out. He sounded especially ineffective (and ineffectual) when describing the McCoy incident.
"The player has to self-report and has to tell professionals," Goodell said, when King asked him how the process will work during the 2012 season. "We have spotters, as you know, our ATC [athletic trainers] spotters program, which we implemented late in the season to sort of identify hits that would require an evaluation. That will be expanded and fully in place this season. There's an ATC, which is an athletic trainer who's not active right now, but they'll be upstairs. They will have access to all the video and if they see a hit that involves a significant blow to the head or if a player demonstrates any kind of dizziness or potential slowness to get up, they call down to the sideline and make sure the medical professional has that number and they can go make an evaluation ... Now we have the technology to send the play down to the field, so that if a medical personnel wants to look at that, they can look at the play and that has been very helpful in the playoffs."
Well, it's not as good as having independent neurologists on the field for every game, which should be a requirement, but one takes what one can get. Here's the problem -- Goodell admits that the McCoy clusterfrank was done under the review of an ATC. And self-reporting? Really? The NFL still wants to trust concussed players to figure out that they're concussed?
"He was examined, but they were focusing on his hand, because that's what he was complaining about," Goodell told King. "There are two or three injuries on that one play that happened in different places ... I'm quite certain we had the ATC spotter when [it] happened. What was happening though was the doctors were in looking at him [at his hand, not his head], so the ATC spotter said, 'Well, he's being evaluated, so that's fine.' What was the fallacy in it is that they were evaluating the wrong thing. What we're going to do now is to say regardless of whether you see them being evaluated, you are to speak to them and you are to tell them that there is head-to-head contact and here's the play and look at it. You would have seen the Colt McCoy hit and would have said, 'Forget his thumb now. Let's focus on if he had any type of injury to his head.'"
And that's an absolute embarrassment. Anyone with even a cursory interest in, or knowledge of, football would have understood that McCoy was probably concussed. In fact, anyone who wouldn't know a football from a coconut would be able to suss it out. A really big, fast, angry guy hits a smaller, relatively undefended guy in a vulnerable position, and he does it in the head/neck area. At that point, checking for a concussion should be automatic, and if the guys on the field or in the box can't see it, the NFL either needs to get new guys, or more guys.
Let's hope that the relatively enlightened tone Goodell held regarding life after football turns into real help and change. As for the concussion issue ... well, I didn't read much in King's interview that revealed anything but standard spin. The NFL could be doing far more to prevent concussion-related symptoms, but for whatever reason, it's just not happening.