Sports Opinion & Analysis

Does My Hurt Head?

In NFL on November 16, 2012 at 12:01 am

By Chris Carosi

The NFL has tried so hard to combat head injuries and in doing so (creating or revising personal fouls for players aiming at the head) has brought the subject into light. Harsh light. From all sides. It’s part of the commissioner’s role in the consistently self-worshiping NFL to be an advocate of the game whether it be the play on the field or its responsibility culturally (and also—shrewdly—politically). It seems to me, now that this mother-of-all injuries is under the microscope, that it’s more and more common, as if suddenly it’s happening in every game, all the time. This has bled into concussion therapy across other head-knockin’ sports like hockey and inevitably into regular, non-head-knockin’ stuff.

I’ve been watching (ahem, obsessing) over the NFL since I could form thoughts, albeit shortly after I suffered my own severe concussion when I was five (long story… let’s just say slippery area rugs and footy pajamas don’t mix). But have I only begun to notice this weird epidemic that has always always been a part of the game, just like everybody else?

Roger Goodell met with some folks to talk head trauma at Harvard on Thursday.

This sport is so insanely harsh on the body. And I don’t mean in a, “Dude, rugby is sooo much worse” kind of way. These players wear armor all over their bodies and especially on their head. So, it’s not that the playersare more protected as they have the ability to use their entire body as a missile. You feel invulnerable in pads, especially when you’re all jazzed up for a big game and the crowd is losing their shit because you are awesome.

This is the first season I can remember feeling so sad about players being ruled out with the official ruling of “concussion” (most recently, Jay Culter and Alex Smith among many others). This is probably because I know personally how horrible they can be, but also because I am so much more aware of how they screw up your brain. However, it seems prior to these last few seasons, if you were concussed but you could still run straight and/or tackle a dude, you were good to go. And that’s probably because you did not know you had a concussion.

After suffering a concussion against Houston on Sunday, Jay Cutler is still ruled out as of Thursday evening.

Last year, there were 266 concussions reported. 266. That’s around 16% of all NFL players. So many of these concussions actually take effect (or the players know there’s a problem) until way later. Think about that. These guys are so used to bashing their heads that it doesn’t dawn on them until way later. Put another way, the very nature of this injury means that you can’t know you’re concussed until later. So, in essence that 16% is way too small a percentage. Maybe.

I remember hearing from friends of mine back home who’ve played ball (mostly offensive linemen) that on some especially intense drives you’d be seeing stars by the time you got near the goal line. At a professional level, presumably these “stars” would exponentially increase. I never played the game, so I’m not sure if when you’re especially skilled you can get to a level where you limit the amount of times you bash your face into another dude’s face. I have been wrong before.

I also remember the tragic story of Justin Strzelczyk (Pronounced STREL-zick), an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 90’s. He was a fabulous player, could play all four positions on the line except center, and was a major part of the Steelers very decent running game (and keeping Neil O’Donnell’s pants clean) during the early Bill Cowher era. Strzelczyk suffered an innumerable amount of concussions, like all offensive linemen, and after his father’s tragic death in 1998, he lost it. He developed frightening paranoid schizophrenic symptoms after he stopped playing and tragically died in a car collision with oncoming traffic while being pursued by police officers. He claimed to friends and family that he was being chased by the Devil.

The late Justin Strzelczyk.

Junior Seau is the other example, and possibly more relevant for this article, given the creepily precise nature he ended his own life this year. Last year there was David Duerson, another victim of his own intense depression following decades of concussions, who passed away in the very same fashion. Also add to that the amount of flak the league has taken by retired players who are developing extreme disability way too early in their lives with the league unable to help them.

What’s sobering about this is that the game lives and breathes and supports a whole hell of a lot more than these player’s individual families and the owners. It’s an entire complicated community resting basically on people bashing their heads and getting their lives ruined. When we watch these men bash their heads, and when we hear the (sometimes) literal cracking of skulls live every Sunday, we could be seeing concussion after concussion, every play, all the time. Yes, those heads are worth millions of dollars, and yes it is wildly entertaining. And the price of men’s health (and sometimes lives) is a hell of a cost to bear.

I hope that the NFL’s “efforts” to educate themselves (which in the NFL world means all of us) can really truly find that down-home memories-of-playing-football-with-your-brothers-in-the-autumn-leaves kind of way of handling this because if they motivate their wallets to do something, they get it done. And they can reach people. Regular people. Perhaps the future of concussion therapy begins and ends with the NFL. Does this mean they might limit the game down the line? Who knows? It certainly says that this era of football could be the pinnacle of the physical game as we know it, and that’s okay with me.

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