Brain Damage, Playing Hurt, Bounties and Rule Changes


I can recall a teammate in high school, a big tackle who, like most of us, started both ways, telling me the day after the game that he couldn’t remember the second half.

I remember in junior college our center taking himself out of the game because, between the huddle and the line-of-scrimmage, he was forgetting the snap count.

More recently one of my sons, an outside linebacker who was preternaturally strong with speed, was carried off the high school field after a violent tackle.  I went down to the sidelines to see what was wrong.  He said he couldn’t feel anything on the left side of his body, and his head hurt like hell.  We went immediately to the Overlake ER.  In the hospital during the night he began to regain feeling.  But (the short story) he never played football again.

As a kid, I watched the third Emile Griffith-Benny “Kid” Paret fight at MadisonSquareGardenon TV.  In the 12th round Griffith knocked out Paret but as Paret started to fall, his left arm hung over the top rope keeping his body defenselessly suspended, and Griffith kept unloading lefts and rights until referee Ruby Goldstein (who had recently had a heart attack and was “weak and ineffectual”) finally stepped in and pulled Griffith off.  In a coma, Paret was taken to the hospital and died 10 days later.

Muhammad Ali, once annoyingly loquacious, has Parkinson’s Syndrome, a result of severe head trauma.  He can’t say anything now.  Parkinson’s has other serious effects.  My father-in-law died from it in December.

Jerry Quarry was a popular heavyweight in the 1970s who fought Buster Mathis, George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, and both Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali twice.  When Quarry was 37, he began showing early signs of dementia, and by his early 50s, he could no longer dress or feed himself.  His body died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On February 17, 2011 when former Chicago Bears defensive back and 1987 NFL Man of the Year Dave Duerson, 50, committed suicide, he shot himself in the chest, rather than the head, so that medical researchers could study his brain.

Duerson had once been a respected, well-liked, natural leader; a successful businessman, intelligent and competitive.  But prior to his suicide, Duerson suffered from chronic headaches, blurred vision, poor impulse control, depression, behavioral modification (leading to divorce) and a deteriorating memory.  Duerson was a four-time pro-bowler, and Super Bowl veteran, used to controlling his destiny.  Now he couldn’t fight back.  His suicide note finished with: “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”

BostonUniversitymedical researchers concluded that Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy resulting from severe head injuries, and nothing else.  Perhaps Duerson, realizing how rapidly his mind was deteriorating, and believing he would be unable to make such a decision later, took his life rather than go the way of Jerry Quarry, willing his brain to science with the hope that others with a similar condition might be helped.  Duerson’s act got people’s attention…and thought.

Within the violence that is and always will be football, there are two travesties: 1) playing hurt, and 2) encouragement to knock opposing players out of the game.

The old saw about playing with pain is just stupid for three reasons.  First, a player in pain cannot play to his full potential.  Secondly, as Bob Schloredt, Sonny Sixkiller and Billy Joe Hobert have shown in the past, the back-up might prove to be pretty good if given the opportunity.  And thirdly, playing with pain enhances the probability of aggravating the injury, with greater physical downtime recuperating…or the possibility of never recuperating.  How much good does someone do the team when they’re forced to spend most of their time with the trainers or, worse, are relegated to watching from the sidelines…or the stands?

As suggested above, most serious are the concussions or, more to the point, aftermaths of concussions.  According to medical experts, a single level I (there are five levels with I being the least serious) concussion should ultimately prove harmless but multiple concussions at any level, particularly over a short time period, can result in permanent brain damage.  Concussions make no distinction with respect to playing position.  While all-pro safety Duerson’s head injuries led him to suicide, former San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Steve Young, who had a rash of concussions, seems to be doing just fine – but for quite a while so was Duerson.  I hope Young continues to do well but I can remember thinking when he had his sixth or seventh concussion, and still continued to play, that he was not only playing with teammates, he was also playing with fire.  While I hope Young’s time never comes, if it does, Young has not only himself to blame but also the waning macho mentality that kept him and so many others on the field when they should have sat.

If a player is hurt, they need to exercise the patience to become 100% rehabilitated.  More players and coaches understand that.  Life beyond football lasts much longer than participation in the game, and a player should make every precaution to be as fit for that life as they are for the gridiron.  Former Husky All-American Steve Emtman, who went through some traumatic injuries in the pros, summed his feelings (tongue in cheek) towards injured Huskies as follows: “If they’re out there on the field and are hurt, then I will hurt them more.”  There is no good reason to play hurt, and many good reasons to sit.

The recent revelation that bounties, i.e., bonuses paid to pro players for knocking opposing players out of the game, had become somewhat institutionalized at the New Orleans Saints franchise is, at best, disgusting.  Again, football is a violent sport, and will remain so, but the violence must be kept within the rules.  According to Sports Illustrated, the Saints shelled out roughly $50,000 in bounties (generally no less than $1,000 for a knockout, $1,500 for a cart-off) on somewhere between 22 and 27 opposing players over three seasons.  The system was administered by Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams (who had a similar system in place when he was the DC for the Redskins) and tacitly approved by Head Coach Sean Payton.  This system infected the Saints’ team mindset.  For example, before the 2010 NFC Championship game, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma upped the ante to $10,000 for anyone who could take out Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.

The $10,000 would be nice but most NFL players don’t get too terribly excited by $10,000 much less $1,000 or $1,500.  The “attack” mentality, however, is taught from the first day of little league practice, and when pressed at the pro level, players respond accordingly: an increase in unwarranted aggression – more roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness – with the chance those actions might literally pay off.

When told of what had gone on, Favre initially shrugged it off.  “It’s football,” he said.

Later, however, Favre recalled, “Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don’t want to say were odd, but I’d throw the ball and whack! on every play. Hand it off, whack!  Over and over.  Some [late hits] were so blatant.  I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin.  They flagged that one at least.”

More so than usual, Favre was being targeted.

“I’ve always been friends with [former Saints safety] Darren Sharper,” said Favre, “and he came in a couple times and popped me hard.  I remember saying, ‘What the hell you doing, Sharp?’”  Giving the subject more thought, Favre added, “I felt there should have been more calls against the Saints.  I thought some of their guys should have been fined more.”

They probably will be now, and much more than $10,000.

Again, football is a violent sport.  That’s the appeal of football.  It will not change.  The important thing is to keep the violence within the rules of fair play and sportsmanship.  As implied by the Favre comments above, the Saints were playing Favre differently than the Vikings were playing Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

If the Saints took Favre out of the game with an illegal late hit, it would have enhanced the Saints’ chances of winning but would it have served the game of football, would that act have indicated the Saints (who won the game) were better than the Vikings?

No.  Actually, the opposite.

There was also the chance of serious, even career-ending injury, or worse, if the hits came often enough and Favre stayed in the game, brain damage.  While fans haven’t heard much about traumatic encephalopathy until now; the subject will be getting more attention in the near future.  Obviously, the NFL needs to put the kibosh on the behavior discussed above but, if the NFL has not been taking the subject seriously to this point, additional incentive will soon be impossible to overlook.  The Duerson family is suing the NFL and, realistically, regardless of questions of justice or injustice, the NFL’s concern won’t be whether the Duersons will or will not win, the concern will be the size of the settlement…and, more ominously, how many lawsuits might follow.

And then how will NFL rules change?  The rules may not change much.  But the penalties for violating existing rules will invariably become more severe.

In the future, fines for cheap shots will probably be prohibitive enough to where bounties make no sense because they’ll never be large enough to cover the fine and opportunity cost, viz., suspension.  At the college level, the equivalent may be a large fine on the school, with a player suspended.  We’ll see how it plays out.

Meanwhile, in summary, players should continue to hit and hit hard, but stay within the rules, and if injured, especially a head injury, get off the field and stay off until cleared to play by a knowledgeable, dispassionate physician.  Coaches should discourage anything like the bounty system.  Football should be a violent game heavily seasoned with sportsmanship (“What the hell you doing, Sharp?”) and played within the rules.  Within the rules, a player can still clock an opposing player with impunity.  It’s what pads are for.