Sielski: NFL's concussion stance still shaky
Malcolm Jenkins and Zach Ertz suffered concussions last season - the first, they said, of their NFL careers. In the Eagles' 10th game, Ertz, a tight end, caught a pass and tried to hurdle a defender for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He landed on his left shou
Malcolm Jenkins and Zach Ertz suffered concussions last season - the first, they said, of their NFL careers. In the Eagles' 10th game, Ertz, a tight end, caught a pass and tried to hurdle a defender for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He landed on his left shoulder, and his head snapped back as if he were the mannequin behind the wheel in an old driver's-ed video. He sat out the Eagles' next game, four days later on Thanksgiving in Detroit. In the Eagles' eighth game, Jenkins, one of the Eagles' starting safeties, lowered his head into the chest of Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden as he tried to tackle him. He rose to his feet and felt his mind fog over but didn't tell anyone. He didn't miss a play.
Both of them paid particular attention to news that broke Monday: a report from congressional investigators, the details of which were first revealed by ESPN, that the NFL had tried to influence a government research study of football and brain trauma. After agreeing to provide "funding for objective scientific research to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)," the 91-page report said, "the National Football League (NFL) acted improperly in attempting to influence the outcome of NIH's internal process for selecting grantees." In essence, the league tried to renege on a deal with the government, to have its handpicked experts conduct the study, and, when those overtures failed, to pull its funding for the project.
Yes, commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's owners just keep covering themselves in glory on the issue of head injuries. And after the Eagles' minicamp practice Tuesday, neither Jenkins nor Ertz did much more than roll his eyes when asked what his reaction was to the investigation's findings.
"I feel like that's been the story for the last few years now," Jenkins said. "I don't think the players have much faith in the league actually doing what's right when it comes to player safety anyway. So it's not necessarily surprising."
When Ertz learned of the report, he called his agent, Steve Caric, to ask about it.
"It's unsettling," Ertz said. "I mean, they preach safety. They preach safety. Yet we're talking about an 18-game schedule. It's a money-generating league. You see the money it can bring. But at the same time, player safety should be at the forefront of everything. You don't want parents to be scared to let their children play football. I'm not going to be scared to let my children play football. But at the same time, you want to believe that the powers that be are doing everything they can to further the research."
More, you want to believe that the NFL - which in recent years has implemented a concussion protocol and head-injury spotters and rules changes, all in the name of making football safer and discouraging players from hiding a possible head injury - will finally stop trying to manipulate science and research. Goodell and the league's leaders are so committed to protecting the NFL's image, to fending off those who wouldn't mind seeing football vanish from the landscape of American sports, that they're burning through whatever credibility they might still have.
For all the rightful fear and concern over CTE and dementia and the long-term effects of too many blows to the head, there's been no sign of a recession in the NFL's popularity, and the players themselves want more reliable information about what they're risking by suiting up each Sunday. They have free will, and the more they know about concussions, the better their decisions will be. For instance, Ertz said that, during more than one game, he has asked the Eagles' medical staff to administer the league-approved sideline test to him. "Get it done in two seconds," he said, and you and the trained professionals know what happened and how to proceed. The players want to make those calls themselves, and by conducting a campaign against an unbiased research study just to cover its own rear end, by eroding whatever trust that players might have in its pronouncements and recommendations about their health, the NFL makes everything more difficult.
"It's football," Jenkins said. "Everybody understands there are going to be dangers. There's nothing you can do to take concussions out of our game, and the players understand that. Knowing the effects of it so we can make educated decisions and do what's best for ourselves, that's the part, I think - nobody really feels confident that the league has been 100 percent with that. . . .
"It's about giving us that opportunity to make an educated decision. Some guys might decide to play. Some might decide to leave. But it's up to that player, as long as he's informed."
Jenkins has no regrets about his decision to stay in that game against the Cowboys last year. At the time, he said he was stupid. But he feels fine now. He's fortunate he does, because he and his teammates and opponents are on their own when it comes to concussions, to a choice that could cost so much. They're on their own. Based on that report released Monday, and the NFL's role in it, that chilling conclusion is the only one to draw.