If football were all about the foot and the ball, we wouldn’t be here.
Defensive ends wouldn’t resemble 18-wheelers on the road to mayhem. Offensive linemen wouldn’t look for somebody to pancake on a screen play. Borderline psychos wouldn’t dangle $10,000 bounties as a means of motivation.
We’re here because football isn’t about merely the foot and the ball. It’s about collisions and who wins them. It’s about blocking and tackling and the ugliness, pain and too often the tragedy that goes with it. The NFL is facing 76 concussion-related lawsuits involving more than 2,150 former players. The numbers will continue to go up, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that how all of the cases are resolved could impact the league and the game like no issue before it.
The avalanche of litigation was a long time coming. We, the viewing public, have tended to minimize or completely ignore the potential effects of head trauma in collision sports because we embrace the violence. It’s exciting. It fuels our inner-caveman. Also, because it’s not our head.
The dichotomy is that no current NFL player is going to take a stand on concussions or the safety of the sport because they know what they signed up for. They get rich. They become famous. They love the game.
As former San Francisco lineman Randy Cross, a longtime Atlanta resident, said: “All of the guys who are playing say they accept the risks. But that’s easy to say when you’re 25 or 28. You’re probably out of the game for 20 years before the bill comes due.”
That is why head trauma is more of an issue among the alumni than active players. They’re the ones filing the lawsuits, focusing on improving player safety, charging that the league has covered up evidence about the long-term effects of concussions.
Sadly, it has taken tragedies involving retired players to bring this issue into national focus: The suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and former Falcons Shane Dronett and Ray Easterling.
The lawsuits involve dozens of former Falcons. A suit filed in federal court two weeks ago in Atlanta named 114 plaintiffs, including 29 former Falcons. Among them are two of their more popular former players: Jamal Anderson and Jessie Tuggle.
This won’t end the NFL. But it could — and should — mandate that players sit out games more often, even to the detriment of a team’s record. Rosters could be expanded, equipment made safer.
Change is overdue.
Anderson was a physical running back. He enjoyed the collisions. “I had a high-percentage of runs where I just ran into other guys,” he said.
He is paying the price. His problems aren’t major: headaches, sleeplessness. But, “The headaches are frequent enough that they cause me concern. Some days I wake up and everything is sore and I think, ‘Wait, I didn’t play the Rams yesterday.’”
Anderson’s greatest concern is the unknown of long-term effects, and he wants to make the game safer.
“I fully expect to have issues down the line,” he said. “I hear some of the horror stories, and I cross my fingers and just hope that’s not me one day.”
Tuggle was undersized for an NFL linebacker but hit like a behemoth. According to the Atlanta lawsuit, he “suffers from multiple past traumatic brain injuries with symptoms including, but not limited to, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, vision impairment, and depression.”
Tuggle said by phone he wanted to think about it before agreeing to an interview. A few days later, he declined via an email. But he wrote that he recently was in Kansas City for his son’s graduation and read a newspaper story about former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Art Still.
“It sounds just like my story and others,” Tuggle wrote. Still outlined similar post-career issues.
Cross has not yet joined one of the lawsuits. He has some post-career concussion symptoms, though he joked, “I’m 58, and I don’t know how much of it is just being 58.”
He has done a lot of research on head trauma and said one of the problems is “you can’t get anyone to agree on anything.” For example: What’s a concussion?
When asked how many concussions he had in his career, Cross said: “How do you define it? If you have to be knocked out, five times since high school. If we’re talking about being disoriented and wobbly going back to the huddle, probably 10 to 12 times a season.”
He played 13 seasons. Do the math.
Lining up for a play while still dizzy from the previous one was commonplace, he said.
“I’d sit to watch film on Mondays, and sometimes I was seeing a play for the first time.”
That may seem funny to us. But there are long-term and cumulative effects to those hits, and the NFL has ignored the issue for too long.
The blur of lawsuits seem to indicate the bill has come due.
By Jeff Schultz