Five Keys to the Upcoming NFL (Concussion) Season

by Irvin Muchnick on August 1, 2011

No offense to Nnamdi Asomugha, who they tell me is a shutdown cornerback, but it’s not clear if 1,000 people in the world could pick him out of a police lineup. Even so, in the beer guzzler’s thirst for football news, any football news, with the end of the lockout and the opening of National Football League training camps, the erstwhile Oakland Raider who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent was greeted with a social media frenzy not seen since the last time Garbo herself dined alone. Can we all spell “opiate”?

The 2011 NFL season is upon us, and as the second guy in the broadcast booth likes to say, here are a few “keys to the game.” No, not the football game – the national concussion crisis behind the game. It is a story rumbling up from underground with the new lawsuit of 75 retired players, represented by the law firm of Thomas “Erin Brockovich” Girardi, who accuse the league of covering up historical research on traumatic brain injury.

(Uh, make that 74 players: Ottis Anderson, the most valuable player of Super Bowl 25, now says his inclusion as a named plaintiff was a mistake. Perhaps Anderson’s possible case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy made him forget his possible case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.)

1. New levels of reporting

Like sex crimes, concussions are no longer a dirty secret. The lion’s share of the credit for this goes to Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute and Alan Schwarz of the New York Times. This year will feature the stories of players who resist rushing back to action after head injuries. How that shakes out in public perception and for their careers is worth a closer look than how close Asomugha creeps to the line of scrimmage on “bump-and-run” coverage.

2. Scrutiny of in-game injuries

Last fall the Times’ Schwarz exposed how Asomugha’s Eagles blew off supposedly stricter return-to-play protocols after linebacker Stewart Bradley was knocked silly in a sequence replayed repeatedly on a Fox broadcast. This season promises much more of the same. Last week the league held conference calls with teams to reemphasize the “when in doubt, keep them out” guidelines of Head, Neck and Spine Committee chairs Drs. Richard Ellenbogen and Hunt Batjer. Let’s see if fans remain apathetic and if the doctors show any independent public spine when their recommendations are disregarded.

3. High school headhunting

The most profound scandal isn’t at the professional level; it’s in high school and peewee league programs. There is mounting evidence that kids with undeveloped brains shouldn’t be playing tackle football in the first place. The NFL’s smokescreen lobby – my tobacco metaphor is deliberate – has passed legislation in half the states mandating greater “concussion awareness,” and an increasing number of cash-strapped public school districts mistakenly think they’re protecting themselves by buying computerized neurocognitive testing for “concussion management.” (The most popular of these hocus-pocus programs is marketed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Dr. Joseph Maroon, of the Pittsburgh Steelers and World Wrestling Entertainment.) The NFL retirees’ lawsuits are nothing compared to the coming wrath and legal actions of families of amateur athletes.

4. Whither Congress?

When the House of Representatives was controlled by the Democrats, Congressman John Conyers’ House Judiciary Committee held the most effective public hearings on the concussion issue. This year Senator Tom Udall and two federal agencies have gone after the football helmet industry, but recent developments strongly suggest that this investigative tack is a scapegoating diversion. Will anyone in Congress step forward to hold the $9-billion-a-year NFL accountable for its Big Tobacco-style profiteering at the expense of public health?

5. Whither the news media?

The aforementioned New York Times, once far ahead of the pack on this story, needs to get its game back. The real hero of CTE research, San Joaquin County’s own Dr. Bennet Omalu, has been blacked out of coverage by the Gray Lady, which hasn’t even mentioned him in print for more than a year. Lately reporter Schwarz seems to have been taken off the concussion beat altogether. In a Times story last week, Schwarz wrote of how his five-year-old son burst into tears after the New York Mets traded the boy’s favorite baseball player, the violently criminal relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.

Follow the work of Beyond Chron conbributor Irvin Muchnick – author most recently of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death – at http://concussioninc.net and http://twitter.com/irvmuch.

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