The leaders of two of America's most visible organizations, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and US Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno, appeared together at the US Military Academy at West Point Thursday to announce a "Joint Health and Wellness Initiative" to enhance the health of both soldiers and players.
The announcement was made as part of a panel discussion regarding the prevention and treatment of "Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries" held at the Jefferson Hall Library. Participating in the discussion were several US Army soldiers and former NFL Players Troy Vincent and Bart Oates. In the audience were over one hundred cadets including several members of the West Point football team and head coach Rich Ellerson.
The release, issued jointly by the NFL and the US Army states:
"The multi-faceted initiative, built upon the mutual respect shared by the two organizations, is designed, to promote help-seeking behaviors and empower soldiers and players to maintain healthier minds on the playing field and the battle field."
General Odierno opened the event by welcoming Commissioner Goodell and the guests from the NFL to West Point saying:
"The National Football League has been a long standing supporter of our soldiers and our families. No matter where you go in the league, you find them (the NFL) reaching out to our soldiers our families, helping us, making sure we feel part of the NFL...especially during times of deployments".
A central theme of the discussion was the need to educate both soldiers and players that concussion injuries need to be taken seriously, identified and treated. The value of their being taken out of games and off of battlefields being the long-term health of the individual and their ability to contribute to their organizations in the future.
When the moderator asked the over two hundred members of the audience consisting largely of members of the Corps of Cadets and several current veteran Army soldiers how many believed they had suffered concussions, the majority of hands went up. When asked how many had sought immediate medical assistance after suffering that concussion, only a small fraction of the same hands went up. The moderator reflected,
"General, Commissioner, this is the issue, that is why we are here".
The focus of the discussion was the culture and training in both the military and football to play through injuries and not take yourself out of action. Former New York Giants' center Bart Oates said about the reluctance of NFL players to take themselves out of game due to a possible injury,
"You spend your entire life getting there, so once you make it, it is counter intuitive to what you have been working towards your entire life, not to mention the fact that when you are in that state you are impaired, whether it is a severe concussion or even a mild concussion, so when you are in an impaired state you are asking someone to make a logical decision."
Oates went on, "Will you take yourself out when you work your whole life to be in that situation. Particularly in a game, there are only 16 regular season games, plus three or four more (playoffs) if you are lucky, how precious each moment and play is, you want to be out there to help your team".
The question was discussed of limited NFL rosters causing starting players to think twice about leaving play or being asked to play with injuries including possible concussions because the injured player is still considered better than the second-string player on the team.
Troy Vincent described recovering from knee surgery, his coach told him, "Seventy percent of you is better than 100 percent of our second string" so he went in and "They protected me with some play calls, they did not to expose my weakness at the time".
Several Army speakers on the panel and those who spoke from the audience described the type of situations they have encountered on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan where they deal with bombs, mortars, and Improvised Explosive Devices. One Staff Sargent who looked like a football player and actually had played two seasons of arena football described his combat experience and injuries.
"We got blown up, hit by a 500 pound bomb"
The non-commissioned officer described taking multiple medications for the ongoing pain from his injuries. He knew he had a concussion among other probable injuries but said that in an ongoing combat situation he could leave his young soldiers.
General Odierno said to solve the problem,
"As Chief of State of the Army, I can say all I want, it doesn't mean anything to the soldiers, because the people that are powerful in their lives are their platoon leaders and platoon sergeant, and their squad leaders and first sergeants, because that is who controls their life everyday, so what they need is them to have a conversation about this where they talk about the importance of being honest and the fact that there will not be retribution, that is how you solve the problem, we need to have this dialogue down at the lowest levels."
The soldiers talked about exposure to a bomb blast as "Being blown up". Sometimes they survive, sometimes they have a concussion, they are all shook up but they are trained to keep doing their jobs and looking out for the soldiers they serve with. A Sargent Major described the challenges of a combat deployment in which his unit was deployed at less than full strength,
"I had twenty direct hits on me, in my battalion, we cleared about 850 IEDs and we encountered about 3,500."
The SGM went on, "The fact is I did not have a soldier who did not get blown up"
He went on to describe that he had 19 Purple Hearts awarded to his battalion. He described receiving additional training on how to recognize concussions in mid-deployment and said,
"Everytime I had someone blown up, I sent them to get checked"
The problem of NFL players self identifying their injuries came up as a major barrier to their taking them selves out of games because of the culture and training which directs them to play with injuries if it helps their team.
Bart Oates said:
"As a player you can not self self police yourself, it is different from being in the military, some similarities, but as a player you are are there, you have won that position, your there to help your team win, and that is the most important thing at that moment, for those three hours on Sunday afternoon, that is the most important thing. Anything that detracts from it, injuries or otherwise, is ignored. You deal with them the next day".
About convincing the very large Army organization of 1.1 million members General Odierno said,
We need to educate and leadership within the Army of the importance of identifying and treating soldiers that have been exposed to explosion incidents, "We are going to hold them accountable if they are not taking care of the young men and women who are putting their lives at risk in very serious conditions".
In a comment hat could apply to athletes just as well, the General said,
"We have to make sure we understand, this is normal, that it happens to everyone, and that the long-term impacts are far worse than the impacts it has on your platoon or company".
Towards the end an Army officer asked the NFL players if the reason they would play through an injury is the fear of losing their salaries, Troy Vincent responded by saying:
"I played because I loved it. You come back in the game because you want to compete. You don't want to let the guys down in the locker room."
Commissioner Goodell who described suffering a concussion playing baseball responded,
"Player health and safety is a priority for us, because we believe it is the right thing to do. Our players deserve the effort, to make sure we make the game as safe as possible for future players, current players, and former players. I can not deny money is a factor, but if you take care of yourself, allow yourself to recover from injury, you are likely to have a longer career."
The meeting made a statement at the senior most levels of the Army and the NFL that increased efforts are being made to help both soldiers and players identify and give themselves the opportunity to treat concussion injuries.
For the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs the effort is critical to find ways to take care of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who already have mental and physical injures from combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those serving today and in the future. Vietnam era veterans say they are still suffering from lack of treatment when they served.
For the NFL the continued accounts of the dementia, suicides and early deaths of former players brings urgency to find ways to identify and hold out of games players who either have not been identified to have concussions or are trying to play without giving the injuries a chance to heal. From the dialogue Thursday, the league will have to give more responsibility to test players and pull them immediately out of games if they have a suspected concussion injury. This will create higher costs to the league which might need to expand rosters to give more injured player time to heal.
The vital role of the NFL to set the example for college, high school and amateur levels of the sport can not be underestimated.
As we watch the first weekend of the college football season, we should remember that high school classmates of many of the players are serving over seas in the military putting their lives at risk so we can enjoy the games back home.
All quotes are from the panel discussion held at West Point on August 30, 2012.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football and Iona basketball for WVOX 1460 in New Rochelle, NY and Sons of the American Legion Radio.