Leading the event were the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond T. Odierno, who announced a "Joint Health and Wellness Initiative" to enhance the health of both soldiers and players. Oates, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants from 1985 to 1993 and a third with the San Francisco 49ers, was joined on the panel by former Philadelphia Eagle Troy Vincent and several U.S. Army soldiers.
The audience for the event at West Point's new Jefferson Hall Library was over 100 cadets, including several members of the West Point football team and a number of Army. veterans.
The purpose of the discussion was described as, "the need to educate both soldiers and football players about concussion injuries." Both the Commissioner and the General expressed that their organizations need to change their culture in order for both players and soldiers to feel comfortable in taking themselves out of games and combat situations to be treated. Additionally, if injured, they need to be allowed to heal. 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.
A graduate of the Seton Hall Law School, Oates addressed a question related to 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. Most football players do not make logical decisions anyway".
The last comment produced a moment of smiles among the audience of cadets and soldiers.
Oates went on to say, "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, that is it, how precious each moment and play is, you want to be out there to help your team."
The moderator of the discussion asked for a show of hands from the audience of cadets and soldiers on how many had received a concussion. Most raised their hands. When asked if they had sought out or received medical treatment, only a few hands went up. Regarding concussions he had suffered as a player, Oates said:
"Playing the Eagles, I was the long snapper as a center, as a lineman I was probably the slowest guy down the field so as an easy target, I remember just being blindsided. Today we might say it was an ambush by terrorists, the terms we used, I got my bell rung, those terms minimizes the real conditions but, I played the rest of the game, but their was definitely some issues there."
The question of limited NFL rosters causing starting players to think twice about leaving play or being asked to play with injuries including possible concussions, was raised. This could be because the injured player is still considered better than the second-string player on the team. A soldier in the audience asked Oates if he thought he was better at 75% then the back-up at 100%. Oates said immediately,
General Odierno described the "Warrior Ethos" culture in the Army which some injured soldiers interpret to mean they should sometimes avoid seeking treatment, an attitude he is seeking to change. About the culture in the NFL encouraging players to play with injuries including concussions, Oates said:
"As a player you can not self police yourself, it is different from being in the military, some similarities, but as a player you are there, you have won that position, you're 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."
Oates went on describe that some change has occurred in attitudes about playing with injuries that could lead to long term health problems, but that players are still reluctant to take themselves out of games.
"Individually, if you are trying to self police, it can not be there, this type of program, awareness starting with kids at a younger age, to help them understand. But if you ask me would I do it again, if I have a concussion, would I stay in the game, my answer is yea, absolutely, but that is the mentality, but when I was playing in the '80s and '90s there was not the awareness."
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 mentioned suffering a concussion himself playing baseball responded:
"Since I became Commissioner, I have reinforced to the coaches, our owners, general managers and players that at all times, medical decisions override competitive decisions. You are not to be involved with medical conditions, if doctors ought to be involved with those decisions. If someone is injured, they are to see the doctor, and if the doctor says they are not available to play, they should not be permitted to play. We are also encouraging our doctors to take a cautious approach."
The Commissioner added:
"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."
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. Twitter @SAL50NYRadio