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Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Are Players to Blame for NFL's Concussion Saga?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMay 24, 2017

New England Patriots' Tom Brady walks off the field after throwing an interception, during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The concussion issue may not be getting better, Drew Brees' secret to NFL longevity and Derek Carr's future in Oakland are among the headlines swirling around the NFL as we near Memorial Day. 

1. The Concussion Conundrum Is Still Here

Have we all been suckered? 

When the NFL said these past few years that it was getting better at taking care of concussed players, was that all false? Mostly? Somewhat?

When the league said its mechanisms and processes for watching over players improved, was that a lie? When smart players like Geoff Schwartz write or tell me things have improved, are they wrong?

I don't know anymore. After conversations with a small group of players this past weekend—trustworthy veterans who know the leagueI am certain of little.

At first blush, it appears the steps the NFL has taken to protect players is working. Those I spoke with said when players suffer what they feel like is some form of major head traumalike getting knocked outthey will not attempt to come back into the game too soon or conceal it from the team. They embrace the healing of the brain.

This is different from even, say, five years ago. Back then, players regularly hid even the worst head injuries from teams. Former safety Myron Rolle said as much in an ESPN interview in which he admitted he played through concussions and regretted doing it. Future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson likewise recently told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that he hid concussions from the Lions.

So in one way, things are better. But then they get complicated.

Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

The players with whom I spoke say when they get hit in the head—dinged, as they still call itor get dizzy from a hit to the head, they tell almost no one, especially not the team. The only people they tell are other players or family members, such as wives. But even Drew Brees, who's keenly aware of the effects of football on his body, said during a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show (via ESPN.com's Mike Triplett) that he likely wouldn't tell his wife if he got a concussion.

The problem with this thinking is that getting dinged is still head trauma, and it can be serious head trauma, even if someone isn't knocked unconscious. It can have long-term effects and be the catalyst for CTE.

Yet players appear to be hiding those seemingly minor hits from their teams, too.

In actuality, there is no such thing as a minor head injury. Yes, it can be argued that football is one long head injury. But players are distinguishing between being knocked out and getting "dinged," even though the latter is also awful for the brain.

These issues have recently arisen again with regard to players who played with concussions. Last week, Gisele Bundchen told CBS that her husband, Tom Brady, "had a concussion last year." Brady's agent, Don Yee, later released a statement saying Brady wasn't diagnosed with a concussion last season. But Bundchen didn't say Brady was diagnosed with a concussion. She said Brady had a concussion.

If Brady hid a concussion from the team, how would he be diagnosed with one?   

This past weekend, the recently retired Johnson told Birkett that he hid concussions from team doctors.

"They're going to dispute that, but anytime you black out, anytime you hit the ground and everything is stars and stuff, any time your brain hits your skull, that's a concussion," Johnson said. "No matter how severe it is, it's a concussion. Now granted, some people get nausea. That's a severe concussion when you get hit like that and you get nausea and stuff like that. But if you play football long enough [you're going to have concussions]."

Johnson admitting to hiding concussions from doctors was surprising given all the progress the league has said it has made on the issue.

There are players who do self-report, and that's a good thing. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told Peter King on The MMQB Podcast he hopes more players do so.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 03:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is tested for a concussion on the sideline in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens during their AFC Wild Card game at Heinz Field on January 3, 2015 in Pittsburgh, P
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

"I'm proud of it," Roethlisberger said. "I have been just like Drew [Brees], where I haven't reported things before either. Probably everybody who has ever played the game of football hasn't reported an injury. For me, it wasn't about an injury—I've played through many injuries—but when you talk about your head, that is a different ball game.

"You can replace a lot of body parts, but you can't replace a brain," Roethlisberger continued. "You see the effects of it from past players, players who have taken their lives, the CTE, all that stuff and, you know, I'm thinking about my family and long term. I love this game and I love my brothers that I play football with, and I would encourage any player who has an issue with their brain to just report it properly...We are blessed to play this game but we also have a life to live."

In a SB Nation story published last week, Schwartz wrote that while more players are self-reporting concussions, "It's possible to get dinged and play through it with minimal or no side effects. It happened only once in my career. I pulled on a run play, went to cut the defender, and he lowered his body at the same time. We hit helmet to helmet. I got up, started to walk back to the huddle, felt a tad off, shook it off, and was fine. Played the rest of the game, remember everything, and had no side effects from that play."

Schwartz also noted that diagnosing a concussion isn't always easy: "At times, symptoms of concussions don't show for days. I once had a teammate who felt super dehydrated after a game. He drank liquids for a few days. Went into the facility on Wednesday, still didn't feel right. They ran him through tests and he passed all of them, but he still felt off. Ended up skipping the game on Sunday because the team and player both decided it was best to be cautious. I've also had a teammate not show any symptoms of a concussion, nothing at all, until Tuesday night. So the symptoms of concussions vary for everyone. That's one reason it's tough to catch and document all of them."

Yes, it's complicated and nuanced. Players seem to be getting the point where they understand severe head trauma is nothing to fool around with, but there is still a plague across the league of players ignoring or hiding smaller moments of head trauma, which carry their own share of damage.

All of the protocols the NFL has publicly discussed (like concussion spotters) are in many ways useless if players hide their head trauma, which they may be doing in large numbers. 

Have we all been suckered? I don't know.

But I'm starting to think we all were.

    

2. Is There a Solution to the Concussion Problem?

Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

I've been writing for decades about how it's impossible for the NFL to eliminate head trauma. It will always be a part of football, and no amount of rule-making can change that. If you play the game, I always thought, you will suffer from long-term brain damage.

Then I was distracted by the shiny objects accompanying the NFL's claims that it finally understood the dangers inherent in the sport—objects like concussion spotters and words the commissioner spoke about how the safety of players was paramount even as the NFL pushed to add Thursday night games.

But how can you stop head trauma in football? You can't. How do you minimize it? You can't. It's all a fallacy, as there are still a number of ways to circumvent the well-intended rules. If a player decides not to tell the team about his concussion, the team doesn't see it or the team willfully ignores it, the checks and balances are subverted.

There are only two ways to end any circumventing of the system:

  • It has to be collectively bargained that any player who loses his job due to head trauma gets it back after it's determined the player can safely return. Any team that violates this rule would lose two first-round picks.
  • Increase roster size by at least one-third. This rule, combined with the first, will mean far less pressure on players to return quickly.

No, these two rule changes aren't a panacea, but they would go a long way toward ending the problem.

And they will never happen.

    

3. Drew Brees' Secret to a Long NFL Life

John Bazemore/Associated Press

I spoke with Saints quarterback Drew Brees last week, and among the topics we discussed (beyond concussions) was the key to his NFL longevity. The 38-year-old, who came into the NFL in 2001, believes he's still in the league because of how he eats and sleeps. This seems staggeringly obvious, but I'm always stunned by how many players eat and sleep like crap.

"In many ways," Brees said, "diet is more important than what you do physically. I'd say the same for sleep. They're the best things to help you recover."

    

4. And Still He Waits…

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

As I always caution, things can change on a dime, but there isn't yet much free-agent interest in former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Seattle is the only team that has publicly weighed signing him.

    

5. Take a Deep Breath, Raiders Fans

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Several NFL sources confirmed that, as NFL.com's Michael Silver first reported, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has grown somewhat frustrated by the slow pace of extension talks.

That said, Carr has also realized a deal will eventually come, so he's gone back to his chill self. That may explain why he recently expressed faith about a deal getting done.

It will. Unless Carr catches a severe strain of the rare JaMarcus Russell syndrome, there's no way the Raiders will let him walk. If the two sides can't get a deal done, Oakland could just franchise tag him.

Either way, Carr isn't going anywhere.

    

6. Is This the End for Larry Fitzgerald?

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald has made it clear, according to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss, that he won't discuss his future until training camp, but I continue to hear this will be his last season. At age 33 and with 13 years to his credit, this isn't earth-shattering news, but Fitzgerald is still in such amazing physical condition that he likely could play at a high level for several more years.

Whenever he leaves, the game will lose one of its greatest, classiest players.

     

7. Kirk Cousins' Contract Still Confounding Washington

Dec 11, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) before warmups against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Allen, Washington's general manager, says the team might franchise-tag quarterback Kirk Cousins again, according to JP Finlay of CSN Mid-Atlantic. Of course, Washington has already franchised Cousins twice before, for those counting at home. The deadline is July 15, and the two sides aren't yet close to a deal.

If Washington uses the tag for a third time, the price for Cousins would be an astounding $34 million. That would be devastating for the team, as it would obliterate its cap balance. That kind of money for one player isn't worth it unless that player is Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.

And just to think, Washington could have worked out a long-term deal last year with Cousins.

It didn't, and it will now pay for it.

     

8. Get Ready to Celebrate

Frank Victores/Associated Press

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Tuesday, the league will loosen up its celebration rules in 2017. This is a good thing for a league that for years has had a stick up its ass about its players celebrating.

Next season, the league will allow something it should have never stoppedplayers using the football as a prop after a touchdown.

My hope is that players can eventually do whatever they want after a touchdown. You can never have enough TD celebrations(Warning: Some explicit language)

     

9. Keep An Eye on This…

The estate of former player Adrian Robinson, who committed suicide in 2015 and was found to have CTE, filed a lawsuit against the NFL with one of the more devastating sets of allegations we've ever seen on the subject of the league and head trauma.

The core argument of the suit holds that CTE is a result of a decades-long conspiracy by the NFL and others to cover up the effects of head trauma. The suit alleges that a cover-up has gone on since at least the 1960s.

To be clear, lawsuits are just allegations. There's no proof of anything. This is, however, the most extensive and compelling CTE lawsuit I've ever seen. Buckle up, this could get interesting.

     

10. That's Dr. Rolle to You and Me

NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 23:  Myron Rolle #25 of the Tennessee Titans during a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals at LP Field on August 23, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee defeated Arizona, 24-10.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Myron Rolle was one of the more impressive people I've ever covered in the game, as he demonstrated in a recent interview on ESPN, during which he discussed graduating from medical school and preparing to become a neurosurgeon.

Though drafted in 2010, the Rhodes Scholar never played a game in the NFL. And though he made it on to a practice squad, he remained focused on this momentwhen he no longer is merely Myron Rolle, but Dr. Myron Rolle.

Now it's here.

    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL. 

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