BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Weekend 7 in the National Football League is supposed to have a different look. The league has decided that the game has become too dangerous and will hand out both suspensions and fines to players who deliver what league officials think are illegal hits to the head and neck.
While some players including Pittsburgh's James Harrison (who received a $75,000 fine for his hit on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaguoi last Sunday), are unhappy with the get tough policy (Harrison threatened to retire), Michael Kaplen could not be happier with the NFL's decision although he doesn't think the NFL's sudden change of heart on big hits goes far enough.
Just who is Michael Kaplen? He is the chair of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council, an entity created by the New York State legislature and charged with the responsibility of making proposals and recommendations regarding traumatic brain injury to the New York State Commissioner of Health. The way Kaplen sees it, the NFL must take the lead in making football a safer game. He is hoping that there will be a successful trickledown effect on football to the people who need to kids who are playing the game in the Pop Warner leagues across the country and high school players who watch the glorification of violent hits during football games and on television sports packages either on SportsCenter on ESPN or other regional cable TV sports shows or over-the-air newscasts and even in video games."I have carefully followed the conduct of the NFL in its approach to concussions because I believe that school-aged athletes, school coaches and trainers, as well as parents, look to professional football teams and players for proper guidance when dealing with this silent epidemic," said Kaplen, a Past President, Brain Injury Association of New York State. "I have become increasingly frustrated with the league because although they now seem to publically be espousing correct information about concussions, the message still has not seemed to register within the sporting community. Current players are not accurately reporting their conditions for fear of professional repercussions, team trainers and coaches are ignoring obvious head injuries and are exposing players to needless further injury by an inappropriate return to play protocol, and retired players who are entitled to brain injury disability benefits are still being denied these benefits. All of this is due to the fact that although they appear to be taking this seriously, their actions belie their rhetoric."
Kaplen was at a sports fundraiser just after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced earlier this week that the league which going to suspend players for illegal hits. Kaplen and Goodell exchanged pleasantries and business cards. Kaplen would like to address the hits issue with Goodell. Also at the function was Sylvia Mackey, the wife of the Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey who is not doing well because of head injuries. The league and the National Football League Players Association almost out of embarrassment set up the 88 Plan (Mackey's number was 88) which provides retired players with up to $88,000 per year for medical and custodial care resulting from dementia, including Alzheimer's. Initially neither the league nor the players association wanted anything to do with discarded players with head injuries and refused to pay benefits because their expert doctors including Dr. Ira Casson believed that there was not enough evidence to prove a link between concussions and various ailments such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia and depression.
Dr. Casson resigned as the co-chair of the NFL committee on mild traumatic brain injury in November 2009.
The league and the players association are still acting rather indifferently about the life style of former players who are ailing and are in some cases disabled. The two entities have been claiming that head injuries suffered during games really don't have anything to do with later life problems and Congress has hauled both NFL and players association officials before them to discuss the problem.
Not much has happened other than a tongue lashing. Former players with no medical benefits are living off of government assistance to get them through life. Medical benefits end five years after a player's career is done.
The National Football League Players Association (a group that was privately criticized by other players associations for their approach) has always fought for salaries and never has looked at the long term quality of life for players who retire. It has always been about getting the most money for the players during collective bargaining negotiations under Ed Garvey and the late Gene Upshaw. It seems that DeMaurice Smith, despite a few words tossed to the former players that the players association will fight for them, is following the same path as his predecessors as Executive Director of the association, Garvey and Upshaw.
"I want from the NFL is a no nonsense rule," said Kaplen. "(A player) engages in death blows should be suspended for the rest of the season.
"The NFL for years has been compliant in selling violence and they are a part of the problem. They are content to sell violence and violence is not cool. My concern is not with the NFL but with Pop Warner and high school players. They emulate what they see. You start changing the attitude with the NFL and work your way down. The NFL players don't get it. The focus will be on children that (violence) is not going to be cool. This is football, they don't need the death blows, helmet to helmet is not part of football.
"This needs to be filtered down and there needs to be an educational campaign, Concussions are serious and brain injuries impact player's wives and children. There needs to be more than putting up posters in locker rooms."
The present players have been warned but the NFL is not taking care of former players who have had life altering head injuries according to Kaplen. The players aren't taking warnings too seriously either and that continues even after Goodell's pronouncement judged by the statements this week of players like Harrison, Chicago's Brian Urlacher, Miami's Channing Crowder and former Redskins and Broncos offensive lineman Mark Schlereth
"Despite league admonitions and posters, the reality is that a player who is experiencing the signs and symptoms of a concussion is reluctant to accurately report his condition out of genuine fear that this will lead to his termination from the team and the cancelling of his contract with a resultant loss of future income. Players may have a brain injury, but they are not ignorant. There is a real disincentive for a player knowing that that the consequence of reporting his symptoms may be the loss of all future benefits, to be forthright and report any symptoms.
"Players who are cut from team rosters because of a traumatic brain injury must still receive their full contract benefits. This new provision must be included in all future NFL contracts and must be enforced by the players association in upcoming contract negotiations," he explained.
Players who sacrifice their health for the financial benefit of team owners need to know that they will receive adequate and proper compensation for their brain injuries. We have moved beyond gladiator mentality of discarding injured warriors. Players with a brain injury need to receive proper benefits and set the right example for youth in all sports."
Kaplen has seen the medical records of some former players and thinks the league and the players have been wrongfully turned down after applying for disability. But that is not Kaplen's battle to fight. He really cannot do much for former NFL players but he and his colleagues on the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council have given the New York State Commissioner of Health Dr. Richard F. Daines some recommendations for high school athletes that they hope will be adopted. The council wants baseline testing for all athletes and they want the testing to be paid by medical insurers and health care providers. They want to make sure any problems are caught before severe damage is inflicted.
The New York Health Commissioner has not made a ruling. Football is a violent and dangerous game. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a cleanup of the game in 1905 and used the bully pulpit of the White House to pressure the Presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to change college football rules after the deaths of 18 players during college games in 1905. The American Football Rules Committee changed the culture of football overnight with rule changes with included the banning of mass formations and gang tackling, increasing the distance for a first down from five to ten yards and the introduction of the forward pass. Barack Obama hasn't weighed in on the head injuries in football although he has said he wants to see a college football championship game. Perhaps an Oval Office meeting is in the cards for all stakeholders in football including owners, players, college presidents, chancellors, provosts, and high school administrators to discuss the dangers of football and ways to clean it up.
James Harrison threatened to retire, Crowder has a helmet and plans to use it as part of his arsenal as a defender. Urlacher is worried that the NFL will become the National Flag Football League. That culture needs to be changed.