In the March 2011 issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly, writer Jeanne Marie Laskas revisited her compelling story from 2009 ('Game Brain') on the devastating effects of violent hits to the head that have resulted in brain injuries for many former NFL players ('The People v. Football'). This article detailed the losing effort that the family of former Minnesota Vikings LB Fred McNeill (1974-85) is fighting, but the scary thing is the ever-increasing amount of similar cases that are making their way to the forefront of the minds of NFL players today.
For long the NFL denied there was any correlation between the violence on the football field and the dementia and other damaging behaviors appearing way too early in the ex-players lives. Finally, in 2009, mostly due to overwhelming and irrefutable evidence, the league decided to address the situation that was beginning to get ready to explode.
The NFL enacted the "88 Plan," named after Baltimore Colts great John Mackey, whose original retirement benefits didn't come close to covering the medical bills from his condition that was obviously related to the number of hits to the head on the playing field. The plan increased the health benefits for players like Mackey, and while it was a step in the right direction, the league wasn't addressing the issue, just the results of the symptoms.
Finally, under public and media scrutiny, plus pressure from the medical community that had done their own studies, the NFL began to accept that they had a major issue on their hands and the only way to deal with it was to join in the struggle to determine what could be done to stem the rising tide of players seemingly affected with the same symptoms.
They totally revamped their own Committee and developed as recently as last month, sideline guidelines on how to recognize possible concussions during the game and what to do in order to clear a player to return to the game or not. But is it enough and is the league truly interested in curbing the violence as opposed to marketing it even more to fans?
Baltimore Ravens' Matt Birk, who had agreed to donate his brain to medical science to further the study on brain injuries, was quoted in the article:
"When you're 21 years old, single, and full of piss and vinegar, you think, "Nothing's going to happen to me." My view at the time was, if playing for ten years in the league meant I had to walk around with a limp, that'd be a good trade-off. Now I'm 34 and I have five kids, and my perspective's changed. A limp is one thing, but if you're talking about brain trauma, that's a whole lot scarier."
Even Pittsburgh Steelers WR Hines Ward had an opinion on the contradictive nature of the NFL:
"If they're so worried about what concussions will do to us after our careers, then guarantee our insurance for life. And if you're going to fine me for a hit, let the money go to veteran guys to help with their medical issues. To say the league really cares? They don't give f-ck about concussions."
Cleveland Browns LB Scott Fujita furthered the impression that the NFL continues to market the violence of the game:
"Everyone doubts the league's sincerity. Quit pretending to be flag-bearers for our health care and safety when you're telling us in the next sentence that we need to start playing eighteen games. Obviously, you don't give a sh-t about our health and safety. Remember that photo of (Steelers linebacker James) Harrison making a hit on (Browns receiver Mohamed) Massaquoi? They fined him $75,000 for that - and at the same time they were selling that photo on nfl.com for $24.99."
The debate rages on and the testing continues, but one thing is certain. This issue is not going to go away for the older guys and the current crop of players will have their own health to worry about long after their playing days are over. Until the NFL establishes either stricter guidelines or provides better equipment, the brain injuries will continue to mount and we may never know the true depth of the issue.