Sports Leagues Aren’t Doing Enough to Curb Head Injuries

(Note: This post can also been seen on FullyCovered.SportsBlog.com)

Even as he sat in front of the media earlier this week, Chris Pronger–a man who has battled with the terrible symptoms of a severe concussion for the better part of the last two years–said he didn’t think the NHL should require players to wear visors or some sort of extra protection on or around their heads.

His reasoning?

It would be the start of a “slippery slope” that might see the league acquire such incredible power that the fat cats in their suits and ties would ruin the essence of the game the players and fans love. OK, so I took some liberties with the last three quarters of that sentence there, but that’s basically what the injured former Stanley Cup champion was eluding to. And as much as I sympathize with what he’s going through–having to come to terms with the fact that his career is likely over–I couldn’t disagree more with his thoughts on how the league should handle head injuries, or what steps they should be allowed to take to prevent them.

As a matter of fact, I don’t think enough is being done in most of the major professional sports in the U.S. as far as head injuries are concerned. Granted, Roger Goodell is doing his damnedest to turn the NFL into a flag football league, it’s mostly because of outside lawsuits that the league is facing from former players and their families. Hockey has Brendan Shanahan reviewing illegal hits and dishing out suspensions left and right. And baseball, well, not much of a fuss has been made about concussions or head injuries in the sport–but a fuss should be made, even if I’m the only one doing it. All three of these leagues could be doing more to protect the products people that they put their bodies on the line night in and night out (yes even the whiny baseball players). The changes don’t have to be drastic, but they need to be made.

Starting with hockey.

Bone-crunching hits and the fights have always been, and will always be a major part of the game and what fans line up to get into the arena to see. That’s fine, they can stay despite their obvious corroboration with head injuries. The NHL should continue to protect its players by handing out harsh suspensions for boarding penalties, hits where a player launches himself, etc. That’s all good and dandy, and hopefully will convince players to cut out the dangerous hits.

But let’s go back to a game earlier this week between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Not that I want to watch this again (I get the heebie-jeebies every time that I do), but look what happens when Flyers’ defenseman Kimmo Timonen tees off on a slap shot from the blue line.

Yikes, that’s gonna leave a mark. Marc Staal is out indefinitely, but is expected (thankfully) to make a full recovery, after taking that slap shot to the face, right above the eye–an injury that could have been prevented (or at least made way less serious) had he been wearing a visor. I’m not saying the NHL should go as far as requiring the full face masks like you see on the high school and collegiate level, but players should have something at least shielding their eyes to reduce the chances that they’ll take a puck traveling 100 mph to the face.

In a ProHockeyTalk.com poll, 68 percent of the people (albeit fans) responded yes when asked if players should be required to wear a visor. Some said that they’d be fine with guys already in the league who don’t wear one being grandfathered into this requirement, and be allowed to go sans-shield. That would allow the guys who aren’t comfortable or used to the extra equipment to go without it and continue to risk (further) ruining their already mangled faces.

Now, what about football?

The NFL has made a ton a changes in recent years to try and remove hard hits and head shots from the game (moving the kickoff up, and possibly eliminating it altogether; fines for helmet-to-helmet hits, and hits on defenseless receivers, etc.), but it might be too little too late for America’s newest favorite pastime. The league is facing stacks upon stacks upon stacks of lawsuits from a long line of alumni who accuse the league of hiding scientific evidence from the players that the game they were participating in was inherently dangerous and what kinds of effects it was having on their bodies–specifically relating to head injuries.

In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, author Paul M. Barrett discussed the legal battles the league is up against and how, if drawn out by the NFL, they could threaten the very existence of the sport.

An excerpt:

The litigation could still metastasize and become life-threatening to the game if the NFL chooses to draw out the court fight rather than seek a swift resolution. A protracted battle could provide the plaintiffs’ lawyers with an opportunity to reveal sordid details about a period during which they allege the NFL intentionally obfuscated evidence of the long-term brain damage suffered by its willing gladiators.

If this is true, and if the ugly particulars are played out in depositions, internal documents, and court testimony, such a legacy could alienate fans already uneasy about the suicides of former players such as Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Junior Seau, all of whom suffered from neurodegenerative brain disease linked to concussions.

Beyond the present litigation, the NFL faces a more ominous longer-term question. New research suggests the peril players face may not be limited to car wreck hits. It may extend to the relentless, day-in-and-day-out collisions that are the essence of the game. If science one day determines that merely playing serious tackle football substantially increases the danger of debilitating brain disease—as smoking cigarettes makes lung cancer much more likely—it’s conceivable that the NFL could go the way of professional boxing.

Imagine that? A world where our Sunday’s from September through early February weren’t completely dominated by what was happening in some 16 cities around the country (or once a while in England or Canada) in which ginormous men toss around a silly little odd-shaped ball? Madness! Right? Could it really happen?

It will if the league doesn’t start taking head injuries more seriously.

Then there’s baseball.

As much gripe as these guys take for not being as tough as other professional athletes, they certainly have a case of their own to make. Especially pitchers. Easily the most pampered guys in the clubhouse, they’re consistently putting themselves right in the line of danger–60 feet 6 inches away from said danger to be exact. Here’s what I’m referring to.

I’m having a tough time deciding what is more difficult to watch, this or Staal’s puck-to-face… Neither are pretty, but the sound that the ball makes when it cracks off of Brandon McCarthy’s head is sickening. The A’s pitcher had a fractured skull from the line drive hit, but plans to pitch this season (something I’m sure every non-athlete will have trouble comprehending after witnessing, let along going through, something like that). He signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks and is participating in Spring Training.

Serious injuries like this, at the professional level, don’t happen as often as you might think, and they rarely, if ever, force a career to come to an end. But even seeing one instance should be enough to make the league want to react, right? (ESPN ran an interesting roundup of other stories of pitchers getting beaned by liners after McCarthy’s incident.)

The MLB only recently began accepting prototype caps with extra padding in them. MLB senior vice president Dan Halem told ESPN this past winter that McCarthy’s injury pushed up the timeline for the league to get this kind of equipment on the field.

Asking pitchers to wear masks might be going a bit far in most people’s eyes, but ask former Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie’s right eye, or just the pitcher himself, and you might get a different answer.

“The day before I was hit, I’d say no way I’d want to wear a mask. The day after? Yes, I would’ve,” Florie told ESPN.

The case for more protection in each sport is building. The NFL is already facing the legal troubles that come with not acting on it sooner, and it would be a shame to see the others go down the same road. As more and more attention is being put on player safety, it’s time for the leagues to step up their game and protect the guys who help put millions billions in their pockets.

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Categories: BLOG

Author:robstott

I'm an editor for Associations Now, a magazine pubished by ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. I live in Springfield, VA with my amazing wife, and am enjoying the ride that life is taking me on.

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  1. A Look Inside the Mind of a Retired NFL Player | Rob Stott - May 2, 2013

    […] about the studies that have been done about NFL players playing through pain and the fact that sports leagues aren’t doing enough to curb head injuries, and Turley’s account is just further proof that the NFL has a serious issue that needs to be […]

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