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What Role Do the Players Have in the Concussion Controversy?

Brian Urlacher acknowledges the mindset of most NFL players: do what it takes to the play the game, even if it could risk your future quality of life.
Brian Urlacher acknowledges the mindset of most NFL players: do what it takes to the play the game, even if it could risk your future quality of life.

On Tuesday I looked at the concussion issue after almost 1,200 ex-players are now in litigation with the NFL over concussions suffered during their careers and the physical and cognitive effects that have worsened as they have gotten older. This time around, we need to look at the role players have in this situation, and why they are not helping themselves enough.

Its important to look at the role players have as "warriors of the gridiron" from two angles; one being players of the modern-day era that play the game while at least understanding that concussions can have debilitating long-term health effects, and the other being players from the past that were unaware at that time of post-concussion ailments. In both cases, blame can't be solely placed on the players, but they do have a certain amount of culpability.

Before players were removed from games with "concussion-related symptoms," players laid on the turf before being assisted to their feet by the training staff and teammates, oftentimes attempting to just "shake off the cobwebs" from getting their "bell rung." The brutal nature of football - the heightened physicality of the players to almost Superman-esque qualities, the multiple collisions of bodies on each and every play - takes the "suck it up and play" mentality far beyond anything seen in other major sports such as basketball and baseball. On the gridiron, you're not a player, you're a warrior (but never a soldier, thank you Kellen Winslow Jr). Regardless of the era, football players from an early age are conditioned to: be tough, play through injuries, don't whine, persevere.

So yes, players are in some sense culpable in the concussion discussion. Brian Urlacher set off a mini-firestorm when he admitted that he would hide a concussion from a team doctor, but he's only admitting what a vast majority of players would do. The Colt McCoy concussion debate from last year was huge, and while the team should have protected McCoy better by assessing his symptoms, Colt was the one on the sideline going back to the old post-hit line, "I'm good, coach, I'm okay."

While in the McCoy example, the Browns should have done a better job protecting McCoy from himself and the "warrior mentality," either the NFL or the NFLPA need to step in and mandate better equipment for players. Last year a study by Virginia Tech tested helmets for their ability to minimize the probability of incurring a concussion. Using a five-star rating, it was found that approximately 40% of NFL players wear a helmet with the second-lowest rating. The study evaluated over a million head impacts over a decade; if a college's science department can come up with a study such as this, why doesn't the NFL mandate players wear top-rated helmets? Or the players' association? Do the players know they're wearing substandard equipment? Do they care?

The NFL created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994 to better understand the concussion issue (example of political correctness gone woefully wrong: "mild" appearing next to "traumatic"), and was the precursor to the Head, Neck, and Spine Committee formed in 2010. Before 1994, while traumatic brain injury research was going on, little was known about the possibility of its rampant impact on the lives of ex-players. Before notable concussion research, players were playing the game they loved knowing it would impact their lives forever. But to them, they thought it would mean glory, or achievement, maybe a few mangled or arthritic body parts. These were things they could live with for the chance to play the game. But memory loss, wild mood swings, and depression caused by concussions changes the game.

Players in the modern era, where concussions are front and center for the entire football world to look at and analyze, have a much better understanding then players even fifteen years ago. However, the warrior mentality remains, and will likely never go away. How much does this affect the mindset of players when weighing the potential cost of victory and glory versus the risk of brain trauma? You may just have to look at Urlacher's comments and the McCoy situation to get your answer.