The NFL and concussions: Knowing what we knew

Doug Pensinger

Terrelle Pryor's coaches put him at further risk by leaving him in the game after being hit in the head.

Terrelle Pryor got knocked to the ground Monday night by two Broncos defenders. He was unable to get up on his own after taking a shot to the head. The hit kept him down for nearly the duration of a Broncos challenge. He staggered to his feet after a couple of minutes and continued to lead the Oakland offense for two more plays, at which point Pryor was removed from the game with a concussion.

We can all agree that it was a good thing that Pryor was taken out of the game, even if it was only after their drive stalled. However, aren't coaches supposed to know better when a player is knocked out with a head injury? When the NFL settled the concussion lawsuit with thousands of retired players, you couldn't change the channel without hearing a choir of former players and analysts saying, "Knowing what we know now about concussions..."

The "knowing" part was never the issue. Dennis Allen knew that on Monday night. We knew. Everybody knew and has known for years that concussions were dangerous. The only men that could do anything about it happened to be the most negligent of them. They happened to be football coaches who had learned how to play football from other football coaches. The players, who many are quick to blame, learned to play through injuries from guess who? Football coaches.

Instead of fixing football's culture problem of allowing players to play with concussions, the coaches punted. The shift in the sport's mentality towards brain injuries would to be forced on them from doctors and neurologists and the resulting shock that comes with former stars killing themselves violently. Unfortunately this took decades. The accompanying Q & A section from the concussion lawsuit settlement even contains this:

Will this prevent other lawsuits of this nature from being filed?

For a variety of reasons, the underlying theory of this lawsuit about what took place in the past would be difficult to replicate in the future. Everyone now has a much deeper and more substantial understanding about concussions, and how to prevent and manage them, than they did 20 or even 10 years ago, and the information conveyed to players reflects that greater understanding. In addition, the labor law defenses asserted by the NFL would represent a very substantial barrier to asserting these kinds of claims going forward. The combination of advances in medical research, improved equipment, rules changes, greater understanding of concussion management, and enhanced benefits should, and hopefully will, prevent similar lawsuits in the future.

It's wrong to say that the football world only came to realize that concussions were dangerous to football players within the past 10 years. It was a primary subplot in "Varsity Blues." Vast improvements have been made in the diagnosis and certain dots have been connected. But anyone trying to claim that we didn't know that concussions were serious just didn't care enough about the health of their players to pay attention. Doctors and coaches of all sports, including football, have known for decades that repeated blows to the head are extremely dangerous to the health and well being of their players.

Saying otherwise is the ultimate rewriting of history and we're all falling for it.

Like many of you, I played sports at an incredibly average level, never straying too far from the median in any direction. Whether it was soccer, basketball, baseball or even rugby, every coach that I've ever had knew the dangers of letting a player continue to play with a concussion. If you lost consciousness, you were out of the game immediately. This is not new information, and why you're hearing guys who have played in the NFL over the past 10 years say they've been put back into games after getting knocked out is beyond me.

I knew the dangers of concussion well before 2013, before I put on pads and a helmet for an unproductive stint in high school. I experienced a mild concussion as a 12-year-old soccer player, and was taken out of the game immediately. There was no need for a "concussion protocol" or whatever branded term the NFL has marketed to let you know that a guy can't remember the name of his cat. If you were woozy after a hit to the head, you were taken off the field. In 1997, I listened to an average doctor describe in no uncertain terms the possible lasting effects of compounding brain injuries include memory loss, dementia and excruciating headaches. My coach knew all of this too and he kept me out for two weeks. This was 1997. This is not the discovery of a brain protein only visible under the lens of a centrifugal microscope buried underground in Western Finland. This was common knowledge.

Every single coach that I have known has not only known about the dangers of exposing players to repeated head injuries, but they've supported their players who have to take some time to recover. So why do football coaches get to plead ignorant?

Football has always existed in a bubble in American society. The "football mentality" of being a warrior, a gladiator, or whatever violent swagged out superhero bone-crushing cyborg weapon from Gridironia has always under-served the sport. Then again, maybe that's why I wasn't very good at it.

From the initial resistance to embrace the forward pass up to the modern-day second guessing of running a zone-read system, this is a sport that has always been slow to embrace anything new. The fact that they're just now, in 2013, agreeing that players shouldn't play after sustaining a concussion is so ass-backwardsly unbelievable, yet no one has called them out on it yet.

You can say that football is the ultimate meritocracy, or you could say that it's Machiavellian. Either way, the pressure is on the player to get on the field and stay there. You've got a disciplinarian father-figure as head coach, making his players want to run through a gauntlet of sweat and sharp plastic to prove their worth to him. You have athletes who can be utterly incapable of making decisions about their own health and well-being. The coaches and trainers that have the responsibility of taking care of their players' health have consistently demonstrated a negligent and outdated approach that should have been weeded out of the system decades ago, but instead they were allowed to flourish and become the standard.

No improved helmet or rulebook will cause the necessary shift; the mentality of coaches has to change.

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