"Mild" Concussions, Magical Helmets, And Other Ways Football Lies To Itself

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From: Stefan Fatsis
To: Jack Dickey, Eric Goldwein, Josh Levin, Barry Petchesky

The case of Jordan Pugh is a clear example of how the rules-obsessed NFL is still nowhere near a coherent, loophole-free policy on what should happen when a player suffers a head injury during a game. Despite years now of scientific discoveries, health warnings, rules changes, and suicides, the culture of the league isn't changing fast enough either. Consider the case of Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas. And let's consider it via this story from the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.:

Daniel Thomas became the punch line of helmet jokes on Tuesday.

Because the linebackers filled his helmet with Icy Hot? Because the tight ends drew a Hitler mustache on the leaping dolphin?

Upon the tailback's return from his second concussion in five weeks the Miami Dolphins players mocked Thomas for how big his new helmet is.

"Mild" Concussions, Magical Helmets, And Other Ways Football Lies To ItselfFor the second year in a row, Slate and Deadspin are teaming up for a season-long NFL roundtable. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries. And click here to play the latest episode of Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.

Yes, players made fun of a teammate who, according to the Twitter feed NFL Concussions, had suffered the 48th and 95th of the 104 publicly disclosed concussions so far this season. They did so because Miami's medical and equipment staff fitted Thomas with an oversized helmet designed to provide additional protection during the concussive and sub-concussive blows he'll suffer upon his return to the field against the New York Jets a week from Sunday. (No word on whether Thomas's teammates called him "that little dude on The Flintstones," the Great Gazoo, the go-to insult when a baseball or football player dons an oversized helmet after a brain injury.)

Dolphins doctors, the newspaper reported, hoped the additional padding in the larger helmet "would alleviate some of the head trauma" Thomas suffered. Memo to reporters, and players, too: Helmets do not alleviate trauma. They are intended to prevent fractured skulls. The padding in and design of some newer models may absorb and dissipate the shock of hits to the head more than older ones, though scientists don't really know how much. In the main, however, those large round pieces of polycarbonate plastic cause trauma, to opposing heads and other body parts.

Thomas said of his concussions that "these things happen," "it's part of the game," "you got to keep playing," and "you can't worry about them"—a Pick Four of injury cliches. The newspaper said the 24-year-old running back "hasn't done any research on the issue," which is helpful when you're trying not to worry about something over which, according to the website NFL Concussion Litigation, 3,690 former players and 1,500 of their spouses are now suing the league.

I don't mean to pick on Daniel Thomas, especially when I can pick on Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who disclosed this week that he had suffered "double-digit" concussions in his career but that everything's cool now because he stuck a strip of Kevlar inside his helmet. "I haven't seen any spots or had any blackouts," Harrison said. Put an exclamation point on that and the NFL has the perfect blurb for its next concussion-awareness poster.

But correlation does not imply causation. That "Concussion Reduction Technology (CRT) supplemental helmet protection," made by a company that Harrison endorses, might have nothing to do with his blackout-free streak. As athletic trainer and Concussion Blog author Dustin Fink wrote on Wednesday: "We need to remember that concussions are mainly a result of acceleration, deceleration, rotational, and angular forces. Linear forces, where CRT is proven to attenuate, is low on the list of concussion culprits. There is no way this product can attenuate the most troublesome forces that create concussions."

For legal and PR reasons, and also because he might genuinely care, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has talked a lot about his efforts to protect players. The NFL's Fall 2012 Health and Safety Report boasts about crackdowns on hits to the head, new sideline concussion testing, the addition of independent trainers monitoring games from the booth, and what it claims was a 40 percent drop in concussions during kickoffs last season (thanks to a 33 percent drop in kickoff returns after the point of the kickoff was moved up five yards). "There is perhaps no better recent illustration of the league's commitment to health and safety than in the area of concussions," the report said.

Commitment, maybe. Results, debatable. Robert Griffin III practiced for three days after he was concussed against Atlanta—he couldn't remember the score or the quarter—and played four days after that. (How he played is irrelevant.) As you report, Eric, NFL rules appear to have been followed. But was letting RGIII play the safest call medically? Maybe it was fine. But it certainly wasn't the most conservative call. That concussion tally works out to a little more than one per game, which has to be low. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson said he was concussed in a helmet-to-helmet hit against Minnesota two weeks ago; the team said he wasn't and sent him back on the field. And players still don't always tell coaches and trainers when they think they might have suffered a concussion.

No matter how many posters and videos the NFL circulates, it might be impossible to get the message across to the majority of active players, who are more concerned with the next play than the next 50 years. Plus, for all of the NFL's slick propaganda and heightened legal concerns, news travels slowly and old habits, and old nomenclature, die hard. When RGIII first came out of that game, the Redskins reported that he had been "shaken up." Afterward, Washington head coach Mike Shanahan said the quarterback had sustained a "mild" concussion. If teams can't even talk about head injuries properly, how can we be confident they can treat them properly?

It isn't helpful that Goodell is the league's messenger. "His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best," Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita wrote last week—and that was after Goodell reduced his punishment in the New Orleans Saints bounty case. Fujita listed actions that belie Goodell's claim that he puts player safety first: "He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions & post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players' rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season."

Thoughtful, outspoken guys like Fujita are rare in the NFL. It's more common for players to whistle past the graveyard; careers are short, jobs are tenuous, money is fleeting. But they've got a responsibility—to themselves, to their families, to the public—to stay informed and not sound dumb. Writers, TV commentators, and coaches have a responsibility to stop using idiotic euphemisms like "shaken up," and to call out anyone who does. And the league has a responsibility to stop screwing around, semantically and otherwise, with the brains of its employees.

Stefan Fatsis is a panelist on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." His latest book is A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL.