Wojo: As football treats concussions more seriously, so must players

Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News
Veteran Haloti Ngata returned to the Lions only after a two-week examination of his brain.

Allen Park — There’s a new report, a new revelation, practically every day. Tom Brady’s wife says he has suffered numerous concussions but doesn’t speak of them. Ben Roethlisberger says he used to ignore head injuries but admits he’ll pull himself from a game now, if necessary. Haloti Ngata returned to the Lions only after a two-week examination of his brain gave him the assurance to do so.

This is the gray matter of football, and somewhere between hysteria and common sense, the game goes on, as it should. Obviously, the sport is too popular, too lucrative to be legislated into oblivion. But at least, steadily, there’s an evolution.

All the culpability used to rest solely on the NFL, rightly so. But players share responsibility now, and can’t be irresponsible about it. When Gisele Bundchen, wife of perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, flippantly suggests on a TV show Brady has suffered concussions, and the league says there’s no evidence of it, that sends a chilling message to younger players. You know, if Brady plays through it, anyone can (and by implication, anyone should).

It took a lot of legal wrangling but the league was punished for ignoring the risk, settling a $1-billion lawsuit with former players, although more appeals and lawsuits loom. For decades, players weren’t sufficiently warned of the long-term effects of brain trauma, and the sport’s culture made it easy to overlook. Not any longer. Knowing what they know now, football players can make their own rational decisions, and many do. Several have retired at the height of their careers, including 49ers linebacker Chris Borland at 25. Calvin Johnson said he concealed concussions throughout his nine-year career with the Lions, and never was officially diagnosed with one.

Players know risks

But what of the players who haven’t been enriched by the sport, or endangered by it yet? The theory used to be, the concussion issue could kill football. In a peculiar way, I think it’s had a different effect, narrowing the pool of players, but strengthening their resolve. Players are forced to confirm their love of the sport in ways they might not even realize.

Consider this: If the threat of losing cognitive ability for the rest of your life isn’t enough to make you stop, there must be deep, deep reasons to play, and not just for the money.

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“If I was to get a concussion, I’d probably take the proper protocol,” said Lions tight end Eric Ebron, who said he had one concussion in college and none in three NFL seasons. “You’re still talking about your brain and your livelihood. But it’s also part of the game, man. You signed up for it.”

It’s the unspoken mental game players must play. From the outside, the danger seems so real, you wonder how they do it sometimes. From the inside, they have to subconsciously minimize it to perform their jobs — and perhaps keep their jobs. Studies of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) offer varying results because it’s only conclusively diagnosed in an autopsy. One study estimates 40 percent of former NFL players suffer from the degenerative disease, but actual autopsies have found evidence in 96 percent.

“It’s definitely scary, going across the middle of the field,” Ebron said. “You don’t think about it, but at the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Wooo, thank God I made it out of this one OK. You get over it and you get back out there, and you just play football.”

As a reporter, you almost feel guilty asking players about it, because what are they supposed to say? The game generates such entertainment and riches for so many, it’s hypocritical to cluck about the “crisis,” then extol the sport.

All you can do — as players, media, fans — is understand the issue, not praise the “guts” of those who ignore it, and not punish those who spotlight it. Former Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy was outspoken in his criticism of the NFL’s handling of concussions, and lamented he probably suffered from CTE already. Because of injuries, he might be out of football at the age of 30.

Ngata responsibly laid out his strategy before opting to re-sign with the Lions. He said he’s had one concussion in his 11-year career, but the older you get, the more you wonder about it. At 33, he went through a battery of cognitive and psychological tests at the Sports Neurology Clinic in Brighton and said he graded out “really good.”

“The better we can get at getting athletes to go and get those brain checks, it’s safer and better for everyone,” Ngata said. “I don’t want to have problems when I’m older. I want to be able to raise my kids and play with them.”

It’s easy to pin all the blame on the NFL, and with awareness generated by books and movies such as “Concussion,” much of the criticism is justified. But again, be careful about hypocrisy.

Proposals considered

Rules now ban the vicious head-to-head hits, and yet it took a while for some players and fans to accept the toned-down physicality. Rule changes have set the NFL down a path toward banning kick returns, which produce some of the biggest head-rattling collisions. And the shut-up-and-play mentality is fraught with dangers. In a recent study by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, 55 percent of high school athletes said they didn’t or wouldn’t report a concussion.

Tight ends Eric Ebron (left) and Cole Wick go head-to-head during Lions OTA drills this week.

Earlier this year, USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football, said it was considering a string of safety proposals. Among them: “Modified tackle football,” in which youth teams field between six and nine players, not 11. The truth is, short of playing flag football, there’s no way to make the sport safe. And while studies and anecdotal tragedies dominate the news, participation in youth football recently started to climb again after a precipitous drop.

The reasons kids play are the reasons we watch — it’s a dramatically competitive sport that’s easily the most popular in America. According to a 2016 Harris poll, respondents identified their favorite sport as follows: NFL 33 percent, baseball 15 percent, college football 10 percent. That means 43 percent chose some form of football.

Many players who expect to suffer from the degenerative brain disease swear they’d do it all over again. Lawsuits and concussion repercussions will continue, and so will the game. Former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley wrote this week how he suffered five concussions, retired at age 27 and lapsed into depression, and pleads with former players to seek help. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who missed nine games over two seasons with concussions, said he won’t alter his style of play and is done discussing the issue.

It’s a difficult thing to talk about, and a difficult thing not to talk about. For years, it was football’s nasty little secret. Now we know so much more, and yet are no closer to knowing how to deal with it.