The NFL will play its showcase game for the 46th time Sunday, a spectacle attracting roughly 110 million viewers in this country and perhaps another 100 million worldwide. And at some point during the second half, the NFL will briefly attempt to turn the conversation away from the game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants and toward the issue of player safety.
The goal of the 60-second ad, ostensibly, will be to demonstrate the NFL’s concern over head injuries, a timely message to send with the league targeted by lawsuits brought by former players. In response to allegations that the NFL is complicit in players’ post-career health problems, the commercial will depict the league as a caretaker that has evolved and swiftly adapted as more is discovered about the cumulative effects of hits to the head.
Whether the NFL’s message rings sincere will ultimately be up to the viewers. Whether the NFL is legally culpable for the dark and disturbing endgame for too many ex-players ultimately will be up to the courts. At minimum, news that the NFL is preparing a waiver for new player contracts preventing them from suing the league over long-term medical issues caused by concussions — reported first by The Daily — indicates the league is more concerned with its business model than anything else.
But given all the reasons for the NFL to portray an increased awareness of head injuries, it’s stunning that the locker room seems to be stuck in Neanderthal territory.
Just two weeks ago, a pair of players who will participate in this Super Bowl — Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams and receiver Devin Thomas — said they targeted San Francisco 49ers kick returner Kyle Williams in the NFC Championship Game specifically because he had suffered four previous concussions. Williams fumbled twice, including once in overtime, allowing the Giants to advance.
“He’s had a lot of concussions,” Thomas told the Newark Star-Ledger. “We were just like, ‘We gotta put a hit on that guy. [Tyler] Sash did a great job hitting him early, and he looked kind of dazed when he got up. I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up.”
“The thing is, we knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, to take him out of the game,” Jacquian Williams said.
On the surface, it’s highly unlikely there was a causal relationship between Kyle Williams’ concussions and the fumbles that cost the 49ers the game. None of the hits he took appeared to be egregious or illegal. The NFL, in fact, issued a statement to the Associated Press that no Giants player had acted with intent to injure in any way.
All of that may be true.
But the comments suggested a thriving mentality and culture straight out of the 1980s, when the only line between a concussion and getting shaken up was whether you could go back in.
Most of us know better now, of course, as do the generation of former NFL players who are seeing too many of their contemporaries dying off in their 50s. But has anything really changed when it comes to current players’ attitudes about concussions? Maybe for some, but clearly not everyone.
Because players, by and large, still live by the motto that anyone healthy enough to be on the field is fair game, and whatever injury they may bring with them — even a concussion — is only a liability that can be exploited in the name of victory.
Maybe that’s the only the way to play in this brutal game. But it can’t help the league’s image when its own players demonstrate as little seriousness about the concussion issue as Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, who told me he had “heard it’s a big deal.”
“I’ve never had a concussion, so I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but we’ve all got something going on,” Spikes said. “Nobody’s 100 percent, so why not [target someone with a concussion history]? If you feel like a guy’s a weak link, I’d attack him too. We’re pretty sure our game plan is to find one of their weak links. I’m not going to say who, but we’ll see.”
Spikes has only been in the NFL two years, but flippancy doesn’t discriminate between veteran and young star. Giants safety Deon Grant, who’s never missed a game due to injury over 11 seasons, responded with the following question when I asked if his teammates had crossed the line in talking about Williams.
“He’s got a uniform on, right?“ he said. ”When you have a uniform on and you have the ball, you get tackled. It’s a physical game. If he was a target, he’s supposed to be a target. If that guy has a history of that, that’s on that organization not to put the guy on the football field. I don’t blame no players for playing football. We’ve been coached to play defense. If the guy has the ball, be physical with them. If you have a chance to hit them legally, you hit them legally.”
Fair enough, but nobody’s talking about legal hits. And contrary to what Giants general manager Jerry Reese argued yesterday, this wasn’t a vague, out-of-context comment, like Tom Brady saying at a pep rally he hoped to see more fans at a party next week.
That’s what Reese compared it to. He actually said — with a straight face — that the hubbub over Brady’s remark was just as silly as someone making a big deal out his players admitting they knew about an opposing player’s concussion history and wanted to exploit it.
“That’s so over-sensationalized,” Reese said with an indignant smirk.
It’s a good thing the NFL wants to use the platform of the Super Bowl to make a statement about the seriousness of head injuries. Because it’s obvious too many people who work under its banner still don’t have a clue.